“President Trump’s message to officers condoning unnecessary use of force is both dangerous and misinformed.”
[The following is an op-ed of mine from yesterday’s USA Today.]
If there is one thing that gets the goat of smart police officers, it’s someone trying to be helpful by telling them to “get tough!” It’s such a simple but not well thought out statement. In fact, it’s one that is terribly misinformed.
I still remember one of my instructors during my first days as a police recruit saying that if we start “getting tough” —punishing persons in our custody, forcing confessions and taking what’s not ours — we become part of the problem; we become no better than the bad guys we seek to catch. He gave another cautionary note that I never forgot during my three decades as a cop: “Everything that was wrong and illegal before you pinned on that badge, still is! The badge is not a license; it’s the public’s trust in you.”
When I heard and saw the president of the United States give a public talk in which he told police officers that it’s OK to abuse a handcuffed prisoner, it cut deeply into all I know and believe about policing our nation. President Trump’s words encourage abusive cops to be bullies and punks. Folks who recommend such behavior are usually bullies and punks themselves. I was embarrassed for the cops assembled on the dais behind Trump who laughed and clapped for the commander in chief at New York’s Suffolk County Community College. I wanted to see someone stand up and say, “No, that’s not OK, Mr. President, that’s not who we are!” To do that, of course, would have taken tremendous courage and could have put a target on that officer’s back.
Some of us have been there before, and have witnessed a command officer tell a racist, sexist or homophobic joke we know is wrong. We force an uncomfortable laugh. We want to get along. We don’t want to be labelled an outlier or troublemaker. The president’s supporters say, after all, that the statement was just a joke. No real harm, they argue, could possibly come of it.
Thankfully, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Police Executive Research Forum and the Police Foundation did stand up and speak out against the president’s words. Each issued public statements making it clear that encouraging unnecessary use of force is unacceptable.
I recently received a note from a retired Chicago cop that stated: “I got paid to deal with the worst people in the city. … But I didn’t rough up people.”
We need more of our smart cops to stand up. I’d like to have heard more from rank-and-file police. When our cops do stand up, we need to tell them that it’s OK. We need to hear from them when the powerful try to compromise their integrity or disparage or diminish people of color, women, or those who are LGBTQ.
Trump also told police not to be “too nice.” Avoiding what the industry calls “procedural justice” (which includes positive interaction with the community) can put police in danger. Cops should be there to respectfully listen and to allow citizens to explain their side of the story. A smiling face sounds insignificant, but that act helps build legitimacy and trust between cops and citizens.
Tom Tyler, a Yale law professor and the founding director of the Justice Collaboratory, has worked extensively on defining, teaching and researching the practice of cops behaving positively. He found that being “nice” increased the public’s confidence in police. When police are positive, rather than being overly aggressive and disrespectful, the public tends to believe that law enforcement actions are morally justified. When officers act with individual and collective fairness, citizens are more willing to take responsibility for obeying the law — which makes the job of an officer easier and safer.
Today, a lot of concern centers around how police use of force. Yet almost 200 years ago, after Sir Robert Peel founded the London Metropolitan Police, a set of operating principles was issued to new recruits. The fourth principle: “To recognize always that the extent to which the cooperation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.”
The more force police use, the less cooperation they have built within their community. It made sense two centuries ago, and it makes sense today.
[Thanks to Eileen River at USA Today for working with me on ideas for this piece. https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/policing/spotlight/2017/08/02/president-trump-police-brutality-policing-the-Musa/529534001/%5D