A quarter of a billion dollars. That's what ten of America's largest cities paid out in legal settlements related to police misconduct last year, according to data reported by the Wall Street Journal last week. As difficult as those payments can be for big cities, they can be even more of a financial hit on smaller police departments and their taxpayers, who have had to cover settlements every bit as expensive as the big city payouts in recent years.
The jarring video of Gardena, California police officers shooting and killing an unarmed man and injuring another in 2013 - captured by the officers' dashboard camera and made public by a federal judge last week - led that small city to agree to a $4.7 million settlement. Earlier in the week, Albuquerque, New Mexico officials authorized a $5 million settlement after a helmet camera video recorded the shooting death of a mentally ill homeless man. In that case, two police officers have been charged with second-degree murder. One can only imagine what Texas taxpayers face in the wake of videos of police at a pool party in McKinney and the July 10 traffic stop of Sandra Bland that ended with her tragic death in a local jail.
These and several other caught-on-video cases spotlight the severe insufficiency of our police training approach, which is too mechanical, and the inadequacy of our response, which is too narrowly conceived.
As an answer to excessive use of force, body and helmet cameras on officers have been tagged as the "next big thing" in policing. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. While cameras may prove to be a good source of evidence to support police actions or hold officers accountable, they are, in the end, just instruments. And instruments don't make decisions.
This is not an argument to halt the use of cameras – they are likely having some positive deterrent effect - but the police camera footage of these shootings and use-of-force provide an important reminder that, in the heat of the moment, posterity is not at the forefront of officers' minds.
The images and sounds recorded during the killing of James Boyd in New Mexico, Ricardo Diaz Zeferino in Gardena, and Eric Garner in New York, point to a more pressing concern than a video record: American police departments need to do a better job preparing officers for high-stress decision making.
Gardena Police Chief Ed Medrano is on the right track by initiating "new training, including the tactical use of cover techniques to slow down fast-moving events." But the training must be more than tactical to be effective. Departments, at every level of leadership and command, should shift the focus of training – and policing generally – from reactive to proactive and from conflict to conflict resolution.
Right now, in many of our police academies, we are training warriors not guardians. We push new recruits through a rigid, sometimes dehumanizing, boot camp that values obeying and quick responses and deplores differentiation. In some departments we place rookies in the jails for their first posting, immediately validating the drill-based experience of the academy. Is it any surprise that a shoot-or-be-shot perspective has already crystallized before some cops ever walk a community beat? This is not an excuse; but it’s a reality that must be changed.
Making such a shift includes recognizing that the primary strength of a police force is not the force, but the police. As chiefs, politicians and citizens talk about “de-escalation,” many officers on the street still see this as a naïve response or, worse, an endangerment to their lives. In order to improve policing, cops have to buy in, and that requires a full-scale revision of training methods.
Reformulated police training needs to emphasize that it is okay to step back. Building distance and preserving options is a critical skill for police officers that has not been well trained and is even frowned upon as evidence of weakness. Part of constructing a more effective police force involves eradicating this mistaken view that moving away from a confrontation is a weakness and, instead, training that backing up rather than lunging forward adds a tactical advantage and reduces risk.
Even more critical than instilling techniques, however, we need to train officers to become better decision-makers as pressure mounts. Cops get plenty of firearms training, mostly at the shooting range, and they get classroom education on policies and procedures, but too few, if any, hours are spent in simulations of the real policing environment they face day-to-day. As a result, officers who may be great shots on the range and familiar with their Constitutional obligations, do not have ample experience practicing good decision-making about the use of force in the heat of action.
Police officers would welcome this kind of full immersion training, but for all the public declarations about de-escalation and community demands for reform, cities and counties have not sufficiently followed through with the investments needed to rebuild police training from the ground up.
As we have seen with the tens of millions paid out in settlements recently, and more than a billion dollars over the last five years, taxpayers will have to pay one way or another. We should invest that money on the front end, so we better train police officers to avoid the tragedy of poor decision-making that costs more than just millions of dollars.
Ted Sexton, Executive Vice President of UNIT Solutions, is a former National Sheriff’s Association “Sheriff of the Year” and former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He also teaches Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama.