There is so much misinformation and politically charged spin on the state of policing in America that I hardly know where to start.
As anyone who has read my columns knows, I am not one to shy away from opinions on law enforcement practices. Sometimes I am critical and sometimes I defend what I see out there. Either way, I always try to call it as I see it. But even more important to me is trying to keep the conversation about policing moving forward and not getting bogged down in screaming matches that focus exclusively on the outlier cases on both sides of the debate.
Certainly, there are tragedies and outrages that can be held up as Exhibit A to make the case that police in America are facing unacceptable risks and being held to standards that neither the Constitution nor common sense mandate. And, on the other hand, there are tragic and outrageous incidents that exhibit unnecessarily aggressive behavior from officers who are not acting within Constitutional parameters or the laws of common sense. Unfortunately, these examples have set the terms of discussion and those who highlight them most ardently and persistently get to drive the debate.
That fills up plenty of airtime with invective and vitriol, but it doesn't leave much room for the thoughtful discussions about policing that this country quite evidently needs.
So I thought it might be useful to lay out an overview of some of the concepts and questions that would benefit from a healthy dose of dialog.
1. The # 1 duty of a police officer is to protect the community within the framework of the Constitution.
This may seem straightforward at first, but it is a particularly thorny matter that, especially in how it relates to the use of force, lies at the heart of the national discussion we are trying to have about policing. The debate would benefit from a less heated conversation about what is within and outside the bounds of Constitutional behavior. These are some basic questions, which demand answers more nuanced than a shouting match allows:
- When is force acceptable?
- How much force?
- How much benefit of the doubt should officers be given?
- How much should officers be accountable for information they did not have or things they could not see, hear, or know when they made a decision to use force?
Courts have generally given officers substantial latitude, but some portion of the public wants to give them less. If we get past the rhetoric, though, I think we’d probably find that most people will agree about where the balance ought to lie. Getting there requires a conversation that places both police and protester views in the context of the Constitutional parameters established by the courts. And that takes more than a soundbite.
#2a. Policing is a tough and dangerous job, so how do we make it safer?
The debate over policing has pitted the view that use of force is presumptively wrong against the view that there is so much danger out there that cops should be presumed to have been in the right anytime they pull the trigger. This back and forth seems to hurdle right over some important questions: Are there ways to make the job safer, and could those strategies also reduce the number of use-of-force incidents?
Of course, if there were an easy answer, we'd have it by now. But we certainly aren't paying enough attention to it or the related issue of officer career survival. The reason so many cops are leaving forces is tied to the sense that the job is only getting harder and riskier. So let's really get into this and have a conversation that puts everything on the table. For example,
- Do police have sufficient equipment to protect themselves and the community?
- Or, perhaps, have we focused too much on gear and not enough on community engagement?
- Is there something that can be done to reduce the prevalence of guns in criminal hands?
- Are we sufficiently training officers to reduce risk?
There are plenty of other ways to consider this relationship between officer safety and public safety, but we can't sort it out if we don't confront the various questions about what it is that makes things so unsafe out there these days.
#2b. Policing is a tough and dangerous job, so how do we find the (right) people to do it?
There has been a lot of talk about the inability to hire enough officers or to keep police in uniform. Undoubtedly, a big reason for this challenge is the safety issue and the grind that currently faces a cop. But it should also force us to think seriously about how and whom we recruit. One thesis in this area (which deserves some serious self-reflection on the part of chiefs, sheriffs and other department leaders) is that we have been recruiting warriors to serve as guardians and that's the wrong model. Part of the reason that policing is so tough nowadays is that communities seem to have less faith that the police are there to protect and serve. Somehow a distance has grown between law enforcement personnel and the people they serve. Part of that might be because departments have been looking for the strongest and toughest and those with a penchant for risk and a desire to fight. Perhaps that's the way to recruit for the military, but it may not be good for finding guardians. This thesis may be right or wrong, but it is certainly worth putting on the table for consideration.
#3. De-escalation is a two-way street that needs the commitment of both cops and communities.
For good reason there has been a lot of talk of late about introducing more de-escalation strategies into police work. But so many street-level cops see this as a political idea that will make them less safe on the job. Part of getting buy-in from officers on de-escalation techniques is expanding the discussion to include what communities need to do to help relieve some of the tension out there. There's no silver bullet here, but where are the political leaders who should be bringing cops and communities together to talk seriously and honestly about the state of this relationship? In fact, these conversations are happening in some places and we should be encouraging more of it and developing models that departments can use to help realign the dynamics with the public they serve.
#4. Police training needs to improve, which means we also have to identify what's wrong with it now.
Over the past year, there has been plenty of discussion about the need for more police training but not enough about how current training fails our officers and constituents. The fact is there will never be enough time or money to just keep adding new training modules every time a buzzword shows up. So we have to spend time asking what isn't working with training now? What are we doing wrong? It may be that some of the bad practices and habits police training has reinforced over the years actually contribute to the underlying reasons so many people are talking about police reform in the first place.
I've thought a lot about many of these questions, and I will continue to write and talk about them. But answering the questions isn't my goal here. I just want to get the conversation heading in the right direction. At the moment, it seems to me that the sides on this issue (and there are more than just two sides on the issue!) are all just digging in their heels and girding for battle. And that's not going to get us anywhere.
Ted Sexton, Executive Vice President of UNIT Solutions, is also the retired Sheriff of Tuscaloosa County, a former National Sheriff’s Association “Sheriff of the Year,” and former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.