by Michael Wamback
From Ferguson to Venice, police abuse of power has been a hot topic. We get upset about it, and rightly so. But where does it come from, and what can we do about it?
The history of police abuse of power goes back to the beginning of time. To me, it’s a fanatical fundamental manifestation of the ideal of good intent. Most Police don’t necessarily abuse their power for pleasure or because they are “bad people”. Rather many are “good people” who have convinced themselves that the ends of protecting their community justifies the means of abusing citizens. This is a philosophical and moral weakness that is a part of who many of us are. America, at the end of the day, is an egocentric society. And intolerant leadership like Donald Trump exhibits can only make it worse.
Other human emotions enter into the equation as well. Police, at the end of the day, are human beings not robots. As such, they are subject to the same emotional weaknesses that we all share. The only difference is that when most of us are experiencing the powerful emotions of fear or anger, we thankfully are not holding a baton or gun. In confrontational situations, adrenalin magnifies these emotions substantially.
And, of course, there is concern about the effects of drug abuse, particularly steroids.
So, to me, the first step in solving the problem of police brutality is recognizing these truths, and attacking them with leadership.
First, it comes down to making sure your are screening your candidates to weed out those who are weak. Having gone through military training, the purpose of it was to identify individuals who were likely to break under the pressure of battle. Better to have them fail the training before you handed them a loaded gun. It was all about how you would react under intense pressure – keeping your cool.
Any perspective candidate for law enforcement should go through a rigorous process of examination to make sure only those with the very best composure and self-discipline get to wear a badge.
Following this, there has to be leadership at the top. Police chiefs have to make it clear that abuse of power won’t be tolerated. Unfortunately, this seems to be where our current system is breaking down.
What we tend to witness when an officer violates his training is police circling the wagons. This not only protects officers who commit abuse, but it also sends a message that the brass agrees with their tactics. Furthermore, when police protect their own for the same acts they prosecute civilians for, it’s understandable that it sows the seeds of scorn and mistrust. None of us like double standards.
Added to this is peer pressure, where cops are expected to always have each others backs, no matter what. This can create an environment where those who tend to abuse power feel protected and even endorsed. That puts all of us at risk.
All of these conditions demand leadership.
The police brass must make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that abuse of power will not be tolerated. They must create an atmosphere where officers who witness their fellow cops abusing their power feel compelled to speak up, rather than defend them. The good men and women of a healthy police department should feel proud of their uniform, and have nothing but contempt for their colleagues who would disgrace it by abusing their powers.
The Democratic candidates have spoken about the need to demilitarize the police, and I agree. When I was a kid, I remember the Vancouver Canucks (hockey team) wearing horrible yellow uniforms with a big V. At the time, the team was near the bottom of the league. During intermission, the host asked Don Cherry (the colorful ex-coach of the Bruins) why they were playing so bad? “What do you expect, you dress them like clowns and they play like clowns.”
I believe this holds true for police. You dress them like an invading army and they start to act like an invading army. So a good step would be to rethink uniforms to emphasis non-aggression rather than intimidation.
Police training also needs to be rethought. Emphasis must be placed on deescalation rather than the deployment of weapons, even if that means taking a lot of time and patience to wait someone out.
Cops need help too.
To be sure, police work is stressful, and all police need emotional support. They spend years dealing with violence and the kinds of things none of us should ever have to witness. The stress from this adds up over time. In some cases, it may make an officer more callous in their attitude toward society. In extreme cases, an officer may be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress.
Police should undergo regular mandatory screening for mental health, including regular counseling sessions. It’s not weakness to receive support, and it will allow departments to have a better chance to detect officers who are in need of help before they pull a trigger out of anger or frustration. Making counseling mandatory would take away some of the stigma of “being weak.” by asking for help. Early identification of mental issues with treatment might save a career of an officer, not to mention a citizen’s life, rather than having both end tragically.
These are all cultural shifts that can easily be implemented within departments, and which I believe would make a difference.
Of course, mandatory drug screening can eliminate the risk of steroids. It concerns me that Police Unions have chosen to fight this initiative when departments have considered it. Makes me wonder how big the steroid problem is in law enforcement? Clearly, with such strenuous objections to random drug testing, many police officers must have something to hide. After all, this is the presumption they make on a daily basis about individuals who refuse to answer questions or give consent to search.
But even then, things will go wrong. Then what happens?
Jerry Brown has taken some good first steps, the biggest of which is to make it clear that it is lawful to videotape police, provided that you are in a public space and not interfering with them. Mandatory body cameras are also effective (abuse complaints drop considerably when they are employed). And officers should face sever discipline whenever they turn off a camera and force is used. It’s the best way to protect citizens from police abuse, as well as police officers themselves from false allegations.
His second bill removes the option of a Grand Jury inquisition in police misconduct cases. This is important for creating transparency. Any aura of secrecy can only heighten mistrust of police, and ensuring open public trials is a good step.
Unlike California, some States have opted to go in the opposite direction. They have passed laws to make it a felony to video police performing their duties. This is unwise, unfortunate and can only result in more tragedy.
There is also a history of officers with disciplinary problems being fired from one department and hired the next town over. This can easily be corrected by a federal licensing requirement. An officer who is dismissed for abuse of force would necessarily lose their federal license, and not be eligible to be hired in a similar capacity by any other department in the nation.
There are legitimate concerns about police policing themselves, It’s a classic example of conflict of interest. The same holds true for Mayors and District Attorneys. They have to work with their police departments, so many Mayors and DA’s feel a lot of pressure to not take a position contrary to police.
Police Commissions also offer little relief. These are commissions established from members of the public to oversee police activities. History has proven that they lose effectiveness over time. By working closely with police in an ongoing basis, they develop relationships with the officers and intend to lose objectivity to the point of being ineffective in administering justice.
The best way to investigate police misconduct is with a State or Federal special prosecutor. Operating under the Department of Justice, they should have no other interaction with police other than the investigation and prosecution of police misconduct. Every use of force complaint should be reviewed by them, and they should automatically take over any investigation where police use deadly force. By having no other relationship to the departments, they will be able to maintain greater objectivity. They need to be trained to understand the importance of their mission, both ethically and morally. Being removed from local civil politics, they wouldn’t face the same pressure that police chiefs and mayors do.
No system will ever be perfect, and things will tragically go wrong from time to time. But I believe there are some basic common sense steps that can make a big difference.
In the end, our society needs its police. Law of the jungle, in the times I have experienced it, leads inevitably to anarchy and misery. It would be great if, as a society, we were evolved enough that we could self-police, but we are not there yet. So sensible laws and professional law enforcement is necessary and desirable to maintain civil peace. We owe it to our officers to make sure that they have systems in place that will not place them at odds with society. Solving the problem of police abuse of force requires intelligent systems, quality leadership, understanding, humility and compassion on the part of police, as well as ourselves. Otherwise, we are setting our police up to fail, which is unfair to them, and tragic for us.
Resentment and animosity of citizens toward police, combined with an attitude of police who see themselves as above the law while enforcing it will only further drive a wedge between both. More of us will suffer as a consequence. It doesn’t have to be this way. Ending police brutality starts with not seeing each-other as the enemy, acknowledging the problem and working together to find meaningful solutions.