Is It All About Altruism?

Unknown-2Prof. Mark Bowman, a former police leader, commented on yesterday’s post, “This is Awful, It Cannot Be Lawful.” His response brought me to an “aha” moment. (I only hope we can carry this discussion into our fall conference in Platteville on Sept. 16th as Mark is scheduled to be one of our speakers.)

Is altruism what separates one generation of police from another? Mark wrote:


“It was lawful if that officer reasonably believed his life or another person’s life faced a deadly threat. That officer is the only one who truly knows that. The rest of us are just watching a video.

“You bring up what I believe is the critical underlying issue. How much risk is it reasonable for us to expect an officer to face. Decades ago we did accept more risk on the job.

“For quite some time I have heard lamentations about the younger generation not being willing to sacrifice as much as we did. I agree that Gen X and Gen Y seem less willing to give more than they are paid for. I believe we need to consider the possibility that they are right and we were wrong. For the last several decades we have been willing to give less and expect more from our officers. If we want more from them we have to be willing to give more in all realms – pay and benefits,working conditions, leadership, training, equipment, etc….”


As young officer, I really could not have tolerated the kinds of questionable police use of deadly force I see today. I don’t want to blame the Marines, but at a very early stage in my life what I learned there dominated my values. And it had to do with duty and sacrifice.

When I view these questionable shootings I say to myself, “That’s NOT the job I signed up for; “Not the job in which I stayed the course, got educated, and then carried what I had learned in both field and classroom into police leadership!”

Probably the most needed discussion today is that which should occur between police and community leaders – “What kind of person do you want policing you, your children and your neighbors?” If the community wants the kind of police I propose: mature, educated, well-trained, controlled in their use of force, respectful, honest and willing to work closely with the community — then what’s the cost of this? And are you willing to pay for it?

Now if we ask various community groups this question I expect that well-to-do whites would say things are just fine; police don’t bother us, so what’s the problem? (Or as many black scholars suggest, the system is fine for those who call themselves white because it is doing exactly what it was intended to do by those in control.

The Police Executive Research Forum’s “30 Guidelines on Police Use of Force” offer their first (and most necessary) guideline that strongly encourages altruism; that is, all people matter:


“The sanctity of human life should be at the heart of everything an agency does — Agency mission statements, policies, and training curricula should emphasize the sanctity of all human life—the general public, police officers, and criminal suspects—and the importance of treating all persons with dignity and respect.”


Now what this means to me is that the operating policy (not who goes to jail) should be based on a much higher standard than Graham v. Connor’s “reasonable objectiveness” and, if I fear, therefore, I can use my firearm to solve the problem. Deadly force can then be used can without backing off, de-escalating, or even using European “less-than-deadly” shooting techniques.

This is PERF’s second guideline — Raise the Graham v. Connor standard.


“In Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court outlines broad principles on how police use of force is to be considered and judged. But the Court leaves it to individual police agencies to determine how best to incorporate those principles into their own policies and training, in order to direct officers on how to perform their duties on a daily basis.”


Permit me to get back to today’s “lawful, but awful” shooting. (See it HERE.) In this instance, a police officer is called to a day-time disturbance at what appears to be a housing complex. A small, Asian women, very disturbed is carrying a meat cleaver while walking down a sidewalk. This happens very quickly: she does not respond to the officer’s verbal commands, she continues moving forward, she is shot, and she dies.

Now is this really the best we can do in America? As a former trainer of police and martial artist, I can think of at least a dozen strategies and movements that can be made here – none of which involves taking her life. Is this an unreasonable expectation? I cannot see it as so.

Now back to what citizens may want from their police. While whites may be ambivalent to the question, most people of color are not. When I ask people of color, they don’t want their children shot and killed by police in these situations. Period. And time and time again, we hear from bystanders, more often black than not, “Did they have to kill him?” To me, that is a reasonable question and one that demands a believable response and an immediate change.

Now let me digress to talk about a simple, life-saving alterative to shooting disturbed people with edged or blunt weapons (not firearms!) when de-escalation methods are not working:

It involves a light-weight (4.5#) plastic shield (cost $125), a 36-40 inch wood baton ($2) and 30-40 hours of training.

Training police to use a light-weight shield and baton would save hundreds of lives each year, prevent the predictable public outcry when deadly force is used in these situations, and prevent the emotion firestorm (and often career-ending tragedy) police go through when they feel they have to shoot and kill.

This is, of course, but one response to this problem and seems to me to be a reasonable approach to responding to these situations which more often than not involve a person mentally ill and, literally, unable to respond to police orders.

Now back on point. If the attitude and values of police have changed, how can we get them in line with what our society expects of and from them? The answer, of course, has to do with selection, training and leadership and doing each one very well.

If leaders strongly believed in the “sanctity of human life” those whom they lead may, too.

This reminds me of a talk I heard a number of years ago by Jim Fyfe, former NYPD police officer and researcher. Fyfe was addressing the American Society of Criminology about the O.J. Simpson trial when he mentioned a study he did a number of years ago regarding use of deadly for by police in the area of Los Angeles county. He found that the number one variable in the use of deadly force by police was the attitude of their police chief. Food for thought.

  • Unknown-1One of the major measures of policing in a free society should be how well they save lives – not only those of citizens, but of their own as well.

6 Comments

  1. Committee_of_Safety

    DRUG TEST every police officer for STEROIDS and other ILLEGAL DRUGS! It makes no sense how you have to take a Drug Test to work stocking selves or in organized sports but can be given a gun /weapons and the ”law” to go around the cities or towns abusing people with no recourse for their victims….

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  2. I ‘shared’ this comment (in quotes) on FB yesterday and I’m adding it as a comment here today.

    “This retired police chief, and tens of thousands of other police professionals, recognize a ‘bad’ shoot (there are far too many of them). They acknowledge the damage done and need to make change-instead of continuing to make excuses and attempt to justify ‘awful’ police actions because the job is so ‘tough’ and can, at times, be dangerous!

    There is now a great deal of scrutiny on things like the 21 foot ‘rule’ that was never a tactical rule and also the ‘line in the sand’ which I had never heard of in my two police academies. Risking your life to save (NOT take another’s life) is the most powerful definition of a hero and a guardian…”

    I’m a retired police officer (Las Vegas) and also served as a police chief in Wisconsin. I’ve also taught college classes for many years. I don’t know if ‘altruism’ is the right descriptor, but there has been video of many horrible shootings where officers appear to be unwilling to take any ‘risk’ at all. I’ve seen many where they often have plenty of backup (or don’t bother to wait for assistance), distance, time, ‘tools’ and other options. There seems to be an unwillingness to go ‘hands on’ and knock down/tackle suspects-resulting in more fatal encounters.

    I also suspect state laws on deadly force will be changing to address community outrage and declining trust.

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  3. Excellent conversation shared by Mark Bowman. Thank you. How do we identify those police candidates who have a deeper level of consciousness? A sense of altruism? I know when we do have them serving as police officers, we can predictably see people who are compassionate, possess a reverence for life and operate from a high purpose. These are extraordinary individuals who are not easily found and if we find them and hire and train them there is an excellent chance without extraordinary support they will become institutionalized, lose the consciousness they had when they entered the police service and need to rely on immunity that exists in many cases that lead to undermining trust. In many communities of color today many police departments in spite of their best efforts continue to fall short of trust.
    This trend will continue until law enforcement takes a deeper look at what people like Mark Bowman are saying.

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    1. Very good, John. Yes, Mark has provoked some deep thinking about perhaps what’s needed. And as you say, how are they to be nurtured, trained and led in an environment that sometimes disregards altruistic behavior. I am led to think about the many job interviews you and I have conducted and the #1 answer to the question, “Why do you want to be a police officer?” Was always, “I just want to help people.” In that naïveté was altruism lurking and we failed to build on it?

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