Practicing Common Sense


unknown“Sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts” — Merriam-Webster

On December 29th the following article by Martin Kaste appeared on the website of National Public Radio (NPR). Kaste talked about the term “war on cops” and attempted to place it in perspective.

“The darkest moment for American police this year was July 7 in downtown Dallas, when police officers doing security for a peaceful protest march suddenly found themselves under attack. And those weren’t the only cops targeted this year. Deadly ambushes followed in Baton Rouge, Des Moines and Palm Springs.

“As a result, many police will remember 2016 as a grim chapter in what many call “the War on Cops.” These ambush-killings of officers created a sense that they were under siege, threatening to poison the post-Ferguson debate over police reform.

“’There has been an increase in the total number,’ says Seth Stoughton, a former cop who is now an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina. Stoughton been tracking premeditated murders of law enforcement officers — what he calls police assassinations — and he says the number of police killed like this jumped from five or six last year, to somewhere in the neighborhood of eight to 12, this year.

“That’s a subset of the total number of officers ‘feloniously killed’ on duty, most of whom were killed in the course of police work, but not targeted just because they were police. ‘It looks like a huge increase — and it is a huge increase, but it’s a huge percentage increase involving very small numbers,’ he says.

“Twelve deaths, horrible as they are, have to be put into the statistical context of a country with close to a million law enforcement officers. Stoughton says that statistical context is important.

“’On the other hand, it’s not helpful at all because police officers don’t feel any less under siege, don’t feel any less threatened because I pull up a spreadsheet,’ he says.”

Prof. Stoughton attempts to put the matter into perspective: “It looks like a huge increase… but it’s a huge percentage increase involving very small numbers” (from 6 to 12/800 to 900 thousand police officers.)

Now to feelings. Feeling threatened can be dangerous for both police and citizens.

I remember only too clearly those days of the late 1960s; during both anti-war and civil rights protests; Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and the Weathermen. It was a time in which I felt threatened along with the officers with whom I worked. It was a scary time and we were jumpy. I often felt like I had a target on my back every time I put on my uniform.

But I decided I would not let what others were doing affect the way in which I behaved. What I decided to do was this: I knew as a white police officer I was not going to be trusted by most persons of color in my district. (I will say, however, that seeing bad police behavior once a day on network news is quite different from the national and continual visibility given today to police misconduct on the internet.)

During my day, some cops around the country (particularly in the South) were acting very badly (and illegally) and we all saw it each night on the 6 and 10 o’clock news broadcasts and in our daily newspapers.

I decided that I needed to differentiate myself from them. I resolved that I would not be the spark that caused a fire. I decided to be very careful with my words and the decisions I made. I became committed to treating everyone I contacted with respect and fairness (today’s “Procedural Justice.”)

I also was determined to be very careful in how I used force – verbally as well as physically – in making an arrest or controlling a situation.

I did this because of two very, very important factors – my personal safety and my effectiveness as a police officer.

If I did not make fair and respectful decisions on the street, I would never be trusted. Secondly, if I did not act uniformly in this way it would not only compromise my safety on the beat, but how I was able to solve crime (because we police officers depend so much on others giving us information that solves crime and gets the bad guys offf the streets).

Then, I had to make sure I had the education, training, moral awareness, and commitment to collaborative community-oriented policing to make sure I was able to carry this out.

I also committed myself to making sure those who worked with me, or backed me up on my calls, would behave in the same way. I was very clear about this. I would remind them that this is my call and not theirs and if they couldn’t take my lead and behave properly they should leave. I wasn’t going to let an errant officer ignite a situation and get me injured or killed!

Being physically and mentally fit was also a goal of mine. If I was to effectively solve problems, handle conflict day in and day out and, occasionally, be subjected to verbal insult, I would have to be calm inside of me and mentally and physically fit to avoid over-reacting.

Now this is not “rocket science.” It was, as we say, “common sense.” I don’t know how many times I heard this phrase in my early days as a police officer from senior officers who coached me when things didn’t go right – “Come on, David, use your common sense.”

After witnessing far too many questionable decisions on use of force and disrespectful attitudes toward citizens (and we can thank the internet for this), I would like to ask those officers, “Why didn’t you use common sense?  Why didn’t you use “sound and prudent judgment?”

Here’s the formula for success: