Each day, my “Google alerts” inform me of two or three officer involved shootings (OIS). That adds up to approximately 1,000 per year. Since journalists at The Washington Post actually started counting two years ago, the lives of 2,000 citizens have been taken by police.
These numbers, or the specific situations involving these death, have yet to be collected by our government (it will finally be mandatory in 2018). This, of course, is quite strange in a nation which assiduously documents numbers of jobs, those unemployed, and the state of its economy, has yet to count the number of citizens killed by their police.
Given 308 million Americans in a nation that has more firearms per capita than any other nation in the world and whose citizens value individual rights, perhaps two to three persons being killed by police is not a great number. After all, a good share of these deaths involve persons who pointed a firearm at the police officer and refused to disarm.
But when I look around the world and see the numbers reported by other nations such as those who are members of the European Union, Canada, and Australia, our numbers are astronomical. And then when I parse those numbers by race, gender, a documented mental illness, and economic class, I am led to believe we have an enormous problem; not the least of which is the disparate use of deadly force against young, black males.
Now when I talk about this with my former colleagues, I am not well-received. I am told I don’t understand the problem and I am out of touch. Now I worked on the streets in a tough city. I was a beat cop during the years in which more police were killed by citizens than any time since the 1930s, a time when racial tension was a daily, common occurrence. Yet I do not recall that my colleagues and I were involved in many deadly shootings. We didn’t have personal radios, body armor, or weapons that fired more than six rounds at a time. And we were told to be careful about drawing our weapons — “once it’s out, it’s easy to use!”
It appears today that police uses of deadly force happen all too quickly – I see, I fear, I shoot (and the shooting often consists of ten or more rounds into the center mass [read heart and lungs] of a non-complying, sometimes suicidal, and often mentally ill, person.
In fact, I have had former colleagues tell me that to try and de-escalate a situation involving a person with a gun is to invite your own death. Which is in both my experience and study patently untrue.
More recently the Task Force on 21st Century Policing and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), an organization in which I am a life member, each has taken on this belief highlighting how police de-escalation and a better understanding and knowledge of persons in mental health crises can save both the lives of both police and citizens.
Just recently PERF has started to document incidents in which police have successfully used these techniques to resolve police-citizen standoffs without the use of deadly force. They will be important stories that need to be shared in the ranks.
There’s another factor here the too-frequent uses of deadly force by police and that is the growing warrior-military image; the “militarization” of our nation’s police in both image and equipment. Many former cops like me continue to argue against this trend in American policing which, I will offer, ties in with the use of deadly force by police.
Journalists like Radley Balko in his Rise of the Warrior Cop, and others as well have documented this troubling trend. While President Obama put restrictions on the federal government sharing surplus military equipment with police, President Trump has again opened up the supply line.
More than 150 years ago, however, in forming the first police force in a democratic country, Sir Robert Peel made it abundantly clear that in the United Kingdom he did not want his police to look or act like soldiers. Instead, police were specifically ordered to wear uniforms distinctly different from their country’s armed forces. Peel reminded his cops that they came from the people (not from a military “officer” class) and they were to be first responsible for the prevention of crime and, secondarily, the apprehension of offenders. They had to be controlled in their use of force because the more force they used in performing their duties, the less cooperation they would receive from those the community — more force, less cooperation!
It is said that former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton always carried a copy of those principles on his person; so should every police officer because that is the tradition from which police came.
It has been extremely disturbing for me to watch these growing trends; use of deadly force and militarization. Years ago, I was one of the few police chiefs in the nation who outfitted our officers in identifiable blazers than traditional police dress and moved away from military titles like sergeant, lieutenant or captain. Why? Because police in a democracy are not to be viewed by those whom they police as being occupying soldiers but rather community co-workers.
When I see military grade firearms, rocket launchers, mine-resistant vehicles and camouflaged clothing being a part and parcel of today’s policing I become very worried. I worry that this presentation to the community gives all the wrong messages. People do not obey the law because there’s a cop on the corner, they obey it because it is the right thing to do and it is best for community life. That’s the message police need to highlight — not their firepower.
When police become an occupying force in a neighborhood they lose their effectiveness. Because effectiveness is based on the degree of trust residents have of their police. And, conversely, when citizens trust and respect their police they work with them and police, in turn, do better and work in a much safer environment. I learned that years ago during the tumultuous years of civil rights and anti-war protests.
Policing a free society is a difficult job and we need our best citizens to do it. As our nation becomes more diverse and no longer predominately white and historically, our police should model who we want to be – a people who can negotiate difference without resorting to violence, who are respectful of one another’s individual rights, committed to keeping the rule of law, and who live in a safe and stable community.
For me, police are the “glue” which holds our society together. I know that’s a strong statement, but after doing and leading others on the job for over three decades, I know it to be true. When we have smart, emotionally stable and well-trained police, led by mature men and women, our nation will work as it was intended and as President Lincoln envisioned, “a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
- Last week an abbreviated version of this post, “The Militarization of Police is Deadly and Dead Wrong!” on The Progressive Magazine website.