The police business has always been a public service, but it has never been so much in the public eye as it seems to be these days. Most major newspapers have devoted a considerable amount of ink to police-involved shootings, departmental transparency, and policing in general over the past year. TheWashington Post, New York Times, and several others have reported extensively on a theme laid out by USA Today:
Nearly two times a week in the United States, a white police officer killed a black person during a seven-year period ending in 2012, according to the most recent accounts of justifiable homicide reported to the FBI.
On average, there were 96 such incidents among at least 400 police killings each year that were reported to the FBI by local police. The numbers appear to show that the shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., last Saturday was not an isolated event in American policing
As police officers, deputies and law enforcement leaders, we have to take this seriously; this reporting is not a fad, it's a fact of life post-Ferguson, and we either learn from it or we will be swallowed up by it. I have had (and will continue to have) plenty to say on how we confront the issues of community trust, training, de-escalation, and civil rights that are propelling these stories and bolstering the social activism around contemporary policing.
But here I want to focus on one critical point: the police perspective – which is not uniform by any means – will not be sufficiently considered if we don't join the conversation. And by that I don't simply mean aggressively countering every piece of criticism leveled at our colleagues. In one instance this summer, that tactic enraged citizens and politicians alike and ended up doing a lot more to make cops look like the bad guys than the underlying use of force that had originally concerned local residents.
Joining the conversation means taking the concerns and criticisms seriously and speaking honestly about what we see on our beats and in the flash of urgency that cops know better (and worse) than just about anyone in civilian life. That part of the story is being told on occasion, as with the recent issue of Time Magazine, which recounted this story of one incident in Philadelphia:
What won’t change, however, are the risks that both cops and citizens encounter in the neighborhoods that outsiders long ago learned to avoid. Devlin and Matos have not been involved in a shooting, but they came close in March, happening upon an armed robbery at a pizza shop.
“It happens that we were driving right in front of the store, and I saw the workers with hands up,” Matos said. They made a U-turn, parked across the street beyond the robber’s line of vision, and scrambled toward the shop with guns drawn. They entered as the robber was running toward the door, stuffing a pistol into his waistband. He obeyed their shouted orders to lie down on the floor, and Matos grabbed the weapon.
“It was a BB-gun at the end but it looked real,” he says. “I had the gun in my hand for a good two minutes, and I didn’t realize it was a BB gun until I tried to put it in my pocket.”
“It was a really really close call,” Matos says. “It happens. It can go wrong. It can go bad, in less than a second.
But more often than not – especially with TV news and social media where whoever shouts the loudest is declared the winner and sole dispenser of truth – our voice is muted and the stories get away from us.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not apologizing for excesses by officers or patterns and practices that are outdated, outmoded and don't belong in our business. I'm saying that because we are afraid of taking ownership of errors or acknowledging the need for changes, we end up cut out of the whole discussion. It's like the opposite of the Boy Who Cried Wolf but with the same result: because we are so quick to deny that we ever do anything wrong, the community, media and politicians (who often are just going to follow the community and media) are not inclined to believe us even when our colleagues are 100% in the right.
If we want the public to trust us when we defend our colleagues and our strategies, we have to engage in these big picture conversations. Last week, the LA Times reported on LAPD's effort to re-envision officers as guardians and not warriors (a theme that I wrote about in the Tuscaloosa News last month), explaining:
The message is one the LAPD is drilling into its officers in training that has been rolled out in recent weeks, part of a national movement to change law enforcement at a time when policing tactics are under increased public scrutiny.
Departments across the country are taking steps to replace the warrior mentality with a different approach, one that emphasizes protection over suppression, patience instead of zero tolerance. It's a fundamental shift, one that could affect issues such as how often officers fire their guns and the way they walk down the street.
Despite these changes at LAPD and several other big departments, in many of our police academies, we are still 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, which validates 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.
The point here is not about precisely which changes we should be making. The point is that if men and women in the law enforcement community and leadership do not become more actively engaged in these big public discussions going on, those changes will be made for us and not with us. I can't predict exactly what policing is going to look like in three or five years, but I know I want to help shape it and others in the profession should as well.
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.