How to Use Armed Police

It’s time to expand the roles that CSOs play. They could be trained to respond to mental health incidents and “public order” offenses. And they could certainly step in to respond to erroneous 911 calls.

[I authored the following article which appeared on July 27th in USA Today. I hope what I suggest will encourage a thorough, systematic (and system-focussed) look at how and when we use armed police. I suggest there are better alternatives to the way in which we currently police our nation. It will, however, take courage to implement them.]

The best way to respond to foolish 911 calls — stop sending armed cops

Just last week, a white woman appeared to call police to complain about an 8-year-old black girl selling water in front of her own apartment building. Two months ago, a Starbucks barista reported two black men to police for not making a purchase. In 2014, someone called police on a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun in a park. The outcomes? An arrest in one case, a death in another.

Erroneous calls are made to police all the time. But when they are made against members of the African-American community — a group that has historically had a higher rate of deaths and beatings at the hands of cops — the outcomes can be much more devastating.

These encounters remind me of something that happened when I was a police chief. A young, well-educated woman who worked for me told me about an incident I will never forget.

One afternoon while officer Cheri Maples, who was white, was on patrol she received a call to check on two “suspicious males” sitting in front of a house. Upon arrival, she saw two middle-age black men relaxing on their steps drinking beer. They looked at her when she got out of her squad car. As she walked up to them, they said, “We live here.”

“Just as I thought,” she said. She talked to them for a few minutes, told them to have a nice afternoon and left. She didn’t ask for ID. She didn’t force the men to prove their legitimacy.

I wonder, after so many recent reports of confrontational interactions caused by erroneous 911 calls and exacerbated by officers who arrive on the scene, whether it’s even possible for an incident to play out as peacefully as that one did.

Years ago, I learned that it’s impossible to improve a system simply by removing the bad actors who work within it. That’s where police departments struggle. Those in charge are either unwilling or not skilled enough to significantly change the system. Instead, they focus solely on weeding out bad cops. Getting rid of bad cops is necessary. But if departments put the most upstanding cops into a broken system, they’ll still get a high rate of failure.

Allowing citizens to call 911 (an emergency number) for all things they perceive as a problem does not work. It is a flaw (too often a fatal one) that corrupts the system.

Supposed “problems” can range from persons experiencing an emotional breakdown to a suspected prowler (something police can actually help with) to a little girl selling bottled water on a hot day without a permit.

It’s calls like the latter that — after three decades of policing and another two watching, thinking and writing about police — have forced me to ask the question: What are the situations for which we want people who have the capacity to use deadly force to show up?

While Maples knew the right way to respond to that 911 call years ago, I often wonder whether I should have sent her there in the first place. Would I have been better off requiring officers to live in that neighborhood? To get to know the people? Could that level of community policing have prevented the call and saved my department time and taxpayers money?

Perhaps the best way to deal with erroneous calls is for regular officers not to respond. Instead, those calls could be patched through to unarmed mediators — officers who show up on the scene without posing a danger and with little chance of escalating the situation.

The majority of police activity is generated by citizen calls. And generally, one or more officers have to respond. National data reveal that the average police response time is about 11 minutes.

Approach means everything, and emotional control must always be the responsibility of the officer. In 50 different ways, that peaceful encounter from years ago could have been another tragic event.

Many departments would have required Maples to get the names of the two men and “run them” to find out whether they had warrants. My officers had the authority not to do this. Warrants are what happen when one community is policed at a rate that is greater than others, making it unusual in some parts of a city to find young black males who don’t have warrants.

In his book, “The End of Policing,” Alex Vitale argues that we need to rethink the role of police today and reduce the various ways in which police are used. I agree.

Today’s response is to fix or blame the cops: They need to learn to de-escalate; they need implicit bias training.

Beyond that, we must look at improving the overall system of how we deploy police and whether or not a centralized call center is the best way to trigger services.

The 1967 President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice suggested that community service officers (CSOs) — unarmed members of the department — play a greater role in policing.

Since then, armed officers in many cities no longer write parking tickets, control traffic, enforce bicycle rules, or escort funeral processions. Instead, CSOs took over those responsibilities, giving armed officers more time to focus on dangerous crime. That move saved police time and better used taxpayer money.

It’s time to expand the roles that CSOs play. They could be trained to respond to mental health incidents and “public order” offenses. And they could certainly step in to respond to erroneous 911 calls.

We need to restructure how we use police and reduce the number of armed officers sent to neighborhoods in which they are unfamiliar.

And as we change the system, we need more smart cops like Maples.