As I learned early on in my supervisory career from my boss Dane Cuny: “Remember there are always unintended consequences to any decision. So think them through before you make ‘em.”
From Washington Post the other day: “Legislation set to be introduced to Congress on Thursday would create a new national standard for when police officers can use deadly force and require police academies to teach officers de-escalation techniques.”
A new national standard?
A couple of problems right off the bat: First, we already have a national standard, Graham v. Connor (1989). Graham is based on the test of objective reasonableness. The decision established that when an officer uses force, his or her actions are to be judged from that officer’s particular perspective at the moment the decision was made. And the totality of the circumstances must be considered. Again: Objectively reasonable force is the standard–not minimal force.
Second, these changes being rushed into practice are based on mistaken beliefs and not on facts. We absolutely should commit to regular de-escalation training, but it is important to acknowledge that there is no epidemic of the police shootings. While mistakes are made, the vast, vast majority of police shootings are totally justified. Just because some terrible videos have gone viral doesn’t change that.
About the Bill
The bill is titled “The Preventing Tragedies Between Police and Communities Act of 2016.” How’s that for subtle? It’s the brain child of Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.).
The Post article then cites PERF (Police Executive Research Forum) as the foremost experts from the law enforcement profession and a backer of said bill. Here’s another problem: PERF and in particular its Executive Director, Chuck Wexler, are not considered to be the foremost experts by most of us in law enforcement. In the article Wexler is quoted:
“The challenge is, you have 18,000 police departments … and there is difficulty with implementing change. We don’t have best practices, we don’t have best training systems, we don’t have the kind of standards across the board that allow departments to know what works best. This bill … is at the heart of what we’ve been suggesting: that police training has to change.”
I absolutely agree 100%: The way we train does have to change. I also agree that much more training has to focus on communication skills and understanding the human being, especially under stress.
This is the focus of my company Calibre Press. I wrote a book (Arresting Communication) and teach several classes from the perspective of a 30-year police officer with a Bachelor’s Degree in psychology. De-escalation and bias training is a core component of several of the courses I teach and oversee.
That being said, here are my problems with how Mr. Wexler presents himself and his views to the nation and this country’s cops.
When he uses the word “we,” I take issue. Mr. Wexler has never been a cop. “We” is an inclusive word reserved exclusively for those in our profession (current and retired). “We” implies you have walked in our shoes. Wexler has not.
In addition, I’ve read virtually all of PERF’s recommendations and admittedly many are very good. But—and this is a big but—Wexler often promotes myths about our practices and training. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that it’s based on a lack of experience and exposure. But he needs to be careful because much of what he’s saying—or at least what’s picked up by the media as fact—is untrue.
For example, the supposed 21-Foot Rule. No one teaches what Chuck Wexler implies we teach. In other words, no training I’ve ever even heard of tells officers to automatically shoot an aggressive knife wielding subject if they are within 21 feet. It isn’t happening and if it is, please name the department and I will apologize.
Over the past several months I’ve asked by a show of hands how many officers have ever faced a violent subject with a knife. A majority of those in attendance raise a hand. I then ask, “Did you shoot?” Over the past months out of more than1,000 raised hands, less than a handful say that had to shoot.
Here is what needs to get across to the public and media, and PERF can help with this: The shooting of a suspect—even a violent suspect—with a knife is the very rare exception. It is not the rule!
Are We Warriors?
Another misrepresentation is that we in law enforcement train like military warriors, which preloads the brain to use force. Suggesting that we train that way is just flat out wrong!
The truth is if we trained more like warriors—which means regularly addressing deadly force events and introducing stress into dynamic scenario training—officers would be much less likely to overreact in real-life.
So again, while we wholeheartedly agree that there is a need for better training, especially in de-escalation, communication and bias, we absolutely have to include the stress component.
Training realistically under real stress is what we need. Call it Warrior Training or call it something else if you like. But do it. Often.
No Cookie Cutter Solutions
Another problem I have with Wexler’s approach is his apparent belief in cookie-cutter solutions.
Example: He advocates “calming tones” as the apparent panacea when dealing with aggressive people. The problem:They don’t always work! You might not know this if you’ve never dealt with a drunk belligerent who just beat up his wife and now stands before you with a butcher knife. Calming tones in that case might get you seriously hurt or killed (and/or the spouse, children, and neighbors …). Sometimes a gun drawn and a command presence is the only viable option.
This isn’t simply an opinion. We have dozens and dozens of videos where officers were using very calming nonaggressive tones and ended up getting shot. That’s not laboratory analysis, that’s real life.
Now, that’s not to say there aren’t times when calming tones and establishing rapport aren’t the best option. Of course there are. And we know it and use these approaches more than we don’t.
My point: Every incident is unique and dependent on countless variables that officers must evaluate under extreme stress. Yes, calm is good. But it’s not the only option and it’s not the best option some of the time.
PERF, Chuck Wexler and I agree that we absolutely need to invest and train but it is imperative that said training be based on reality. We need to focus on the right type of training in order to give our officers the necessary tools so we can trust them to make the right decisions under stress.
But, if PERF wants those who are expected to make the changes (cops) actually change, they have to speak the language of cops, understand the perspective cops, and avoid citing nonsensical stats. Include those on the front line in the conversation. Get street cops and first-line supervisors on board now.
I’m open for a discussion anytime. So are most of the other officers in this country. Please consider tapping into that expertise.