Police need to be trained how to use “soft power” problem-solving techniques and move away from the militarized approach that characterizes too much of law enforcement today, says a former police chief.
Deescalation strategies, crisis intervention skills, and training in implicit bias and procedural justice should be crucial elements in preparing young officers to deal with the complex challenges they will face in their careers, says Frank Straub, who headed police departments in Spokane, Indianapolis and White Plains, N.Y.
“We need to fundamentally look at what we might refer to as soft power,” said Straub, a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, who is now director of the Center for Mass Violence Response Studies at the National Police Foundation.
“Sixty to 70 percent of police training across the country focuses on defensive tactics, knowledge of the law (and) shooting skills; I think a bit of a paradigm shift could be very helpful.”
The National Police Foundation this week announced this week the creation of a Council on Policing Reforms and Race which it said will assemble “a broad cross-section of perspectives, infusing what we know and don’t know from science in relation to these issues, elevating the voices of Black Americans working inside and outside of the policing profession.”
Straub was speaking at a webinar on Pennsylvania criminal justice reform issues co-sponsored by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, and the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, publisher of The Crime Report.
Other speakers at the webinar similarly called for a wide-ranging overhaul of policing in response to the growing national protests over excessive use of force and what many have called “systemic racism” in the nation’s ranks of law enforcement.
“When we talk about police reform, it’s kind of hard to have a genuine conversation when we don’t get to the understanding that police departments were built on an oppressive system to control black and brown people,” said Danitra Sherman, campaigns director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
The online meeting was also addressed by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who said his state started on the road to overhauling law enforcement and other parts of its justice system following a meeting he convened with community advocates and law enforcement leaders before the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May.
Describing it as an “emotional, raw and honest” conversation, Shapiro said it led to measures such as the creation of a statewide database to track officer misconduct, and greater transparency in hiring.
“It’s going to restore some trust in communities who need it most,” Shapiro said, calling it a “down payment on the kind of progress that we needed to make in our system.”
But other speakers said states and municipalities needed to go much further.
Criticism of calls to “defund” police missed the underlying point of overhauling police practices, Sherman said.
“People tend to miss the bigger picture; it’s about how we reallocate resources,” she said. “If you only focus on one piece of the machine that’s broken, such as better legislation or training, we’re not fixing the other pieces.”
Carmina Taylor, a Black Lives Matter organizer and co-founder of “We Can’t Wait: PA Statewide Coalition for Racial Equity,” said authorities remained unwilling to address the “trauma” created in communities by police killings.
“Over 1,000 people were killed by the police last year in the United States, and over the last five years, 111 Pennsylvanians have been killed by police—42 of them with mental health issues,” she said.
“We haven’t really addressed the trauma felt by people who witnessed these incidents and felt by their families and communities.”
Moreover, the problem was particularly acute in rural communities where local police forces had few of the resources available to departments in larger cities, Taylor said.
Noting that the majority of the 1,200 law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania were located in rural areas, Taylor said “Some of them not only have nowhere to turn to in dealing with race relations, but they don’t have funding streams.”
Straub’s call for changes in training was echoed by Jennifer Gibbs, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Penn State Harrisburg School of Public Affairs.
She pointed out that “professionalizing” police work should involve recruits and even experienced officers in how to deal with people in stages of emotional or mental crisis.
“They (often) use the tools they have in their toolbox, which primarily means that in order to get control of the situation they’re going to use force, and that’s going to cause real harm,” she said, noting that such responses were dangerous to the officer as well as the community.
“No one leaves from a (situation like that) unscathed,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs said her own research showed that good policing thrived when officers were comfortable with the communities where they worked.
“Our most interesting finding was that, if people knew a police officer by name, if they felt comfortable having a conversation, satisfaction with police improved,” she said. “And what was really interesting is that race didn’t matter. That’s what community policing is all about.”
She added: “Not only do we need to push for more community policing as an alternative to the militarization of police; we need to build it into police performance metrics.”
Sherman said it was time to get back to older models of the neighborhood cop.
“When I was younger, you could see police officers playing basketball with kids in the neighborhood,” she said. “I don’t really see that happening any more.”
Straub suggested the change had begun with the increasingly hardline rhetoric characterizing crime and law enforcement in the high-crime era of the 1970s and 1980s, that led to the launch of “wars” against crime or drugs.
“The conversation about change has to fundamentally start with redefining police as peacekeepers, not warriors,” he said. “They’re not guardians; they’re keepers of the peace.”
That means introducing from the start into their training a commitment to accountability and transparency, he said.
“I always told my officers, the taxpayers pay your salary, they buy your equipment, and they should be able to dictate what the service you provide them looks like,” Straub said.
“At the end of the day, you work for the community.”
This summary was prepared by TCR editor Stephen Handelman.