Posted by: JDM..... | September 5, 2016

Public servants have a choice…

They can lead, or the people will ….

Law enforcement officers have many tools at their disposal for the wide variety of situations they may find themselves in at any given time. Some of those situations may be dangerous or life threatening, some are not, but all must be approached with an awareness of that potential. While keeping in mind that various representatives of the media have their own perspectives and agendas, some incidents that we see on the news clearly show interactions with the public that seem to violate the limits of common sense and necessity. It is difficult to defend pepper spraying an 84 year old woman, or Tasing someone simply because they fail to follow an officer’s orders, which may be yelled in a threatening and traumatizing manner. Certainly, in the science of achieving rapid control of dangerous situations and dangerous people, the “shock and awe” ploy is highly effective and probably saves lives. As a former substance abuse counselor and staff member on a psychiatric unit, I have used the verbal components of the technique myself to distract and gain control. What seems to be missing in those incidents when the behavior of the police tends to raise eyebrows, however, is reasonable restraint on the part of the officers.

I suspect the propensity for the pile on first and assess later approach is due to a combination of culture, training, and the absence of consequences for actions that exceed certain limits that would undoubtedly result in prosecution for a civilian.

Simply reaching for the service weapon or Taser when an addled octogenarian or a non-threatening secondary party fails to “sit-down-turn-around-get-on-the-ground-walk-backwards-show-me-your-hands” in a timely manner is unjustifiable.

Adrenaline is a powerful force, opening a direct line to our most basic and primitive survival instincts. Much has been said about the need for law enforcement personnel to be extraordinarily aware of this and to develop procedures for preventing the phenomenon from affecting behavior in their interactions with both the offending and non offending public. I seriously doubt if any of these officers would Tase one of their own children for failing to obey with military precision. That example is not as ridiculous as it may sound to some. I recall an educational film from my Behavioral Health days that told the story of a Marine officer that was unable to change roles when he was at home and how his demeanor and conduct affected family members and the family as a unit.

When a police officer gets a call and heads for the scene, he or she references a vast mental library of training and experiential learning to pre-assess the situation, and, when arriving on scene, has to reassess and prioritize responses and intervention options. This is, or should be, a major part of the training they receive, and it should be an unending process of regular retraining to keep it fresh. While there are significant differences between a police officer’s job and the ones I did, my experiences on the psychiatric unit and some of those encountered by police officers do share some things in common. Whenever we entered a new space, we consciously assessed the environment and the people in it. This was even more acute when summoned to an incident. Appropriate interventions needed to be second nature to us. However, If I had thrown an unruly or disruptive patient to the ground and repeatedly beaten him or her into submission, I would still be in prison, and rightly so. Yet we hear of such actions by police officers on a regular basis. Some incidents are even captured on video. Departments invariably jump to the defense of officers involved, almost as a matter of normal procedure, and either deliver an empty “We’re looking into it,” or state that the officers were justified in their actions. Horse manure. If anything, police officers should be held to a higher standard, not given a pass.

How do we change this? By “we” I really mean you, me, and every other concerned person in any given community. We need to be aware, observe, ask questions, participate in local meetings or government, and insist on the establishment of appropriate standards along with review and response procedures for incidents where those standards are not met or are violated. Training often hits the cutting room floor when budget time rolls around. This must be assessed and corrected. When one is dealing with human lives, training is indispensible.

I once was a trainer of intervention techniques at the hospital where I worked, a member of the team who not only were first responders, but who strived to ensure that any staff member who had direct contact with patients or visitors was properly trained in the arts of de-escalation, communication, redirection, and effective but appropriate physical restraint techniques when needed. I dare say I have observed news clips and selected videos on line where subjects I would have tried to deescalate, and probably could have done so, were Tased, beaten, or even shot. No unarmed person who is not clearly presenting a threat of immediate lethality should ever be subjected to lethal force. Ever. Gaining obedience or compliance should never be held as justification for hitting, either with a closed fist or an implement such as a service baton, throwing to the ground, Tasing, pointing a service weapon at, or even shooting, a subject by a police officer. Vigorous, redundant training in making split second differentiation between whether a person is holding a cell phone or a gun should be a matter of course. Perhaps it is already. If so, do it more.

Are there times when a subject wielding a knife can be justifiably shot? Sure. If the subject has physical control of another person and an assault is believed to be imminent, I would be inclined to shoot the knife wielder. If the knife wielder was within reach or striking distance of another person and I believed the person to be in immediate threat of harm, I would be inclined to shoot the knife wielder. The preferred tool for intervening with someone wielding a knife, stick, or some other non-firearm weapon should almost always be a Taser or other non-lethal weapon.

CULTURE

In recent years, especially since the events of September 11, 2001, non-federal law enforcement interests have been progressively militarized. This is a mistake. Even during the violence of the sixties, police forces were generally armed and uniformed like traditional police officers, and when responses of a military nature were deemed necessary, National Guard units were activated in their respective states.

For the past twenty years or so, we have had a constant stream of combat veterans returning home to civilian life, and police work is an easy segue for many of them. They are well trained, experienced in handling dangerous situations, and combat experience today tends to earn a kind of lay beatification. One should not interpret my words as suggesting I don’t support our military. My extended family is full of retired career military personnel, my daughter is a veteran of Desert Shield-Desert Storm, and my son-in-law is on active duty with nearly 25 years in. More than combat readiness is required by a local police officer, however, and in fact should be a secondary skill for when nothing else works. And if the returning soldier carries any unaddressed, lingering effects from being in a combat area, they might not be ready to work in a field where they could easily be “triggered”.

I have an abiding respect for police officers and others in public service who risk their own safety for the well being of others. That doesn’t mean I condone the bad apples, overlook the shortcomings in some departments, or wear one of those “My country Right or Wrong” hats. It is in the best interests of our country and our local communities to deal with problems when they arise, not to cover them up because they are unpleasant or may require “politically incorrect” statements and actions. I’m not afraid to call things as I see them.

People wonder why the police in troublesome areas have such negative relationships with the local citizens. They shouldn’t. They need only observe the equipment readily available and often used in some areas. They need only observe and understand the culture and battlefield mentality that dominates so many men and women whose job description is a bit of an Orwellian “Newspeak” version of “Peace Officer”. The iconic “Officer Clancey” is a myth of questionable validity from the distant past.

This needs to change. It won’t change by increasing the violence and “Storm Trooper” methodology. It will begin to change when law enforcement blinks first and opens the door to reestablishing a civilian relationship with local populations. The police must lead, and it is up to the rest of us to lead them in turn.

This will be no easy task as the entire nation has taken on a decidedly military demeanor since 911. Government has become more centralized, more warlike, and more prescriptive in its dealings with the citizenry. We have a President who prefers to “rule” by Executive Order rather than “lead” through traditional statesmanship. We have a do-nothing Congress more interested in maintaining their seats for life and, apparently, extending their power, than in taking the risk to do what they were elected to do.

We have work to do, you and I. The year 1776 came and went a very long time ago, but I hope the spirit that drove it is alive and preparing to come out of hibernation, view its surroundings, inhale and assess the air, and………

 

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