Protest to action for law enforcement reform

posted by Jeff | Monday, June 22, 2020, 6:00 PM | comments: 0

The protests are becoming more regional, but it's definitely time to start turning that protest into action. In the United States, these issues are fundamentally changed at the local level. Yes, we need to get the racist fascist out of the White House, but the most immediate and impactful change has to happen in the municipalities and counties where we live. That's how the system is wired.

My first two professional jobs after college were working for two different suburban municipalities, specifically in the cable TV departments. In those jobs, I had the pleasure to work with the police chiefs of both cities in creating programs that acted as a communications bridge between those departments and the communities. This was in the mid-90's, over 20 years ago. I had the opportunity to ride with officers, be there for briefings, and talk endlessly with everyone from the chief on down. There are some stand outs from those conversations.

I asked one of the 20-year veterans of the department if at the time he had ever drawn his gun. He said it was just once, and even then he did not point it at anyone. The particular case was a domestic abuse call, and there was uncertainty about the suspect's state of mind as they approached the house. His commentary seems strange in current times: "It's not like TV, we don't go into every scene with our gun aimed. That's not what our training requires."

About the same time, one of the departments was granted a military surplus armored vehicle from the feds. The chief was excited to get it, but uncertain about when it would ever be practically used. I remember he said, "I guess if the SWAT team needs to drive it into a bank?"

Before I left that job in 1999, I participated in a SWAT training exercise, recording the entry and search of a training structure. Yes, I was in a concrete block room by myself when they tossed a flash-bang into the room, and this is not something that you forget. I had my ears fully covered, and it was still unlike anything that I had ever heard. Even more strange, it felt like someone punched me in the chest. It didn't knock the wind out of me, but I did feel it. I followed them after they breached the door as they searched the rooms, rifles and tactical gear in hand. It was a weird exercise without any "bad guys" to find, but it sure was intimidating.

I learned that there were policies for everything, and officers were certified to know them. There were third party accrediting agencies that depended on the force understanding the policies. The training was all about de-escalating every situation, and again, avoiding having any reason to pull that gun out of the holster. These were not people at war, they were people intent on keeping the peace. So imagine my surprise when I learned about this Dave Grossman guy who has built a popular consultancy around teaching officers how to be ready to kill people. That's insane. Police killed in the line of duty has generally trended down continuously since the 70's, while people killed by police has gradually been trending up for the last 20 years, disproportionately affecting minorities.

Something obviously changed, and in the last month we've seen a number of explanations, and they all need to be discussed and addressed:

  • The militarization of police: Weapons of war are on the street, literally including armored vehicles.
  • Changes in training. This one definitely stands out to me, having seen it up close 20 years ago. Shooting an unarmed man in the back running away can't possibly be acceptable in any situation.
  • Institutional racism. Minneapolis seems to have one of the worse records, but it's undeniable, and they're not alone.
  • Law enforcement as the hammer, where all things are nails. People who are mentally ill, addicted to drugs, homeless... are police really the professionals who should be the front lines for these problems?
  • The unions. Back in the day, the unions were there to demand fair pay and safe equipment, now they negotiate for reduced accountability.
  • Accountability. We've seen documented acts of brutality with no resulting discipline, and seen cops fired for doing the right thing. That must change.

I don't want to hear about the "bad apples" argument. Some professions don't have room for "bad apples," like pilots or doctors, or people we trust with deadly weapons on the streets of America.

Each of these issues require change at the local level. If you have elected police chiefs or sheriffs, find out where they stand. If not, see where your mayor and council folk stand. What are they doing today? Go to meetings, call them out and get their positions. These issues require local civic engagement, and that's more than a like and share on Facebook. If your local officials haven't already started to outline a path for change, demand it.

It's OK to be angry, but get to know the system. Get to know why it's broken. Being the loudest voice has a place, but getting the change you want requires civic engagement with the people who make the laws and policies. If they don't deliver, that's when you vote them out. And remember, at the local level, the barrier to entry for elected official is far lower. The next person in that seat could be you.


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