Reducing Use of Force: A Success Story

We need more police leaders who understand that reducing use of force makes officers safer, despite what some may say. It reduces the instances of physical altercations, which is good for officers’ injury reduction and better mental health. Our community relations will greatly improve, and community support is critical for policing in a democratic society.

Improving Police

I recently received this correspondence from an old friend, Chuck Wexler, who serves as the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). Basically, it is what I have been advocating; that is, that police leaders stand up, identify the problem (excessive uses of force), get help, propose new policies and training regimens, and then report back to the community what they have accomplished. This will go a long way to re-building trust between police and community members — particularly those who have been on the receiving end of forceful actions by police.

Sheriff Mike Chitwood

Sheriff Mike Chitwood of Volusia County, Florida, gets it!

Here’s Chuck’s report:

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Dear PERF members,

Chuck Wexler

I’m pleased to send you this 2nd issue of “PERF Trending: People, Ideas, and Events.” I want to thank everyone who emailed me with feedback about the first issue last Saturday.

A Florida success story:

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How many Jaylan’s are in our wake?

Today I read an article about a group of officers who are in hot water for falsely arresting a black college student. Here are the basics: The Eastern Illinois University swim team was traveling home on a team bus. They stopped at a rest area and the swimmers step off the bus to stretch their legs and use the facilities. They gathered in their team jackets to take a photo for social media. As the team began re-boarding, several police cars pulled into the lot. The only black player, Jaylan Butler, was stopped by a couple of officers, proned out on the ground, in the snow, and cuffed.

Jaylan was compliant, according to the bus driver and coaches. Nevertheless, the officers felt the need to point a gun at his head and tell him, they will “blow his f—king head off” if he moved. Again, this was corroborated by the witnesses, who reported they kept telling the officers the entire time it was a mistake and he’s a member of the team.

A few other agencies showed up. The bus driver and coach related that when they asked to speak to their supervisors, they were told various reasons why the supervisors could not be called. Jaylan was taken to a patrol car and told initially he “fit the description” of a suspect they were looking for. According to the bus driver, one officer said they thought he was taking the bus hostage. But, when it became clear the team is adamant, he is with them, they tell Butler the charge would then be resisting. In the end, they finally allowed Jaylan to retrieve his ID from the bus and decided they should release him.

Now, here’s the thing. I don’t know what offense these cops were responding to. Reports say possibly the state police BOLO’d about a B/M who shot at a vehicle in the area. Fine. Everyone free unit responds to assist, right? No problem. Then, at least one cop apparently saw the team at the rest stop and the lone B/M with them. We can argue at this point, maybe he’s worth a look. But, aren’t we supposed to look at the totality of everything?

The only description that fit was Jaylan’s race.

Don’t tell me that’s not true. Remember, the bus driver and coaches said the team was wearing their jerseys for the photo. So, here’s this black kid, wearing his team colors, nobody is acting hinky, nobody is freaked out. All accounts are that the driver and coaches immediately tried to intervene in the error. To no avail. Jaylan was still thrown down in the snow and threatened with having his head blown off.

My friends, we conduct investigative stops ten times a day. Race can be a legitimate factor, regardless of black or white. When it becomes a blinding factor, that’s when it becomes a problem. I’ve forgotten how many times I got out to stop an individual based on a very vague description. That’s perfectly good policing, but the rest of the context has to matter. Their “suspect”, supposedly running from the scene of a crime, would exhibit some outward signs of flight. Then there’s the coaches and bus driver saying the kid’s with them. He’s wearing a jersey with the same name as the team bus. Things don’t add up, here. Right?

So, almost immediately, professional law enforcement officers should have understood that their initial suspicion was dispelled. Jaylan is black, nothing else fits. End of story.

I’m troubled by the rest, though. Why are we so afraid to simply say we’re sorry? My bad. Why does it so often then shift to a resisting charge?

Try for a moment to imagine yourself being grabbed up, thrown on the ground and cuffed. You did nothing. You know you did nothing. Are you going to honestly tell me that your natural, human response would not be to squirm? Try to twist around to look at the officer and insist they are wrong? Not fight to harm, just get someone to listen because you know they have the wrong person. And then because you squirm, the cop points a gun at your forehead and says, “I’m gonna blow your head off if you move again.” Would that be okay if that was your college-age son?

In the end, the worst indignity occurs. No apology. No professional conversation to explain our actions. No name & badge number as requested by a citizen. BS reasons for not calling a supervisor. (As a former supervisor, that’s the best option to stop a complaint, trust me.) Then, reportedly, they don’t even document (until much later) the stop & detention, as required by policy when you are a professional. In 2020, I’m certain most agencies require documentation of a detention that rises to the level of threatening a suspect with a weapon.

Sadly, the failure to document the use of force will likely get these cops in more trouble than the violations they committed on this young man. It’s unconscionable. It’s unprofessional. It’s traumatizing to those who have this kind of thing happen to them. Unfortunately, it happens too often. And as a profession, we accept it as collateral damage. We leave young men like Jaylan scattered in our wake. We don’t even feel bad. We justify it by saying lame stuff like, “he could have been taking the bus hostage.” Seriously?

Our power allows us to shift to POP (for non-cops, that’s pissing off the police- yeah, that’s a thing), or resisting arrest, or some other justification for our actions. Anything not to say, I was wrong. Sorry.

We don’t talk about this much as cops, but we should. I wonder how many times a day a simple apology would be the right thing to do? Worse, I wonder how many times a day cops shift to another charge, refuse to take back a ticket, ignore a witness. All because of our ego. I wonder how much goodwill we could generate if we simply acknowledged this simple thing. We’re human. Our biases sometimes affect us. We can be wrong.

Most stories about this incident focus on racial bias, which is a subject for another blog, but I wanted to talk about more than that. I want you to think about how we treat people because public trust is what makes our job easier and safer. We can all agree that it is our job to question, to check out possible suspects, and sometimes it’s risky. It is also our job to be professionals. Listen to what people are saying. Think critically. Don’t let preconceived judgments blind us to commonsense. And for pete’s sake, if we act rashly, rush to judgment, and make a mistake…

Do not cling to your arrogance. Take a few minutes to talk to the person. Try to make it right. An explanation or apology costs you nothing. The goodwill you offer will be priceless. Do not walk away and leave another Jaylan in your wake.

Live your oath, change the world

As professionals, law enforcement officers swear an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. We also have a code of conduct called the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. More and more, I find myself wondering if we even care about those anymore.

Policing is one of those professions that transcends the definition of a job. It’s who we are. There is the increasing lament that cops are held to a higher standard. Some complain if a grocery store manager got into some kind of trouble, nobody would care, but police officers are called out and shamed. That’s true. And you know what? Rightly so.

Because here’s the hard truth: Nobody made you become a cop. You took on the status and the responsibility that came along with that status, willingly. Maybe you didn’t fully grasp the awesome responsibility that goes along with the awesome power society vested in you the day you pinned on the badge, but you own it.

On good days, we all love basking in the respect and admiration given to us simply because we’re walking around in a uniform or driving around in that police car. There’s a kind of intoxicating sense of power when drivers hit their brakes at the sight of you in traffic, or everyday people go out of their way to say hello or offer you a free coffee out of respect for the profession you’ve chosen.

Notice I said because of the uniform and car, not you personally. It’s really easy to blur that line. People confer automatic respect (or disdain) for what your uniform represents. Most people have a good impression, but some have had bad prior experiences. Either way, they are basing their reaction on historical interactions with another nameless individual wearing a uniform like you. Personally, they probably don’t know you, so it’s important to remind ourselves that we’re representing an idea, the idea of public service, impartial enforcement of the law, integrity, and even bravery.

This is why you are held to a higher standard. Because the profession you signed onto is the ultimate measure of public trust. You are entrusted to uphold and enforce the laws of our democracy. You are given the authority to take someone’s liberty or life. I’d say that’s way beyond the scope of the retail manager. That is why law enforcement is a calling, not a job. The job requirements include humility (service is humility), grace (not everyone deserves jail or a ticket), compassion (seeing the humanity in others),

The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics says in part: I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all and will behave in a manner that does not bring discredit to me or to my agency.

Are you doing that when you mock others publicly? When you post ugly, degrading, divisive, sexist or racist comments on social media? When you send racist comments or jokes over department communications? When you flash white supremacist hand signals while posing in uniform photos?

I’m not talking about civil debate. We can have honest disagreements about facts. I mean comments like the assistant police chief from Alabama who posted a suggestion of a “roadside bomb” for the Speaker of the House (and any dumbocrat). The latter wishing the same (death by a roadside bomb) to members of a rival political party.

Are you going to really tell me that is behaving in a manner that brings credit to his department? I would ask this of anyone employed by the public and wearing a badge and gun, but especially the assistant chief. No, this is not a service to his community. Yes, it brings discredit to his agency. What’s worse, it’s one more example of a fellow cop who brings discredit to the entire law enforcement profession.

The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics also says: I will never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, political beliefs, aspirations, animosities or friendships to influence my decisions.

Have we conveniently forgotten that part?

I wrote about this previously, but in our social media world, it keeps happening on a daily basis. Only a few months ago, our profession was rocked by media reports of hundreds of unprofessional social media posts by cops all over this country. Rather than responding with wide professional humility or distancing ourselves from these people harming our collective reputations, as a whole, we fell in line with indignant fake outrage. How dare anyone say we don’t have free speech? Stupid snowflakes. Can’t they take a joke?

I’ve heard the assertion that I’m being the thought police. You have the right to free speech. You are correct. You have the right to be as intolerant, crass, bigoted, and insensitive as you wish. You just don’t have the right to shout it from the rooftops or splash it all over social media and still enjoy holding the public trust. There’s a difference. Remember, you chose this profession freely.

We all say we understand we live in a world where the truth is under attack and civility is evaporating faster than a drop of water in a forest fire.

My point is, aren’t we the leaders? Didn’t we sign onto this job to set an example of how to live a life of integrity? Every time we bury another fallen officer we say, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another.” I believe that.

But what about how we treat others every day?

That guy you splashed intentionally by plowing through the puddle yesterday might have spoken up for the police at a neighborhood watch meeting. You just lost an ally.

That woman you said lied about the sexual assault might refuse to name a murder suspect next week.

The kid you arrested for POP because he dared to question you because he’s been stopped dozens of times this month, might decide to lash out and fight or harm the next cop.

The hundreds of people that see your social media posts calling for the death of people you don’t agree with, or that spread racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise vile comments, might conclude your opinions cannot help but affect your on the job behavior. And again, since you represent your profession, they transfer your intolerance to other cops.

My friends, we cannot expect to be held to the highest esteem and not the highest standards equally. It just doesn’t work that way. I believe that most of us took our oath in good faith. Our communities need servant leaders of integrity now more than ever. Let’s remember what the honor of our badge truly means. If you want people to see you as an example for their community, then remember that’s exactly what you are–good or bad.

So, choose to be that positive role model and servant leader. You really can make a difference in the world.

Especially now.

Be safe.