Hard v. Soft Policing?

downloadI am beginning to wonder if the problem confronting police and citizens in America is not a problem of “hard” versus “soft” styles of policing? While we use a rock or a pillow?

Simply stated, in all that I have learned as street cop, detective, chief, husband, father, parent, and community member is that hard doesn’t work.

So, what is going on with our readiness to be hard? Why do police seem so militarized today, so protective of a what I call a consistent “hard” style of policing?

What do I mean by “hard?”In 1997, Los Angeles Police were outgunned during a North Hollywood bank robbery. The robbers not only had automatic weapons, they were wearing body armor! Prior to this during racial unrest and anti-war protests, police began ramping up weaponry and other military-style equipment. It was a good idea to plan for a highly trained and equipped unit to respond to barricaded, armed suspects. I supported it and fielded a SWAT team. But I also made a commitment to field a hostage negotiation team — as we selected SWAT team members, we selected hostage negotiators — officers who were extremely talented in these respective skill sets.

At the same time, there needs to be rules about weaponry, dress, equipment, training, leadership, and when physical force is to be used. And especially about the situations and circumstances in which they were to be deployed. It appears that the use of SWAT teams has been dramatically increased over the years and many units routinely doing warrant service. All that presents an image that is contrary to the founding principles of our nation embedded in our Bill of Rights and Robert Peel’s “Nine Principles of Policing.”

This hardness has even trickled down to school resource officers. In my era we deployed them to schools wearing blazers and a uniform patch on the pocket. The mission? Keep kids out of the CJ system. Today, that no longer seems to be the predominant practice. Instead, officers show up in school in battle dress, sometimes with exterior body armor and visible weaponry.

When we look at more serious problems, like police use of deadly force, many police leaders from my era would be shocked to learn of the street situations which officers used deadly for to end an encounter.

When the public sees police in para-military activity and dress and when they experience instances in which police were not respectful to them or used excessive force, citizens may come to the conclusion that police are apart from the community in which are serve.

Does “hard” work? When I look back on my career the advances we made in responding to public protest, working with kids, communities of color, and building community trust and support, what worked was “soft,” not hard.

A society does not encourage its members to follow the rules through fear, threat, or violence. A society comes to willingly comply with its rules because it is the best way to assure a peaceful existence for everyone.

As a detective, I learned very early treating suspects with dignity (even with the most serious offenders) because it led to more cases solved and more bad guys off the street. It was “honey,” not a “switch” that led to their conviction.

Earlier, I had hoped the addition of women and officers with strong backgrounds in the liberal arts would have forestalled this unfortunate shift towards hardness. Peacekeepers (working softly) involves self-control, empathy, and, yes, kindness.

Have we lost this understanding today?