Fault Lines
11 December 2018

“Dramatic Reforms” Proposed For The Police, By The Police

Feb. 4, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — The title of the Washington Post article was surprisingly bold…

Police chiefs consider dramatic reforms to officer tactics, training to prevent so many shootings

Could this be a turning point? What types of “dramatic reforms” would help reduce the number of people killed by our police?  Wesley Lowery, who has personal experience with heavy-handed law enforcement, reported from the recent “Taking Policing To A Higher Standard” Forum.

Roughly 200 of the nation’s most prominent police chiefs, Justice Department and White House officials, and police training experts convened in Washington on Friday to discuss policy proposals which, if implemented broadly, would amount to the most drastic police reform in decades.

At the center of this massive shift in use of force policy was a document from the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF. This treatise proposed “Guiding Principles” to confront the growing divide in police-community relations. Although use-of-force issues are vitally important to the breakdown in public trust, it is but one part of the vast array of problems that the police face in their current image crisis.

The report does seem to recognize that police are very much to blame for their current woes. However, many similar documents have been produced prior to this one, and what they all have in common is that they have been deafeningly ignored.  But maybe this one will be different.  But probably not.

Here are PERF’s “Guiding Principles,” with critique where needed and commendation when deserved.

The sanctity of human life should be at the heart of everything an agency does.

This feel-good notion did not get the number one slot by accident. It is a vital concept that has merit.  However, without addressing the “shoot first, ask questions later,” training and culture that permeates all levels of law enforcement, this sentence accomplishes nothing.  The sanctity of life is not a new concept to the police.  The problem is that far too often, it has been reserved exclusively for the police, to the detriment of criminal suspects.

Departments should adopt policies that hold themselves to a higher standard than the legal requirements of Graham v. Connor.

Graham v. Connor sets forth the “objective reasonableness” standard for police use of force. The police should figure out a way to make the current legal standard actually mean something before trying to hold themselves to a higher one.  The NYPD banned the use of chokeholds well before Officer Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Garner to death.  He is still a police officer because his actions were deemed “reasonable.”  We shouldn’t kid ourselves that the police, who have refused to hold themselves accountable for much of anything will all of a sudden implement higher standards than the ones so many already consistently ignore.

Police use of force must meet the test of proportionality.

Speaking of Eric Garner, if this principle means that putting some guy in a chokehold for selling loose cigarettes or jaywalking should be prohibited, then well done. However, it never goes from jaywalking directly to beatdown.  The intervening factor that always seems to make an insignificant encounter into a brutal use of force incident is resisting arrest.  Police should work on de-escalation.

Adopt de-escalation as formal agency policy.

See. Told you so.  In all seriousness, it is doubtful that there is a law enforcement agency out there that does not teach de-escalation as formal policy.  Reducing the tension of a situation usually means that everyone walks away unharmed, including the officer.  But with millions of cops out there, proper de-escalation is less about written rules and handbooks, and more about figuring out which cop on the force is a hot-head who doesn’t give a damn about policy and will bust heads given the first opportunity.  Allowing these officers to remain on the force endorses their violence and tells other officers that it is okay to act that way.

The Critical Decision-Making Model provides a new way to approach critical incidents.

Words! Smart sounding words!  By trotting out some fancy step-by-step method, this principle attempts to make something as simple as making a decision into something complex.  Use-of-force decisions are complex, but they are also about as split-second as it comes.  There are plenty of cops out there who make these kinds of decisions the right way all the time.  But then there are the ones who do not.

It is not the decision-making process that is flawed.  It is the person making the poor decision.  But by refusing to acknowledge the difference between good cops and bad cops, by calling every action reasonable, the police turn good cops bad and bad ones into monsters.

Duty to intervene: Officers need to prevent other officers from using excessive force.

Agreed. Although this concept of intervening and following the law should apply to lying to cover for other officers as well.  This is a laudable goal, but one that unfortunately sits on the other side of a very deep, blue line.

Respect the sanctity of life by promptly rendering first aid.

This is a shockingly self-aware point. How many posthumously famous people have lain dying or dead, sometimes for hours, while the police “investigated” themselves?  Odd that no crimes were ever committed in areas that seemed to be treated suspiciously like crime scenes.

Although there has been substantial disagreement in the public sphere over the justification of police shootings, only the most strident among us was not shocked by the callousness of Michael Brown laying in the street for hours, or even Akai Gurley lying in that Brooklyn stairwell for minutes. No matter the cause, render first aid.  Beyond the poor optics, there is a much more important point behind this principle.  It could save lives.

Shooting at vehicles must be strictly prohibited.

Shooting at vehicles is against the policies of numerous police agencies already. Unfortunately, every time an officer violates that policy because he feared for his life, his actions are always deemed “reasonable” and the death of the motorist or the occupants of the vehicle are “justified.”  Shooting at vehicles is already strictly prohibited … until an officer decides to do it.

Prohibit use of deadly force against individuals who pose a danger only to themselves.

Police should also not dump water on a drowning man.

Document use-of-force incidents, and review your data and enforcement practices to ensure that they are fair and non-discriminatory.

Information is a great tool. Unfortunately, law enforcement loves transparency almost as much as they love accountability.  This is far from the first time data collection has been proposed or even required of the police.  For an example of how trustworthy the police are in reporting things about themselves that might not make them look that great, examine the dramatic rise and even more dramatic fall of the reported numbers of stop and frisk by the NYPD over the last decade.

All critical police incidents resulting in death or serious bodily injury should be reviewed by specially trained personnel.

So is the rookie cop on truancy patrol getting called in to investigate the police-involved shooting? Of course not.  The best and brightest in the department get that call.  The results of police investigations into police shootings are suspect not because of a lack of training but because of misguided motives.  Once the purpose of these investigations is to find the truth instead of justify the killing, then the results might be credible.

Agencies need to be transparent in providing information following use of force incidents.

Perhaps their diminished reputations and overall credibility will force the police to take this suggestion seriously. But when faced with the next Laquan MacDonald shooting, will the chief of police walk that video over the news station so the public can see the truth, or will he do everything in his power to make sure the public believes that the guy is dead because he was a threat to the safety of the officer?

Use Distance, Cover, and Time to replace outdated concepts such as the “21-foot rule” and “drawing a line in the sand.”

In other words, train the police that retreating, in many instances, is preferable to killing someone, even if that someone is dangerous. But how would this work alongside the current slate of training that tells police officers that a suspect can shoot them dead in less than a second?

Well trained call-takers and dispatchers are essential to the police response to critical incidents.

The shooting death of Tamir Rice exposed the importance of proper police communications. There can be little doubt that the dispatcher’s omission of the 911 caller’s description of Rice’s gun as “probably fake” played a critical role in the child’s death. The information that comes into the police department must be transmitted with excruciating accuracy.  If it does not, people can end up dead.

All in all, the report makes a few decent points, but it completely misses the largest problem with policing in America. The total lack of accountability.  No amount of principles or conferences or reports will make a difference until the people we employ to hold us accountable are themselves held accountable.  It is an insurmountable conflict of interest, and it is not working.

Oh, almost forgot one last principle from the report.

Training academy content and culture must reflect agency values.

Hasn’t this been the problem all along?

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