If there are any true systemic issues within law enforcement—common, institutional troubles that transcend the 17,000+ completely separate law enforcement agencies—and if it’s even possible to have collective and universal negative commonalities permeating the core of every police organization in all 50 states and the District of Columbia—then they’re not what is regularly pushed by the media.
It’s not pervasive racism.
It’s not unhinged officers bent on violence.
It’s not an overuse of SWAT teams which results in scores of shootings and innocents being killed.
And it’s not a warrior culture born from military training philosophies which teach officers that everyone is a threat, resulting in “warrior behavior” from the police.
It’s understandable why people may think those things are undeniable systemic issues, as they are constant and uncontested characterizations by voices in the mainstream and on social media.
“We all know the systemic and institutional problems in law enforcement stem from warrior training and deep-seated racism which infects the profession to the point that even black and brown officers fall victim to the hate and blah, blah, blah, blather, blather, blather…”
Politicians are supposed to seek out and speak the truth. Journalists are supposed to investigate and be objective. Yet both seem to be more interested in promoting a belief than finding and fixing a problem. They claim to want change—so, they say, we must condemn systemic evils in order for justice to prevail, change to occur, etc., etc.
Even several law enforcement “leaders” in larger cities promote this clichéd rhetoric.
Problem is, you can’t fix a problem unless you know what it is.
And they don’t.
Most assured they can point to recent anecdotal events and historic examples to make their case that departments have serious issues, which include racist and criminal behavior. But that certainly is not a nationwide professional descriptor of the over 700,000 cops donning uniforms in the more than 17,000 departments.
I watched an old YouTube segment featuring a news anchor named Chris Hayes who gave his take on South Carolina Trooper Sean Groubert and how he lied about a shooting in which he had been involved back in 2014. Many of us remember that the trooper—unjustly and unnecessarily, for sure—shot a man during a traffic stop for doing nothing more than complying with the trooper’s orders to get his license. Unfortunately, his license was in the car and the driver, who was already out of his car because he was going to pump some gas, turned and went into the car to retrieve his license. The trooper panicked, screamed at him to get out, and shot the man as he exited with something in his hand.
Groubert was arrested, fired, and imprisoned. He cried, apologized, and showed serious remorse.
A statement he made while his body microphone was still active described in his own words why he shot the driver. Hayes showed it as an example of a lying cop.
Hayes was wrong. Dead wrong. But it’s easy to take the route of condemning cops as liars and evil-doers. Who’s gonna argue with that?
Trooper Groubert unquestionably made some huge mistakes on this seemingly innocuous traffic stop, the most obvious being that he shot the driver and shouldn’t have. But what Hayes and others see as examples of racism and dishonesty are, to me, indicators of the true problems—the actual systemic troubles—within the law enforcement profession.
These issues are two-fold:
- Ineffective Training Philosophies & Injudicious Programs
- Substandard Leadership Values & Practices
I’m not saying all departments implement unproductive training efforts, nor am I saying all supervisors are poor leaders. I’m just saying there are too many in both categories to ignore.
Let’s examine further.
1. Ineffective Training Philosophies & Injudicious Programs
The bureaucracy of government demands proof of training, not proficiency in it. And even with the best of intentions, the entire system prohibits officers from being trained correctly and in a frequency that creates both a workable understanding of the subject matter and procedural memory (muscle memory) in execution.
An example of something for which precise training is essential is acute stress—what happens to the brain, how it impacts decision making, memory, etc. It is the primary reason police officers make mistakes, from treating people with disrespect to unnecessary and unjustifiable uses of force.
The importance and impact of the sudden onset of acute stress is completely misunderstood and/or ignored by the vast majority of departments in the country. Why?
There are many reasons: a lack of education in the subject, no money, manpower limitations, time restrictions, and a focus on the copious courses mandated by training boards are a few.
Another issue is the lack of attention to training in control tactics. Contrary to the beliefs of many, trying to control someone in real life who doesn’t want to be controlled is very, very difficult. Most departments do little to no training in this area. If they do, it’s a couple of hours per year. It’s impossible to develop procedural memory in such small amounts of time.
Officers are also not trained enough in the ability to truly understand communication and interact effectively. The 360° aspect of communication—reading the totality in the immediacy, understanding the emotional aspect of human behavior, taking nothing personally, and a complete focus on an officer’s professional goal—is absolutely essential.
2. Substandard Leadership Values and Practices
Supervisors need to LEAD! They need to support their officers before, during, and after an event.
In order to succeed in the private sector, organizations utilize forward-thinking and train their employees to excel in the areas consistent with their duties. They understand the importance of assigning people based on talent. Success is always the goal, always the focus.
In government, we too often focus on the avoidance of failure rather than achieving success. This is, in part, due to ambiguity: We can’t pinpoint definitively what we must achieve, at least not like the private sector can.
Policework is often simple, but at times it is extremely complex. These complexities arise during high-stress events. When experiencing extreme stress, which is often sudden and unexpected, the decision-making, performance, and memory of an officer is frequently and severely impacted. When the officer is unprepared, serious mistakes are made.
Leaders must recognize that their number one goal is to teach officers how to perform during these situations. In reality, top bosses too often immediately distance themselves from not just the officer, but also the blame when an officer inevitably makes mistakes during a high-stress event.
How often have you seen a police chief on TV disparage an officer and his or her behavior and promise discipline before an investigation has been conducted? Compare that to the amount of times you’ve seen a chief say, “This is our bad, and mine particularly as head of this agency. Quite frankly, we don’t dedicate ourselves to training which is meant to eliminate such unprofessional behavior.”
Finally, first-line supervisors are the key to knowing the individuals who work in their charge. Groubert’s defense attorneys argued that the South Carolina trooper overreacted because he was suffering from post-traumatic stress related to a shootout after a high-speed chase two years earlier. If that’s true, did no one see any signs of such a condition?
When seeking the systemic commonalities which need addressing in law enforcement, you need to look into the two problems discussed above.
The impact of acute stress on human performance and the fundamental science behind it all isn’t in any way new. But these areas seem to be lost on the majority of leadership within law enforcement.
Yes, it will at times be difficult to achieve the necessary amount of training, the cultural change within command staff, and the dedication to a constant focus on the subject—but it all needs to be done to solve the real problems.
Focusing on ghost numbers and false facts rooted in agenda-driven beliefs won’t fix anything. Acknowledging the truth is the only way to begin.
Question is: Is anyone ready to commit to that?