Unteaching Cops: Easier To Say Than Do

Chuck Wexler has been trying. As Executive Director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a membership group for the heads of police departments of 100 officers or more, he’s trying to come up with ways to stem the hostility and bloodshed. It’s not an easy gig.

In a New York Times op-ed, Wexler, together with Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson, president of the group, walked the fine line.

POLICE sergeants routinely tell their officers that their most important job is to make it home safely. And it is no wonder why they dispense this advice. With an estimated 350 million firearms in the United States, officers daily face the threat of gun violence, making this country far more dangerous for the police than countries with tight controls on guns.

Last Saturday’s shooting of Ashley Guindon, a police officer in Prince William County in Virginia, is a reminder of how dangerous policing can be. She was shot dead while responding to a domestic violence call on her first day on patrol.

Not exactly the deepest thoughts on the subject. There is no correlation between the number of guns and the daily “threat of gun violence,” any more than there is a correlation between the number of cars and how many cops get run over. Nor does the bizarre happenstance of Ashley Guindon’s killing prove “how dangerous policing can be.” One data point proves nothing.

But playing on illogic, coupled with emotion, has long been the calling card of any discussion about police conduct. And so, Wexler opens with a pro-cop tummy rub, acknowledgement of the First Rule of Policing. Because he walks a fine line, and can’t afford to start out by alienating police, his bread and butter.

Unfortunately, this sense of ever-present danger has shaped police training, tactics and culture in ways that can lead to responses that are neither proportional nor necessary in situations that don’t involve guns. We need to rethink our tactics in such circumstances.

This is where the pivot begins. Not a full pivot, as it only speaks to situations that don’t involve guns.  This suggests that anyone with a gun deserves to get killed. Cops hate guns. Your guns. Not their guns. You have a Second Amendment right to bear arms? They hate that. They don’t know if you’re a law-abiding citizen or a threat to their safety, and they really don’t want to find out.

I bet Wexler’s heard about this Second Amendment thing, but he just sold it down the river playing to the anti-gun crowd. On the bright side, he offers an olive branch to people with knives.

Perhaps the best example is the so-called 21-foot rule. In many police departments, officers are trained to be prepared to shoot if they are within 21 feet of someone with a knife. This can lead to what’s known among the police as a “lawful but awful” response.

This is because the legal standard used in police shootings allows prosecutors and grand juries to conclude that although an officer’s shooting of a suspect may be questionable, it isn’t criminal.

That he called the Tueller Drill a “so-called rule” is appreciated, though the gap between “prepared to shoot” and shooting is the difference between life and death.  And using it as a lead-in to the cutesy “lawful but awful” phrase is nothing but a false excuse, which he seeks to back up with a horribly poor and shallow explanation of the law, he then comes to the other side of his op-ed.

The key for the police in such circumstances is to slow things down: to ask questions rather than bark orders, to speak in a normal tone, to summon additional resources if necessary. Pulling out a gun on an anxious person may unintentionally raise his level of stress. In “suicide by cop” confrontations, this can make a bad situation worse.

We found that this approach works — not only in Britain, where police officials say it has increased the safety of officers and the public, but also in places like New York City and in Camden, N.J.

New York City? Where police violence and misconduct remain rampant? The New York City where Akai Gurley was shot dead by a cop with a gun out for no particular reason, where Eric Garner was strangled in the street? But maybe it’s working in Camden?

In November, Camden County police officers responded to a man on the street with a knife. Rather than rushing toward him and putting themselves in a position where they had to use deadly force, the officers followed the suspect down the street, kept at a distance and arrested him when he dropped the knife. No shots were fired and no one was injured.

Oh cool. One time in Camden the cops didn’t kill someone. Too bad that wasn’t Freddy Baez, who ended up dead. Or Oscar Camacho, who ended up dead too. But Wexler finally gets to his call to action:

Toward that end, the country’s 18,000 police departments need to rethink their strategies for responding to situations that do not involve guns. In short, the use of force must be proportional to the threat. Officers should focus on calming volatile situations. They must intervene if they see colleagues using excessive force. First aid must be rendered promptly. Shooting at vehicles should be prohibited.

The language here is fascinating. They “need” to? They “must”?  Are these supposed to be new or controversial ideas?  Did we really need an organization to come up with the notion that cops should “focus on calming volatile situations,” or they “must intervene if they see colleagues using excessive force”?  How about telling the truth after they see a cop murder someone?

But the “need” to and “must” aren’t the problem. It’s how these insufferably obvious things can e made to happen in the face of absolute intransigence by cops.

If officers are properly trained and equipped, they and the people they encounter can walk away unharmed from many situations that now end in police shootings. In the end, police policies and training must be centered on the sanctity of all human life.

So training and equipment is the solution? The Police Executive Research Forum has been around since 1981. How’s that training thing working for you? What training, exactly, does it take to teach cops not to fear blacks enough to pre-emptively kill them, just in case?

Except this is all nonsense.  This superficial apologia was published in the Times. It wasn’t there to convince cops to stop killing, but for public consumption. This is, at best, part of the spin of police reform that they’re trying to sell to teary-eyed fools, that it’s such a hard job, that cop lives matter too, and we should work together and not hate them for murdering people in the streets like dogs.

If Wexler wanted to prevent cop violence, he would have published this in PoliceOne, where cops would read it. Instead, it’s in the Times, where it’s nothing more than manipulative spin designed to further the faux reform movement and smooth over the public’s belated recognition that police are needlessly killing people. See? We’re working on it. Trust us to fix it. We’re with you.

And it’s awfully damned nice of the New York Times to give Wexler its soapbox to sell us the cop excuses.


4 thoughts on “Unteaching Cops: Easier To Say Than Do

  1. RollieB

    Wexler is a main character in the Kabuki Theater that is police reform from the inside. I believe it will take continued pressure from those outside the Blue Coral to establish truly reasonable law enforcement. SJ is one of the few voices opening the curtain and exposing all the spinning BS. For once I agree wholeheartedly.

  2. RollieB

    I’m sure it’s zero. There may even be some distain involved… that’s OK, I still find many of your opinions giving me pause and requiring realignment on my part, or clarification, occasionally agreement. I read your blog for my edification… you need none. Pax!

    1. SHG Post author

      So about that reply button, unless, of course, your every comment is new thread worthy and I’m just to slow to appreciate it? And no disdain.

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