This week, decades after I had served as a chief of police, I served on a panel consisting of representatives from police, prosecutor, community (including YGB), and friends and family of an unarmed young black man, Tony Robinson, killed by police over a year ago. I heard things I had never thought about before. It was an enlightenment.
I had been at many such gatherings before during my police career; but never with the family of someone killed by one of my officers. (As I earlier wrote, the funeral of Tony Robinson was the first funeral I attended of a victim who had been killed by police. You can read about it HERE.)
As most open community meetings in a democracy are, it was, at times, heavily emotional, difficult to stay on track, and other personal grievances unrelated to the issue at hand popped up from time to time. Nevertheless, it always is an essential activity which indicates who we are as a people.
Tony’s mother, Andrea Irwin, talked about her feelings and disappointment with the district attorney and the police department. The police chief was not present, opting out because of pending civil litigation between the victim’s family and the city. (A few weeks ago, the city paid over $2 million to the family of the first unarmed young man killed.) The chief did, however, send one of his commanders. But my strong sense was that this was a place he needed to be.
Understandably, the atmosphere was both tense and raw. We had an excellent facilitator who outlined the ground rules — show respect to one another! For the most part that was accomplished.
This is what I learned — and if I had to do it all over again, this is what I would have tried to carry back to the police department if I was still in uniform.
- When a police officer takes the life of a person three previously prepared systems need to go into effect:
- A completely independent, transparent, and accountable investigation from an outside agency from the very beginning.
- The officer(s) involved need to be treated as other witnesses in the community are treated – no better, no worse. But must also involve psychological care to them that will go far beyond the incident and into the future.
- A support system from the police department to the victim’s family that would also include an offer of psychological support. Even if that support is at first refused, the department must persevere in the face of anger and rejection. They must realize that the first offer of contact will most likely be refused, but as time goes on the need for information will prevail and that concern will help build trust. (This may be an important role that non-denominational police chaplains can play in the future.)
- There must be a policy regarding whether or not a officer involved in a fatal shooting returns to street duty (or, instead, to “inside” assignments for, perhaps, the rest of his or her career).
- While police procedure may discourage this, an effort should be made for loved ones to be able to view the body of the deceased in a timely manner for the purpose closure and healing.
- The chief must speak out in a caring and compassionate manner to the community and victim’s family – and do so more than once.
- If the shooting was “questionable” within the community, immediate steps must be taken so that that community is assured that an event such as this will be few and far in occurrence without having to admit liability on behalf of the city. Still, without admitting fault, any system of using force can be improved through policy, training, and leadership which will eventually improve attitudes and practices. This often involves a pledge (or re-pledge) to the community that the department believes in the “sanctity of life” and that they are honestly and believably committed to preserving lives.
- The community needs to know that their police officers are thoroughly trained and competent in handling mental health emergencies without ressorting to the use of deadly force.
- When the conversation becomes angry or grief-filled, public officials must learn to respond not with anger nor sadness, but with compassion and understanding.
- The chief and the department must realize that once community trust is broken, it will take major on-going efforts in close contact, openness, transparency and visibly dedicated work with community members to rebuild that which has been lost.
How a police department and its leaders and officers handle a questionable police-related death of a citizen is one of the hallmarks of a capable and professional police organization.
We know it is not easy, but talking about these matters, preparing for them, making sure all officers are well-trained, race-sensitive, and competent in handling emotional or drug-induced crises, is what police do in a society such as ours.
If you are interest in finding a way forward; to help rebuild police trust in your community, I invite you to join us next month at the University of Wisconsin in Platteville. For information how to register for this free event, go to this SITE.