Police in America: Warriors or Peacemakers?

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US Capitol Police march in honor of slain officers Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson, July 1998. Photo by Elvert Barnes, via Flickr

In the wake of well-publicized cases of excessive force and officer-involved shootings, police departments in major cities like New York and Los Angeles have rolled out popular new training programs meant for both veteran officers and recruits.

Emphasizing de-escalation, conflict resolution, and empathy over the more force-oriented practices of the past, these programs may, indeed, be a step in the right direction. However members of the criminal justice community still warn that, while training is important, it alone is not going to stem police misconduct and, in some cases, might be part of the problem.

“Training becomes a simple solution,” Seth Stoughton, an assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former Tallahassee police officer, said in an interview with The Crime Report.

“Whenever we’re talking about something as complicated as human dynamics, as complicated as racial interactions throughout the history of this country, as complicated as policing itself, I think we should be very skeptical of simple solutions.”

According to Stoughton who, as an officer, trained other officers and created policies to govern the use of new technologies, training may help─but it does little to change the underlying systems that govern police behavior.

Though officers may receive some form of de-escalation training at the academy, a major problem is that this can often be immediately contradicted by the guidance they receive from their peers after moving into the field.

“Every cop has heard some version of, ‘Forget everything that you learned in training, now it’s time to learn how we do it on the street,’” said Stoughton.

Certain departments have met this contradiction with a Field Training Officer (FTO) program, which assigns newly sworn-in officers with a veteran who guides and evaluates them based on the principles they have just learned at the academy.

Ideally, these programs would reinforce any de-escalation training new officers may have received, and steer them away from habits that violate the policies and procedures they’ve just learned.

However, Stoughton is quick to warn that policies and procedures are different for every department in the country, as are their training programs.

“The variety from agency to agency can be staggering,” said Stoughton.

According to a 2016 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are roughly 18,000 state, county, and local law enforcement agencies in the US today. These range from large departments like the New York City, to small, local agencies with 50 officers or less.

And with no national standards, two departments in two neighboring towns may have completely different rules for procedure and training.

Creating a ‘National De-Escalation Model’

That, says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), is one of the greatest challenges to changing the culture of modern policing.

“The kind of policies, the kind of training, tactics, and culture that we are talking about are really significant changes to the way we think,” said Wexler, whose organization is currently seeking to establish a national de-escalation model.

“90 percent of these agencies are smaller agencies, and they aren’t easy to influence in terms of changing policy.”

In fact, a 2017 study from APM Reports shows that, despite growing support for de-escalation training, only 8 states have officially mandated it for all of their officers. 34 other states have no de-escalation requirement. While APM Reports reveals that 24 of those states could have mandated de-escalation administratively, it found that most conduct no─or very little─de-escalation training at all.

In most of the training that does occur, Wexler believes the emphasis is misplaced.

In a survey conducted by PERF of nearly 300 agencies, they were asked what percentage of time was spent on firearms training versus de-escalation, crisis intervention, and communication.

“(We found) the lion’s share of the time is spent on firearms,” Wexler said.

According to PERF’s 2015 survey, among more than 280 law enforcement agencies, new recruits received an average of 58 hours of firearms training, and only eight hours of de-escalation training.

In some cases, it could even be as much as two weeks of firearms training. The survey also found that the fragmented nature of the training, where different elements such as using a firearm and the legal issues governing lethal force, are discussed often days, weeks, or even months apart, makes it difficult for officers to understand how everything fits together.

To tackle this issue, in 2016, PERF released it’s Guiding Principles on Use of Force, a report detailing the methods necessary to changing conventional thinking on how the police handle certain confrontations, particularly those that involve the seriously mentally ill who do not have a firearm.

Following this report, they created the Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics (ICAT) training guide, available online for any department’s use, which implements those methods through six training modules emphasizing critical thinking, situational awareness, and informed assessment.

“It’s all about education,” said Wexler.

For Tom Wilson, director of PERF’s Center for Applied Research and Management, part of that education means replacing what he says has become the traditional decision model of most departments today: described as the “use-of-force continuum.”

‘Use-of-Force Continuum’

“The use-of-force continuum assumes if someone has a rock I use a baton, if someone has a knife I use a gun, increasing the level of force,” said Wilson, in an interview with TCR.

A 24-year veteran of the Anne Arundel County, Maryland Police Department, Wilson insists that this process only exacerbates a potentially explosive situation, especially when considering interactions with people suffering from a serious mental illness.

“If someone is mentally ill and they have a knife, and you pull out a gun and start screaming at them, you raise their anxiety level,” said Wilson.

“So, rather than dropping the knife, they start to come toward you, which is the exact opposite of what you anticipated.”

Sadly, these sort of scenarios have become all too common.

A 2015 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement. In this year alone, according to the Washington Post’s Fatal Force analysis database, 68 mentally ill men and women have been shot and killed by the police.

Decision-making systems like the use-of-force continuum are directly linked to these statistics and yet, unfortunately, they are still the norm among many police departments in this country.

“We call them lawful but awful,” said Wilson.

“Lawful in the sense that they fit within the supreme court decision of Graham v Connor; awful in that the outcome is not what anyone wanted.”

The 1989 Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Connor, declared that an officer’s use of force is considered constitutional if it would be considered reasonable, considering the facts and circumstances of the case, from the perspective of anofficer on the scene.

The Court added that this “calculus of reasonableness” must take into account that police officers often have to make split-second decisions, in often tense and unpredictable circumstances, about the amount of force that is necessary for any given situation.

“This reasoning is why cases where an officer is brought to court, or even faces charges, for a use-of-force incident are so rare,” said Wilson.

It is also why many police departments still function on a shoot-or-don’t-shoot principle, effectively drawing a line in the sand no matter the circumstances.

Using PERF’s training module and philosophy, Wexler and Wilson insist that officers can be trained out of these outdated─and dangerous─practices and come to understand that, in a lot of situations, there is another way of doing things.

“We say there are some situations where, rather than increasing the level of force, you use another option, you step back,” said Wilson.

However, while the ICAT program may represent the best tenets of a new and necessary national police training model, both men agree it can only succeed if it occurs alongside a simultaneously national, and equally necessary, shift in American police culture: changing the idea of police as warriors to, instead, peacekeepers.

Alex Vitale, professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, warns that changing policing’s war mentality might be easier said than done.

“There is a very toxic thin-blue-line ideology in American policing,” said Vitale in an interview with TCR.

“It has these components that say that the only thing that is holding society together is the constant threat of armed force, and that it’s the police that make civilization possible.”

Vitale points out that this “war” narrative is maintained on a political level, with police constantly being told by politicians that they are waging a war on crime, a war on drugs, and a war on terrorism and disorder.

All of this feeds into an accepted mentality that the only thing people will understand is brute force. And while he agrees that changes to training and ethos are, indeed, necessary, Vitale believes that effectively changing those things will be hard so long as the mission and scope of policing remains the same, especially when considering the most heavily armed and tactically trained branch of any department: SWAT.

“Look at what heavily armed SWAT teams actually do,” said Vitale.

“They’re not fighting terrorism, they’re not going after barricaded suspects, they’re not fighting off armored bank robbers, they’re serving low-level drug warrants in poor communities.”

The SWAT Toll

These paramilitary units are a representation of the popular, and ineffective, model of American policing. A 2017 examination by the New York Times revealed that thousands of these raids, in which officers issue warrants through forced entry into homes called “dynamic entries,” occur every year and that, while their toll has been mostly ignored by governments at all levels, they have continually led to avoidable deaths and multi-million dollar legal settlements.

The same piece reports that between 2010 and 2016, at least 81 civilians and 13 law enforcement officers have died in such raids. On average, most of the searches yielded little more than misdemeanor level stashes, or nothing at all. Despite these numbers and results, the Times found that 13 states have still enacted laws authorizing dynamic entries, and another 13 have “blessed them” through rulings by appellate courts.

“It’s gone a long way towards fostering the kind of military ethos in policing that has contributed to some horrible shooting incidents,” said Vitale.

Vitale also points out that SWAT forces are usually not required to complete any form of force reduction training at all. Instead, especially in smaller departments, they do exactly the opposite: receiving additional military grade hardware, worst case scenario training, and actually training with former military special forces units.

Elite units like SWAT are not the only ones contributing to the prevalent military narrative of policing in this country.

The very recruitment methods of many departments around the country utilize the same dialogue to draw in applicants. Recruitment videos for departments such as the Newport Beach Police Department are loaded with heart-pounding music, camouflage-wearing officers yelling and in pursuit of criminals, attack dogs, assault rifles, and fight training.

Even a video for Newport Beach Explorers, cadets aged 14-21, runs like an action movie and focuses intensively on weapons and tactics.

Frontier Mentality

This contributes to a cycle of violence that puts the lives of both civilians and officers at risk. In fact, a 2017 analysis by the Washington Post found that law enforcement agencies just having access to military hardware can lead to more violent behavior from its officers.

“It’s a frontier mentality,” said Vitale. “a Cowboys-and-Indians mindset.”

However, according to Sue Rahr, executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, that mentality can be changed by altering the paramilitary environment that new recruits face from the moment they first step into the academy.

It can start with a simple change in decoration.

“When I first started, there was a display case at the lobby of the academy filled with police batons, handcuffs, and commendations,” said Rahr, in an interview with TCR.

“We replaced it with a mural of the preamble and Article I of the Constitution.”

In addition, Rahr got rid of the myriad of posters that continually warned and reminded recruits of the dangers of the job. While she strongly agrees that recruits must be made aware of the very real risks they may face, Rahr also warns that repetitive messages like these can further ingrain new officers with the false bias that they are stepping out into a war zone, one with enemies on all sides.

“It favors possibility over probability,” said Rahr.

A 33-year veteran officer, and former sheriff, of the King County Sheriff’s Office, Rahr is all too familiar with the war narrative of policing that sprung up in the late 1970’s, with police seeing themselves as soldiers during a time of rising urban crime rates and the crack epidemic.

Changing the Military Mindset

However, she insists that policing is not the military, and has taken steps to move her academy from the traditional, boot camp style of the past, to something a bit more collegial.

“Before, recruits would snap to attention and salute their superiors,” said Rahr.

“Now they are expected to start a conversation, even a casual one.”

In addition, Rahr created the LEED model of training: Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity. The idea being that people are more likely to cooperate with the police if they believe they are being treated fairly.

This type of environment reminds recruits that they must know how to talk to people and that this is one of the most important skills an officer actually needs to succeed at the job. Recruits are also given a copy of the constitution, further reminding them of their responsibilities to the communities they serve.

In the auditorium, an excerpt of Plato’s definition of “guardians” is emblazoned on the wall: In a republic that honors the core of democracy — the greatest amount of power is given to those called Guardians. Only those with the most impeccable character are chosen to bear the responsibility of protecting the democracy.

But while Rahr’s approach represents one of the most forward-thinking programs today, and has been embraced statewide in Washington, some among the criminal justice community remain skeptical, raising concerns that tactics like hers may put officers in greater harm’s way.

Is Restraint Always Healthy?

“There’s a real issue now about whether officers are being unnecessarily endangered and whether officers can protect themselves,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a retired and decorated NYPD officer and professor of Law and Police Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in an interview with TCR.

In addition, O’Donnell points out that there is possibly a larger question of whether officers are even inserting themselves into problem situations when necessary or are, instead, just avoiding them entirely.

“Police departments are being awarded gold medals for avoiding conflicts and I think that’s a real concern,” said O’Donnell.

This is best exemplified in New York, where a 2016 poll by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association found that 97 percent of 6,000 respondents believe that they might be demonized and condemned as “bad cops” for engaging in any sort of conflict whatsoever. For cities that have real public safety issues, O’Donnell feels that stigma like this can result in departments that are dangerously ineffectual and disengaged.

“It’s starting to become restraint above all else and restraint to an extent that it’s a danger to themselves and even other people if the police are unwilling to protect themselves,” said O’Donnell.

In fact, a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 76 percent of officers polled are reluctant to use force when it is appropriate, while 72 percent have become less willing to stop and question people who seem suspicious. O’Donnell also warns that, while new ideas about changing the culture and training methods in policing may be encouraging, they may also rely on what he calls a fantastical opinion of a recruiting pool that doesn’t exist.

According to an report by NBC News, police hiring is at an all-time low due to diminishing pay, high risk, and the recently popularized negative image of police in general. And while a 2017 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the growth rate for police and detectives at seven percent the national average, the bottom 10th percentile of an officer’s salary is still only roughly $35,000.

This is poor incentive for a job that ensures long hours, offers few to no holidays, and that recent FBI statistics have found to be increasing in danger.

“Policing is in an extremely bad place,” said O’Donnell.

These seemingly dire circumstances are only exacerbated when considering that many today feel, training or not, that police are taking on responsibilities beyond their capabilities, especially when it comes to dealing with the mentally ill.

“The police alone are not the right responders,” said Carla Rabinowitz, advocacy coordinator for Community Access, a New York based nonprofit that assists individuals with mental illness, in an interview with TCR.

Today, when a mentally ill person is in crisis, 911 is almost always the number called. And while the NYPD has embraced Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) tactics of de-escalation and conflict resolution, Rabinowitz warns that the challenges it faces may be indicative of broader problems.

“CIT is going well with the NYPD, but police have two problems: they’re not getting the newly trained CIT officers over to those calls and, under police protocol, the first officer on the scene takes the call, whether he has CIT training or not,” said Rabinowitz.

As Rabinowitz explains it, the average 911 calls can last anywhere from 17 seconds to four minutes. In that time, a crisis call has to be routed to a sergeant at the precinct where it occurs, that sergeant then has to find a CIT officer and move that officer over to the call. All of this takes time that she insists people in crisis often do not have.

“If you have to wait that time, police are not going to be there in time,” said Rabinowitz.

When and if officers do arrive, the current protocol of the first officer on the scene being in charge can often result in life threatening mistakes. This was the case in the shooting death of Dwayne Jeune, a mentally ill Brooklyn man wielding a bread knife, where, according to the Gotham Gazette, of the four officers who responded, the one without CIT training pulled the trigger.

Rabinowitz warns that even with CIT training, mistakes are made. Thus far, he notes, there has been little progress..

“The police started their training in June 2015. Two years after the training, from July 2017 to now, less than a year, there have been five deaths,” said Rabinowitz.

“Training alone is not going to do it.”

Co-Responding to 911 Calls

Instead, she points to cities like Denver, where co-response teams of officers and social workers are responding to 911 calls together, providing more opportunity for de-escalation and less risk of violence or death when confronting mentally ill individuals in crisis.

Rabinowitz and Community Access also advocate for the creation of diversion centers, such as those under Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Bureau, as well as a similar program in Florida, that provide police with an option other than jail for those in crisis.

In New York, according to an article in The Observer, litigation has begun to establish a different phone number people can call for situations concerning mentally ill persons in distress, similar to 411, 911, or 311.

“The whole goal is to get these crisis calls out of the hands of the police,” said Rabinowitz.

However, while programs and practices such as these are necessary, they currently only exist in a very small number of states and communities, and when crises arise the public still turns to the police for help. A 2017 report by the NYPD estimated that it responded to roughly 400 mental health crisis calls a day, more than 12,000 a month.

In San Diego, mental health crisis calls have increased by 92 percent since 2009, according to an article by KPBS.org.

In the face of a failed mental health system, police are the only ones picking up the slack. That seems to be accepted stoically as something that does with the job.

The Camden Model

“Over time, police are going to wear many hats. It’s the reality of the profession,” said Lieutenant Kevin Lutz, deputy director of the Camden County College Police Academy, in an interview with TCR.

Since 2013, when the shift began, the Camden Police Department has embraced that reality, doing everything possible to become a department that their community can trust and rely upon for any situation.

At the academy, officers are trained to use guns and handcuffs as only a last resort, focusing instead on the de-escalation tactics and communication skills recommended by PERF ICAT initiative and used by major departments around the country.

Kevin Lutz

Lt. Kevin Lutz, Camden police department

For Lutz, just putting these methods into practice has led to a shift in mindset.

“Our officers today are a new breed. They’re proud to talk, to de-escalate, to be protectors instead of warriors,” said Lutz.

This change was exemplified in 2015, when Camden Police confronted a man brandishing a steak knife and threatening the patrons of a Crown Fried Chicken. When police arrived, the man was ordered to drop the knife, when he did not and began to walk away, instead of engaging in physical confrontation, officers simply followed him.

Forming a cordon around him, they cleared the street ahead and repeated the order until, eventually, the man conceded. The video of the incident exemplifies the best possible result for what this new change in police culture can, and should, yield.

Since then, according to The New York Times, the Camden police have continued to evolve their life-saving practices, recently mandating a new “scoop and go” policy, in which officers are required to drive gunshot victims to the hospital themselves, rather than waiting for an ambulance, if the situation demands it.

Officers walking the beat are required to knock on doors, introduce themselves, and establish relationships with community members.

“The department has become very transparent,” said Dan Keashan, Director of Communications for Camden City Hall.

“Lieutenants are on a first name basis with the community, and they all walk a beat.”

Since implementing these new practices and policies, Keashan reports that excessive force complaints have fallen from 65 in 2014 to only 15 as of 2017. According to a yearly report by Camden County Police Department’s Strategic Analysis Unit, the overall crime rates have dropped 23 percent since 2013.

And the department’s initiatives don’t stop there.

“Internal Affairs makes house calls to people who don’t even complain,” said Keashan.

“They go out and conduct surveys.”

Keashan explains that these surveys help the Camden County Police better serve their community and get back to the roots of policing, to the idea of the job as that of “public servant.”

Returning to that idea earned them the attention of President Obama in 2015, who touted the department as a “symbol of promise for the nation.”

“We’re putting out a good product,” said Sgt. Raphael Thornton, lead instructor for the Camden County Academy, and a 22-year veteran of the force.

“Officers who imagine themselves as peacekeepers.”

Isidoro Rodriguez

It is a “product” that serves as an example of the benefits that come with embracing and enacting this new mindset and culture of policing. And while officers like Thornton and Lutz agree that more programs and facilities are needed so that communities can one day have other options, both maintain that, until that time, police can and will be wholly capable of meeting whatever challenges may arise.

“If not us, then who?” asked Thornton.

Isidoro Rodriguez is a regular contributor to The Crime Report on policing issues. He welcomes comments from readers.

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