What Has Happened Since Ferguson? (Part 1)

With yet another police shooting raising public concerns in Sacramento, the shooing of an unarmed, mentally ill man in Harris County, Texas, and the absolving of the Baton Rouge officers in the death of Alton Sterling, I find myself called again to reflect on the status of policing since the event in Ferguson nearly three years ago.

I do this from the position of doing, watching, and thinking about policing for over 50 years.

So, here’s my take. What continues to “arrest” the improvement of our nation’s police are the “Four Obstacles” I identified in 2012: Anti-intellectualism, Violence, Corruption, and Discourtesy. Each one of these erode the legitimacy and trust police need to do their work safely and effectively.

From time to time over the years, police have tried to address each one of these obstacles by responses such as requiring college educations for police, addressing the recommendations of the 21st Century Task Force on Policing, implementing PERF’s “30 Guidelines on Use of Force,” closely monitoring “bad apples” within the ranks, introducing Peer Intervention training, and requiring Tom Tyler’s principles of Procedural Justice to be practiced during every police contact.

Each of these seems to have fallen short of the vision I have always held for how we should act in a democratic and free society. I believe they fall short because of the inability to sustain these efforts with passion and persistent leadership over a significant period of time. It is the kind of leadership that is able to see the big picture, the vital role of respectful, community oriented and constitutional policing on our way of life.

Adding to this, I question whether command officers know what is going on in the place where their officers are trained — the police academy (especially in regional or state-wide training facilities). I believe the problem we have today in reducing police use of deadly force is a result of questionable training and tactics in those academies over past decades which have resulted in producing a certain “attitude” about using force that is not in line with what our communities expect.

As evidence, I would call to your attention the usual progress of “questionable” police-involved shootings throughout our nation: the event occurs, there is a public outcry, the matter is investigated first by the district attorney and then by police (more often today by an outside agency, but still by police). After a period of time, both district attorney and police investigators rule the shoot was legal and within the department’s policy and training. More outcry. The victim’s family sues in a civil court. The matter is brought before a jury and the jury finds liability and awards the victim’s family millions of dollars. Then the current practices of policing continue on as usual until the next deadly force event and all is again repeated.

What’s wrong with this picture? A local jury decides that they do not agree with the elected district attorney or the police decision and so award the victim’s family compensatory damages. So why, with this community input do police leaders not move to make changes in the practices to reduce uses of deadly force?

[This post continues with Part 2 tomorrow]