Thursday, July 7, 2016

Police Thyself

The last couple of days have given Americans stark and horrifying reminders of the nexus of problems surrounding race, police brutality, and gun culture. Others have written with more force and eloquence about the issue of racism in law enforcement. I defer to them.

Instead, I'd like to focus on what might be done to transform police departments around the country. Cops have struggled with racism for a long time, and on top of that increasingly have become militarized over the last 30 years.

Today, as President Obama discussed the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, he pointed out that two years ago (in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown) his administration created a task force charged with drafting and implementing recommendations to improve the quality of policing. Honestly, I didn't remember this chapter of the story. So I looked them up. After reviewing the recommendations, I thought, well, implementing these would solve some problems, and would be a great way to improve public relations. But I also thought: what would it take to not simply fix some issues at the margins, but really transform policing into an ideal?

First, some disclaimers: I'm not a law enforcement expert. I know that there are good cops -- I've interacted with many. I'll add also that the problems so appallingly on display this week are systemic and structural in nature, and not necessarily caused by specific individuals. I know that a lot of communities are working on this topic already. I am just trying to make sense of what happened this week, and brainstorm on what else might be done.

Here is a list of principles that I'd add in order to shape the debate about what can and should be done to radically re-think and re-structure the way the hard work of policing gets done.

Profiling Candidates. Data suggests that the psych exam typically screens out only about 5 percent of those tested. That's a good start, but given the current state of policing, there is plenty of room for improvement. Identifying candidates with anger management issues, control fantasies, and white-supremacist views must be made a priority. And typically, contracts to perform psychological evaluations are awarded on a low-bid basis. That is unacceptable. There should be higher standards and a stronger commitment to weeding out those unfit for the job.

Training Recruits. Twelve to fourteen weeks. That's all that is required before a candidate is put on to the street for on-the-job training. This is an astonishingly low bar to clear for what is in reality a very high-skill, high-stress career. I couldn't find anything more current than 2006, but as of then, here is a chart of median hours spent in training. All of the hours listed are shockingly low and should be substantially increased, but I highlighted the areas in need of special attention. For example, eight hours of mediation skills/conflict management? I mean, I consider that to be one of the essential job functions of a police officer. They should spend weeks, or even months on that topic alone. Only 14 hours of domestic violence instruction? Only 4 hours of coursework on hate and bias crimes? Nothing on rape, harassment, and stalking?

Officer Residency. Less than six percent of the officers in the Minneapolis Police Department actually live in Minneapolis. SIX PERCENT. That is not a force with a personal investment in the safety and stability of our community. The national average for large cities is 40%, which is still a little low. I think a residency requirement of 1/2 or even 2/3 of the force is reasonable.

Continuing Education.
 See above.

Accountability. Body cams. Dash cams. Three-hundred sixty degree review of officer-involved shootings. Police should meet a higher standard of conduct for the use of violence, and especially deadly violence, than an average civilian. Stronger sanctions and stiffer sentencing. Independent Prosecution.

This is obviously just a rough cocktail napkin list, but the idea is to start discussion. Police violence is not only a police problem, it is a societal problem. The police are us and we are the police. And it is up to all of us to fix it. It is a long-term problem and requires difficult, expensive, multi-faceted solutions. But apart from health care and education, I can't think of anything I'd rather spend my tax dollars on than the safety and security of all citizens.


David A. Ventimiglia said...

Excellent work, Sammy, and very good suggestions. One question I have is this. Are officers typically put onto the street, perhaps in a car and with a gun, soon after their 13 to 14 week academy training? Or, do they begin as an apprentice who receives light duty, experiences additional training, and is systematically and incrementally rewarded with additional power and responsibility? Do you have any idea, because I don't.

Knight of Nothing said...

DOH! I didn't see your comment until just now. Sorry.

I did look around a bit for the answer to this, but I didn't find a conclusive answer. I suspect that like all police qualifications, it varies widely from state to state, and even between municipalities. Based on what I did find, my guess is that if a candidate meets prerequisites (which can be very minimal, but can also include a 4-year degree), then after this short training period, he becomes a rookie officer and he is paired with a more experienced one.