My Facebook feed is full of videos of police acting badly. The news is full of stories of police brutality, aggression, militarization, racial bias. Our prisons are full of people with mental illness, addiction, poverty and the worst pox in America- being black.
The system is broken, expensive, and fundamentally flawed. In Ohio, you don’t even need a high school diploma to be a cop, and it’s good to see that you don’t need one in journalism either- almost all news sources directly quoted Ohio Attorney General Mike Dewine saying that Ohio is one of three states that don’t require this- but none found out what the other two are.
Police officer training in Ohio is loosely regulated and mostly insufficient, but Ohio is just a microcosm of the state of police training in the United States. It’s debatable if we have any semblance of an idea of how to go about training police, and I’m going to blame 40 years of progressively more violent portrayals of police in film and television as a starting point for our failure.
We’ve gone from Andy Griffith as Sheriff Taylor to Michael Chiklis as dirty cop Vic Mackey in The Shield. Sgt. Joe Friday barely pulled his gun in Dragnet, but Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens in Justified, shot at least 18 people and still had a job. The TV show SWAT, was the beginning of cops thinking they could be soldiers and criminals got the idea that machine guns were status symbols for gangsters with Scarface. Not that it hadn’t been done before; during prohibition where every bad guy had a Tommy gun in our portrayal of Al Capone and John Dillinger.
In reality, the best cops I know are more social worker than bully, and could probably qualify for a master’s in counseling better than their target shooting skills. The sad thing is, the violence they have to deal with is mostly borne out of other issues that our society refuses to address: drug abuse and mental illness, chronic poverty, inequity. Just changing the training isn’t enough- we have to change the whole concept of what a “free society” really is supposed to look like.
More surveillance isn’t the answer
Right now, the leading solution to police brutality issues is bodycams- a very expensive and misleading approach. Take a look at your cellphone camera- and think of how many unindexed, untagged, unorganized photos and videos you have. Now, think about storing video of you at work, every day, for at least 30 days- for you- and all of your coworkers- all to be made available on demand?
And personal video is only an after-the-fact solution- no matter what studies say about people behaving better when they know they are being observed. Need proof- watch this video showing what happens when a black man with corn rows openly carries an AR-15
There is a video on Facebook which takes this video and juxtaposes it with this video of a white guy doing the same things- without the same result- but making it seem like it’s the same people organizing it (it’s not)
Needless to say, being on candid camera isn’t the answer.
More guns aren’t the answer either.
There has been a mad rush for “self protection” in this country, which is sad. In most civilized nations people don’t think they need a gun to be safe. Statistics clearly show this, but, thanks to our founding fathers (who can’t possibly have made a mistake) we’re convinced that having a deadly weapon is almost a god-given right.
In many countries the police don’t even have guns. Go look at your average beat cop today- a gun, a taser, a bulletproof vest, a shotgun or AR-15 in his trunk or mounted next to him inside the cruiser.
The poverty penalty
You have a right to a speedy trial, you have a right against unlawful detention, but, it seems this is more likely for wealthy white people than for poor black people. A recent opinion piece in the New York Times suggested abolishing bail.
This is a national problem. Across the United States, most of the people incarcerated in local jails have not been convicted of a crime but are awaiting trial. And most of those are waiting in jail not because of any specific risk they have been deemed to pose, but because they can’t pay their bail.
In other words, we are locking people up for being poor. This is unjust. We should abolish monetary bail outright.
Some will argue that bail is necessary to prevent flight before trial, but there is no good basis for that assumption. For one thing, people considered to pose an unacceptable risk of flight (or violence) are not granted bail in the first place. (Though the procedures for determining who poses a risk ought to be viewed with skepticism, especially since conceptions of risk are often shaped, tacitly or otherwise, by racist assumptions.)
Sometimes the really big ideas are the simplest.
But, back to police training. Arguments can be made for higher standards, longer training hours, more continuous education, but so much of what we’ve focused on for our police officers is based on reacting to worst case scenarios: terrorists, “active shooters” and tactical supremacy.
Maybe what we need to focus on is a totally different approach to police work, training, hiring, and perception.
The riots in Baltimore weren’t caused by a menace to society. Freddie Gray was a loser x-con with a knife clipped to his belt- who “fled” police. Walter Scott was pulled over for a tail light violation that was questionable, and shot in the back when he ran. Somewhere, we’ve made a dramatic mistake on who we’ve chosen to “serve and protect.”
I return to the changes in police as portrayed in the media. I don’t recall the national FOP protesting the violent portrayal of police officers. I have heard FOP officials defending cops repeatedly for using a gun before their mouths. I’m still haunted by the shooting of John Crawford in a nearby Walmart- while holding a bb gun and talking on the phone, and the shooting of the 12-year-old Tamir Rice on a playground by an overzealous cop.
There is a video that inspired this post- of four Swedish police officers on a NY City subway, subduing a fight. Listen to their language, and watch how they treat their “perps”- this is a start:
If you’ve seen a really good cop doing his/her job, it looks and sounds more like this- than a gunshot ending all chances to discuss matters.
It’s time to set some national standards for police training, ethics, situational awareness and integrity, before we have more riots caused by police reacting badly. It’s time to reexamine our criminal justice system, which is putting record numbers of people behind bars who are more of a threat to themselves than to others. It’s time to invest in peace in America before we worry about peace in the Middle East.
You can’t take care of the world, while your own backyard is full of injustice.
the next morning- a very good NPR morning edition piece on changing police training: http://www.npr.org/2015/05/18/407619610/ways-to-avoid-community-violence-after-local-police-encounters
Listen carefully to the part where they changed the images in the academy, stopped falling in silent at attention- instead greeting one another, and the focus on the constitution.
INSKEEP: Whether a city explodes in protest or not, may depend on decisions made years before an officer ever pulled his gun or a citizen started recording video. Sue Rahr believes something similar. She’s thinking about police training. She is in charge of the police academy in Washington state.
SUE RAHR: You always want to create space and time so that you have the opportunity to engage in some kind of de-escalation strategy with the person first.
INSKEEP: Rahr points to a police shooting in Cleveland, Ohio, last year. An officer approached a man with a gun and killed him. The man turned out to be 12, and the gun turned out to be a toy. An investigation continues. Rahr says the officer might have learned to approach more carefully. That would avoid any sense of danger until he understood the situation. For two years, Rahr says, she has been adjusting the training for every local police recruit in Washington state. They’re supposed to focus less on being warriors and more on being guardians of citizens’ lives.
RAHR: We changed the training environment itself. We removed a lot of the symbols and the tools of the trade that were on the walls with murals of the Constitution. And we spent a great deal of time talking about the Constitution and what it means to a police officer. I tell my recruits in the first week there at the academy, my entire career, my training on the Constitution, consisted of how to work around it so that I could make an arrest and prove a case. It never occurred to me when I was working the street that I was there to support the Constitution. I viewed myself as being there to enforce the law. Some of the other things that we’ve done is move away from some of the military protocols. Instead of requiring recruits to snap to attention and be silent when a staff member passes, we require them to engage in conversation because that’s a skill they need in the field. Effective police officers are able to engage community members in conversation.
INSKEEP: So you’ve started this training – changing training – in Washington state before the incidents of the past year. But now we’ve had the incidents of the past year. And on this program, our correspondent Martin Kaste spoke with a number of officers who spoke of the risk of police becoming passive. They may be videotaped and scrutinized at any time, all their actions could be called into question – things they did in a split second and maybe it would be better for them to drive past that apparent crime scene than to get involved. How do you deal with that risk?RAHR: Well, I think it – you avoid that risk by the culture that is set in the police department where the officer works. And this is a part of policing that we don’t talk about often enough and that is the internal culture of the police department itself. There’s a cultural anthropologist named Simon Sinek. And Simon Sinek said the most important influence on the behavior of an officer on the street is going to be the internal culture of that police department. And so you need to focus on building a strong culture internally, where the leaders in the police department demonstrate respect and they set the tone for what they expect of their officers. Their behavior needs to model the kind of behavior they want to see on the street. So if you have a police department with a very strong, healthy culture and the officers know that if they are doing their best on the street and they’re wading into a difficult situation, they know that their leaders will support them, even if things don’t go well, if the officers are following policies and procedures. If an officer works for an agency where they believe the leaders are going to throw them under the bus if they make a mistake, then you’re absolutely right. The officers are going to drive past and not dive into that because they don’t want to take the chance of being unfairly criticized and punished.