While conducting a hiring interview this week, a recent academy graduate said, “I would ensure my safety, then that of my partners and then the community…” This was in response to an ethical question concerning an officer using excessive force. It caused me to stop and ponder how policing came to this. It’s not exactly a dive on a grenade for your buddy ethos.
It might be a symptom of how policing trains its new officers. Too many cops are afraid to use physical force for fear of litigation or prosecution. Instead they present a lethal show of force to compel compliance and in the process trap themselves in the quagmire of a deadly threat they cannot or should not carryout.
Policing can correct this course by:
1. Change Our Training. Policing must go from hypervigilance with a side order of paranoia, to common fairness where people are given a voice. Every good gang cop I know has a simple mantra, “Give respect; Get respect. Your life depends on it.” The medical profession also struggles with empathy issues. A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly spoke to this. One study found malpractice cases are driven by a lack of communication. Also true of citizen complaints and law suits against the police. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/03/how-to-teach-doctors-empathy/387784/
2. The police must have a realistic picture of assaults on officers. It is a fact that too many police officers are hurt and killed in the line of duty. In 2013 almost 50,000 cops were assaulted or killed. That is about 5% of all field officers…each year. Policing is an inherently risky job. Each officer realizes they have chosen a profession where injury during ones career is likely. I know of very few cops who have not been injured from hostile actions by suspects. But let’s think accurately about our risk.
50,000 officers out of 900,000 are assaulted each year. Figure ½ are on duty at any given day. If each officer in the U.S. contacted 10 people a day that would equate to more than 1 billion police-citizen contacts annually. That is a violent assault on a police officer every 22,000 contacts nationwide. To counter this ever present threat, some academy instructors teach officers not to shake hands with the public or get too close because this puts the officer at a tactical disadvantage. This is the type of silliness that must stop.
3. Develop an effective mental health program. When the state and federal government emptied the mental health facilities on to the streets without a plan B, the police became plan B. The Federal and State governments must solve the mental health crisis. Tens of thousands of seriously mentally ill are on the streets of our cities and society has abdicated this responsibility to the ill equipped local police. The violence that comes with this responsibility is preventable if government is serious about preventing police shootings.
4. Realistic expectations of the police. Cops are not ninja’s. Many are so tired from working around the clock, eating poorly and lack of exercise, they are a mere shadow of what they once were physically, this affects their confidence and the level of force needed to survive. In addition they wear between 20 to 30 pounds of gear and a restrictive vest. A 50 year old cop fighting a 24 year old, doped up superstar is not a fair fight, even with tools. The level of force used by the police will have to escalate rapidly for him/her to win. Can the community adopt a realistic expectation for this officer?
The police are also expected to incarcerate societal problems out of neighborhoods. Local, state and federal laws compel the police to incarcerate for minor offences such as homelessness, drugs and public morality. Is this what the community truly wants of the police? For example some Jim Crow type law appear specifically targeted for minority communities. Legislative bodies must strike these laws down to alleviate the pressure building between the police and minority communities.
5. Tort Reform. When one sues the police unjustly there must be a consequence for dishonest lawsuits and the lawyers who promulgate them. If the lawsuit is just, the police will pay dearly. When one sues knowing full well it’s unjust the consequence must be swift, severe and costly to the plaintiff and counsel. The police must have confidence they will be protected when acting correctly. It will protect society from de-policing.
This is a tall order for the public and police but to try and fix policing without them will result in more Baltimore’s, Ferguson’s, violence and death. The choice is ours. The police must change but so too must the community.