‘Conversation’ On Policing Means Everyone Listens, Too

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Nick Selby

I’d like to have a word with the armchair quarterbacks who think they know how to fix every law enforcement challenge in America. You don’t, but I bet you have a lot of good ideas.

Police need to hear them. It just needs to be part of a dialogue, a national conversation, not uninformed mandates and yelling.

Especially after a week like we’ve just experienced, emotions run high, and trust—on both sides—is stressed to its limits.

Hard as it may be to accept, it is my genuine belief that when experts on law enforcement—self-proclaimed and genuine—critique the work that police officers do, cops listen. Many police reform issues raised during the past five years have led to profound changes in departments across the country.

But cops, like anyone else, don’t like hearing that they’ve done a bad job when they have done a good job, and that (like cops testifying against other cops) happens more often than you might think.

Police are open to constructive, fact-based commentary. Cops might bristle, but it’s good that we hear it and better when we act on it.

To get to the point where those ideas can be exchanged fruitfully, both sides must change.

Police don’t share enough. Law enforcement agencies must get better not just at releasing data but also at releasing it earlier. The public has a legitimate right to understand how it is being policed. Sunlight is the best cure for most challenges between government and the people. Texas is a national leader in this.

By failing to release information, police agencies look like they’re hiding something. Sometimes, they are, and sometimes they’re not. But agencies that release what they have, when they have it, build trust in their communities.

Meanwhile, the most frequent single complaint I hear from cops about police reformers and journalists is that they fail to engage with us. Police are happy to share the on-the-ground realities and non-obvious procedures faced by well-intentioned cops who to do the right thing. Ride along with them. Attend a citizens’ police academy.

See how cops work.

The only way to engage is to show a modicum of trust that the person you’re addressing seeks a solution, too.

Understanding is hard work, and it makes simplistic proclamations for reform difficult. Too many critics engage in what feels like “drive-by criticism,” designed to roil emotions, but not to solve any particular problem.

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Photo by Ted Van Pelt via Flickr

With a conversation, critics might learn an important truth about policing: Reform takes a long time.

Cops are expected to not make mistakes. Mistakes kill. Cops can only change policy after considerable review and consideration of ramifications. No one wants to stick around for that part, but it’s really important.

For example, it’s easy to say police should wear body cameras (and we almost all absolutely should). But there are a lot of policies and practical considerations to resolve before slapping a camera on every cop. Cogent policies about who can view it, and when cops can view it are just the beginning…it is lot of work.

Brian Burghart’s Fatal Encounters project and others, like the Pulitzer-prize winning effort by The Washington Post that count police killings have been highly instructive. But merely counting deaths is not enough. The context and specifics of each case is important to understanding what happened and why.

Journalists and critics of law enforcement have the right instinct that good data can help. They are prone to ignoring context and oversimplifying statistics, though. Statistics used to illustrate large, systemic problems that are not in the control of the police are only enough to make everyone feel uncomfortable.

Our society needs thoughtful people who criticize based on their intimate knowledge of the processes and procedures that must be followed, who clearly state problems and provide actionable suggestions about how to get from where we are to where they think we should be.

We can get there, but first both sides have to start talking to each other, not at each other.

Related Reading: Please see David Krajicek’s TCR interview with Nick Selby on May 31, 2016.

Nick Selby is a Texas police detective who specializes in crimes that leverage the Internet like child exploitation, fraud and organized retail crime. He is co-author, with Ben Singleton and Ed Flosi, of “In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians.”  He welcomes comments.


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