Saturday, May 9, 2015

May the Force Not Be with You

With even small local police forces all-too-often having tactical military vehicles, tactics and weapons at their disposal, the deployment of police power in volatile moments has almost entirely consisted of training officers (and intensely training SWAT officers) in the use of force. While some police forces have reasonable community outreach programs, it is often too little, too little or almost nothing at all. Training for how not to use force, well… that seems to have slipped by the wayside.
When there is a deep difference between the racial and ethnic mix of police versus the communities they are charged to “serve,” where there are underlying racial and ethnic tensions already, when the arrest and incarceration rates between racial and ethnic groups (a profound truth in the African-American experience) is deeply divergent, clearly something is amiss. Oh sure, you can point to inner city gang activity and an overabundant presence of unwed single parent families, dropout rates and dependence of social welfare as the root cause, but statistics tell you how much worse the problem has become since the 1960s… so the root cause lies deeper than the current state of affairs.
Harsh reality one: when a child is born, he or she clearly does not have any obvious imprint for criminal or any other behavior. Their race or lineage may push them into a life where discrimination and hopelessness abound. But what happens to these newborns in family and society – something over which they clearly have no control – will determine their entire future. Bad schools, dangerous neighborhoods, predatory and biased cops, parents mired in poverty and other inner city issues, gangs calling the shots at every corner and deteriorating  social conditions attributed to a national priority schema that has pushed military spending and general austerity for everything else to the top of our national agenda.
Whatever else is said and done, we can no longer afford the cost of a criminal justice system that not only is itself costly and burdensome but one which deprives those placed into it of the ability to make a reasonable living upon release. The cycle of misery can only repeat itself, institutionalizing poverty and hopelessness for generations, if we keep taking economic viability out of the mouths of those who are convicted. We are projecting that one third of all African-American males will fall into this system within the next few years.
By no means am I condoning rioting, looting or vandalism that have accompanied the recent violence protesting the litany of black youths recently killed by police. But the underlying anger is beyond justified. So aside from making the big adjustments in the make-up and motivation of police forces everywhere, in addition to the massive community outreach programs that need to have begun “yesterday,” over and above the deterrent effect of the rollout of body-cams on cops, there needs to be a new emphasis on how not to use force and intimidation in police tactics. This is the biggest missing component in police training today.
Rules on how police are to respond to threats may have been created in another era or developed in order to figure out how to deploy those fancy military weapons so many departments now have. For example, the widely-applied 21 foot rule – the distance from an officer at which knife-wielding suspect can be shot – was set over three decades ago under an odd review process:
“During a training course on defending against knife attacks, a young Salt Lake City police officer asked a question: ‘How close can somebody get to me before I’m justified in using deadly force?’… Dennis Tueller, the instructor in that class more than three decades ago, decided to find out. In the fall of 1982, he performed a rudimentary series of tests and concluded that an armed attacker who bolted toward an officer could clear 21 feet in the time it took most officers to draw, aim and fire their weapon.
“The next spring, Mr. Tueller published his findings in SWAT magazine and transformed police training in the United States. The ‘21-foot rule’ became dogma. It has been taught in police academies around the country, accepted by courts and cited by officers to justify countless shootings, including recent episodes involving a homeless woodcarver in Seattle and a schizophrenic woman in San Francisco…
“‘In a democratic society, people have a say in how they are policed, and people are saying that they are not satisfied with how things are going,’ said Sean Whent, the police chief in Oakland, Calif. The city has a troubled history of police abuse and misconduct, but some policy changes and a new approach to training have led to sharp declines in the use of force, Chief Whent added.
“Like the 21-foot rule, many current police practices were adopted when officers faced violent street gangs. Crime rates soared, as did the number of officers killed. Today, crime is at historic lows and most cities are safer than they have been in generations, for residents and officers alike. This should be a moment of high confidence in the police, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy group. Instead, he said, policing is in crisis.
“‘People aren’t buying our brand. If it was a product, we’d take it out of the marketplace and re-engineer it,’ Mr. Wexler said. ‘We’ve lost the confidence of the American people.’” New York Times, May 4th. Common sense and understanding the negativity wrought by overzealous police officers have often left the building. The notion of using overwhelming force to subjugate arrestees has now backfired. The abundance of military hardware and tactics, now used for routine busts, is out of control.
And not only has confidence in the police fallen like a stone, particularly in minority communities, but the economic costs (not to mention political costs) of this approach are no longer affordable any more. Taxpayers take notice! We cannot tolerate or afford the aftermath of rage, the settlements police departments are forced to fork over, the litigation costs even when departments are vindicated, the costs of unnecessary military equipment and the failure of the criminal justice system to dispense justice. We likewise need to address the biases and the failures of our social systems to address the underlying causes. Prevention is infinitely less expensive than the path we are pursuing today.
I’m Peter Dekom, and while this common sense approach may fall on deaf ears in communities that believe “stand your ground laws” are good statutes, if we fail to address these injustices, the hard economic and political costs from this dysfunction will soar to way, way beyond our capacity to pay for it all.

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