I’ve been writing national columns for almost ten years. This year I’ll write around 50 of them. I’ve been interviewed by many news organizations and asked my opinions. I try to stay on top of current events and for the last year current events haven’t been kind to my chosen profession. Consequently, I’m often faulted as being an apologist for law enforcement.
I’ve had friends argue with me, family members question me, and countless strangers disparage me.
And I get it. I plead guilty: I do defend my profession.
Why? Because we are constantly under attack, and, most often, those attacks are unwarranted, skewed and/or based on lies. “Hands up/don’t shoot” is a prime example. My problem is that almost no one in the mainstream media defends police officers. They prefer to fan the flames.
That being said, we aren’t without fault. While I don’t condemn police officers in most of my articles, we do regularly talk about our shortcomings and training deficits in our classes. So let’s address some of those here and now.
Before We Begin: Words Matter
There is an excellent article in the Washington Post, and it almost pains me to say that because I’ve seen the Post contribute to the hysteria in the past, and the terminology employed, especially at the beginning of the article, frankly pisses me off.
- “In an alley in Denver, police gunned down a 17-year-old girl joyriding in a stolen car.”
“Gunned down” makes is sound like the officers shot her for sport. Nonsense, as the subsequent report of the event makes clear.
- “Forty-nine people had no weapon, while the guns wielded by 13 others turned out to be toys. In all, 16 percent were either carrying a toy or were unarmed.”
To describe “toy guns” as “nonlethal objects” is debatable at best. To the cops who pulled the trigger, the judgement was made in a split-second that it was in fact a gun. You try making that distinction in low light under high stress, knowing that lives depend on your making the right call.
The authors of the article are professional writers, educated and probably really smart, and I’m assuming they know they are using particular terminology and words in order to elicit an emotional response that is unhelpful to our understanding of the facts.
Collecting the Data on a National Level
The Washington Post is right, as a profession, on a national level, we don’t track the number of shootings well enough. (We don’t track much in our profession on a national level.) Why has nothing to do with a lack of transparency, it’s the nature of the American beast.
There are almost 18,000 separate state and local police agencies in the U.S. That’s a bunch. There’s no conspiracy here. I believe the reason we lack consistency when it comes to accurate reporting is twofold: systemic and philosophical.
From a systemic standpoint, 1,000s of those police departments are very small. This means that there are countless computer programs all talking different languages throughout the country. In fact, many agencies don’t have any real computer “systems” at all. Many of the larger departments have multiple systems, and the way departments report and categorize is incredibly inconsistent and onerous. People looking for some widespread conspiracy won’t believe this, but it’s the truth.
Philosophically: Police departments are tenaciously independent. Many resist federal interference and/or mandates that encroach on that independence or resist because federal conditions are cumbersome and costly.
There is no national conspiracy to keep shooting stats from the public. Each one is on record and released to the press—that’s how the Post found their statistics. And since there’s no legal requirement on a local and state level to contact the federal government or, in particular, the FBI, it’s not a priority.
Bottom line: Even if every department in the country were compelled to begin reporting this data, they wouldn’t have the resources. This is a huge endeavor and departure from how they’ve done business.
However, this doesn’t mean it’s impossible and shouldn’t be done.
Racism as a Motive
This is a sticky one and one that I disagree with vehemently. Police officers who shoot minorities should not be considered racist by default; however, this doesn’t mean race wasn’t a factor. But this whole issue is extremely complicated and includes countless variables outside of just race.
The statistical considerations and angles are almost incalculable and too complicated for this one short article, but, in 2014, ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom and the first online news source to win a Pulitzer Prize, addressed this issue.
The article looked into black males killed by police and the race of the officers who killed them. They determined that they were “mostly white officers. But in hundreds of instances, black officers, too. Black officers account for a little more than 10% of all fatal police shootings. Of those they kill, though, 78% were black.”
Pure racism is not the motivating factor when black men are killed by the police. But if the shooter is a white officer the default response seems to always be: Racist cop.
There’s a huge problem with this viewpoint: It’s both incredibly ugly and ridiculously unfair. Nothing hurts community relations quite like this dogged, pernicious myth.
Every cop in the country knows that if he or she shoots somebody, especially if that person is of another race, all hell will break loose. This isn’t even debatable. Caucasian officers are well aware that the media default will be racism if they shoot a person of color.
No one—absolutely no one—wants to go through that.
Emotional, Socioeconomic, Cultural and Resisting Factors
The Post article goes on to say: “Although race was a dividing line, those who died by police gunfire often had much in common. Most were poor and had a history of run-ins with law enforcement over mostly small-time crimes, sometimes because they were emotionally troubled.”
The most common factor in every use of force by a police officer is that the subject resisted, failed to comply, fled, was combative and/or threatening to either the officers or others. This is too often minimized or totally ignored by the press and activists, including the Washington Post.
Sadly, poor communities experience more violent criminal behavior than middle class communities do. When those communities are in urban areas with strict geographical limits and close-quarter living, the situation is exacerbated to a dangerous level. This type of situation requires more police involvement because the honest citizens demand and call for it.
And “emotionally troubled”? What does that even mean? There’s a huge gulf between mild depression or anxiety and sociopathy, but this phrase seems to gobble them all up without distinction.
We hear it incessantly: Police officers need more training on how to deal with the mentally ill and emotionally unstable people. I have no disagreement with that. You won’t find many police chiefs or sheriffs who will disagree either.
But: How much training is enough? Who should be trained? In what aspects of that huge and ever-evolving body of study?
I was asked by the producer of a national television program if officers have enough training and learn how to deal with people who suffer from schizophrenia.
“Probably not,” I said.
“How much training should they get?” she asked.
My reply: “I have no idea.”
This conversation continued and she asked why I didn’t know. So I asked her if she knew what schizophrenia actually was. She tried to answer by paraphrasing something she learned from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho. She was wrong.
I asked her if she knew how many people in the country suffered from the disease. She didn’t know.
I told her that conservative estimates are 2 – 3 million.
I then asked her if she thought there was one way to deal with all of those people that would guarantee success. She admitted there wasn’t but said that officers should at least understand the disease and some common issues. Again: I agree.
I then explained to her that police officers are called on a regular basis to mental health facilities in order to assist the mental health professionals physically control people with psychological and emotional problems.
Imagine that! The people who know more about this mental state than any other call the cops when things get out of control! If the people who are trained and educated to deal with mental health patients can’t deal handle them, what do you expect from the police?
Bottom line: Let’s not pretend there’s an easy answer or that some magic training is available that will make all psychotic subjects suddenly peaceful.
Poor Perspective & Implementation of Training
Police training is woefully lacking on so many levels. Here are a few reasons:
- Because of budget cuts (which always hits the training budgets hardest) and serious manpower shortages, the opportunity to train is extremely limited.
- Police administrators are too often reactionary. They initiate training after an event.
- Police are too often lazy. There’s an old saying in law enforcement: “Cops constantly complain about doing the same thing over and over. The only thing they complain about more is change.”
- Leadership wastes time with their officers. We have so many opportunities to train yet we don’t take advantage of them.
- We train wrong on so many levels. From the way we shoot to the way we view control tactics. We are myopic and provincial in our training practices.
- Communication training! Police officers communicate more than they do anything else. Yet they do very limited training in that area, and when they do it’s lousy training. Canned programs with acronyms and do and don’t lists have never resonated with cops and won’t work in the real world anyway.
- Stress: We don’t understand it enough and do almost no training at all on the subject. But nothing clouds judgement like stress, and police work is full of it.
When I watch the videos and read reports of police officers using force when they shouldn’t have or had other options available, what I usually see isn’t racism or evil intent. What I see is stress run amuck.
The Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar, our flagship training, began 35 years ago. In the last four years it’s totally changed. We recognized that in order to save officer’s lives and prevent them from overreacting in a confrontation they have to understand the totality of stress. Stress is now the foundation of that two-day program.
Everyone thinks they understand stress as it’s simply the fight or flight response. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Almost all of the training officers do—almost all of it—is in fact counterproductive.
We stand still at the seven-yard line, looking for center-mass on the range and shoot at hanging paper in a stress-free environment (and in some cases only once a year). We learn control tactics in the academy but most departments never do follow-up training and, if they do it, it’s done in static, contrived environments.
Law enforcement virtually ignores the reality of stress during training. We ignore the dynamics of the real world.
Stress is, in my opinion, the number one cause for officers both overreacting and for underreacting. Commissioner Anthony Batts of the Baltimore Police Department said recently that his officers, since the Freddie Gray riots, are now routinely surrounded by mobs of 30 – 50 when they respond to calls in the roughest sections of that troubled city. Imagine the stress!
Under high stress, because they don’t understand it and haven’t been exposed to it, officers experience both decision decline and cognitive deterioration. There is virtually no consistent training in this field, and there needs to be.
As mentioned above, police officers communicate more than they do anything else. What kind of realistic training do we do in that arena? None!
Understanding and learning about the totality of communication in the human animal (including under stress) is absolutely imperative. Learning and utilizing realistic communication skills is a game changer.
The need for an officer to be able to read people, understand what words mean in context, and being able to use their voices, particular words and body language in order to develop rapport and calm the irrational is beyond essential. It is life-altering. It could be life-saving.
Admit We Have to Take Some Responsibility
Finally, police officers are the guardians of this democracy. We are, as I say, Guardian-Warriors. We are here to protect the weak from predators and to enforce the laws enacted by the people of this republic. In order to do that effectively we must take responsibility for what we are doing wrong. We have to alter adversarial behaviors and systemic problems within our profession in order to develop relationships with the people and communities we are sworn to protect. Nobody wants that more than I do, because I truly love this profession as much as I do my community.
We begin this process by stopping the hate, the lies and each side must take responsibility.
Unfortunately, that is the hardest thing for anyone to do. Especially in this current climate.