With each fatal shooting across our nation, police leaders should effectively respond to the outrage and grief that pours out from within their communities. That involves improving the status quo.
Policing in America is, and always has been, about race; 40-50% of police arrests in many cities are of African-American males. I found this to be the case decades ago when I was a street cop in Minneapolis. Race matters when we talk about improving our police. And I suggest that he present rate of police use of deadly force in our nation cannot be permitted to continue without making significant changes.
With each and every police use of deadly force, I expect compassionate, community-oriented police leaders to stand up, share the community’s grief, and pledge to fix the situation, reduce the incidents, and be accountable to the community while doing it. This does not seem to be happening today in most cities.
I am particularly concerned about what I see as the failure of many police to understand what the families and friends of victims feel when they see a video in which police did not slow things down, failed to exercise self-control, and extinguished the life of their loved on (often by shooting the person multiple times), and then not pledge to prevent this from happening in the future.
Yes, police need to be safe, but so also do those whom they encounter or have to arrest. In a recent article in National Review, David French, a veteran of Iraq questions why our nation’s police show less force discipline than our soldiers at war? He goes on to make some important recommendations:
- “It’s important to understand that the mission must come before personal safety… Prudence and self-protection still matter. But they come behind the purpose of the police force itself…”
- “It’s important to fully understand the mission. When you job it to preserve the safety, security, and – crucially – liberty of a community, each individual encounter is conducted against the backdrop of those broader, over-arching goals…”
- “The prudent rules of engagement should wary by the nature of the encounter…”
- “Fear must be subject to reason… The legal standard to escape conviction, however, is that [police] must prove not just that they were afraid but also that their fear was ‘reasonable.’ Articulating reasons for you fear is not the same thing as articulating ‘reasonable fear’…”
He goes on, “A person can be concerned about officer safety and realize the truth that officer safety isn’t the mission. A person can believe blue lives matter and understand that accepting sometimes extraordinary risk is part of the job. A person can support the police and still demand a very high level of tactical and strategic awareness even from the youngest of officers. To put them on the street is to declare to the public that they are up to the job…”
The organizational posture of police is most always to be defensive, not to consider crises as learning opportunities. Instead, police should strongly affirm and model to the community that their core value is to preserve life (the first of the PERF force guidelines); that’s the mission because police are in the lifesaving-rights-protecting business — all lives are sacred and without exception.
Somehow, somewhere (was it the North Hollywood Bank Robbery in 1992?) police decided they needed to upgrade their weaponry with little community consultation — they changed from revolvers to semi-auto handguns, then armed supervisors with AR-15s, now everyone with a semi-auto rifle (which replaced traditional shotguns and had the capacity to take-down dangerous suspects without killing them).
Looking back, it seemed as if police became involved in a domestic “arms race” which has culminated today in armored vehicles and a host of other surplus gear more suited to Iraq than St. Louis.
To this movement add the bad science of the “21-foot rule,” which has, no doubt, contributed to the problem, causing police batons to be put in storage, and depending on Tasers and body cameras to solve the use of force problem.
The way forward? It’s going to take a cultural sea-change — to lift “sanctity of life” to highest value and mission of policing in American will take many years. Right now, I find little that would convince me this was happening. The number of police-involved deaths of suspects continue to hold a flat line since journalists started counting them in 2015. Unfortunately, that must be our measure; the reduction of police-involved fatalities.
If communities begin to see their leaders lead, and de-escalation become first response to conflict, when polycarbonate shields appear in response to disturbed individuals with a knife or blunt weapon, when bo-staffs are used to take-down knife wielders without killing them, then we will have some indicators of progress. But, ultimately, it will be the reduction of the number of deaths at the hands of our police.
What is need is for a group of tactical and street officers come together, understand the police mission and analyze the current system – weapons, training, policy, supervision — and recommend those things they think will help reduce these fatalities.
Perhaps they can use the current method of Problem-Oriented Policing to develop non-deadly alternatives when responding to dangerous individuals (often mentally ill) but who are not armed with a firearm (which can significantly change the situation). Can police take other measures than taking the lives of these persons in these situations?
I have come to the conclusion after having been a cop for over thirty years, teaching police defensive tactics, and now watching and writing about police, it is a matter of an attitude — an attitude about how police see their role, their mission, in society. It is about why they do what they do, the values that drive them, and how they think about themselves and their work.
Somehow a negative attitude has crept into policing over the years. Maybe it was the shift portrayed by the sergeants in the 1981-87 TV series, “Hill Street Blues,” who first began telling their officers, “Be careful out there!” to “Get them before they get you!” Somehow, American policing shifted from “being careful” to “getting others.” I submit that a “get others” attitude is not acceptable; especially to those whom police have sworn to protect and serve; it is about the mission which must come even before personal safety. That’s what happens when the uniform is put on as David French reminds us, “It’s supposed to represent not just a commitment to selfless sacrifice but also a commitment to excellence.”
Who will carry these needed changes forward? It will take more than a few forward-thinkers, it will take movement whose members strongly believe this is the right thing to do — and now is the time to do it!