The Crisis In Law Enforcement: Part II

This is the follow-up post to The Crisis in Law Enforcement: Part I.

Because of my 35-year career as a sworn, gun-toting, member of the Los Angeles Police Department, I am often accosted by friends and acquaintances demanding explanations for the recent flood of police abuses across the country. Many of these inquiries are genuine. However, the aggressive tone of many others clearly shows the questioners have already judged me as complicit in these events -- guilty by association. While I am not privy to any insider information regarding these events, I do have the experience to provide a different perspective on the current crisis in law enforcement from the inside.

Law enforcement nationwide is currently in crisis. I believe much of this crisis is caused by a failure of leadership, a failure of training, a failure to address the issues regarding the homeless and the mentally ill, and a failure to understand the changing needs of the public, which law enforcement is supposed to protect and serve. Law enforcement, at its best, should reflect the concerns and desires of society. When these things are out of balance, tragedy always follows.

The law enforcement/public misconnect begins with the basic academy training philosophy. Law enforcement recruits are taught how to shoot guns, how to drive in pursuits, self-defense, and just enough of the Penal Code to get themselves in trouble. While all of these things are essential there is a significant oversight -- recruits are not trained how to talk to people. Communicating with the public comprises the overwhelming majority of what will be required of officers once they are on the streets. When communication and conflict resolution training are superseded by use of force and traffic accident avoidance, the shortfall leads to many of the tragedies we are faced with today. This isn't to say officer safety issues should not be tantamount, they should, but there must be a balance.

Furthermore, continued in-service training has fallen into the political kneejerk of training by litigation. Often, wanting to show a hardline response to getting sued, too many departments fall back on training programs that tell officers what they are doing wrong, but provide little in how to avoid the situations in the future. Officers are mandated to attend such training, which usually consists of two hours of specifics stretched out over eight hours to meet arbitrary standards.

There is also a distinct disconnect between the two ends of the political landscape charged with administrating city policies and response. One faction is driven by fear of crime and anarchy. To them, a police department is to be wielded as a militarized weapon of oppression -- a force designed to stamp out crime and civil disobedience not only when it occurs, but before it occurs.

The other faction is driven by guilt, wishing to give no offense to anyone. To them, the police are an antagonistic force which must be kept in its place. Political correctness is their top priority. This results in mandates such as those faced by Welfare Fraud investigators who are no longer able to interview those who are suspected of fraud let alone interrogate them. Instead, these investigators -- most often working alone in some of the most dangerous parts of the city -- are allowed only to have conversations with those they suspect of criminal activity.

Neither of these approaches is correct nor do they even display an ounce of common sense. However, the constant flow of mixed messages driven alternately by political fear or guilt has a direct effect on police personnel coming under criticism for finding themselves caught in the middle.

Every year brings another increase in the daily incidents of police officers being called to deal with disrespectful, non-compliant and combative people. These individuals are often homeless or mentally ill -- living on the streets rather than facilities where help can be provided. Funding for the assistance of individuals in these circumstances has declined dramatically over the years. While cities and the leaders of their associated police departments recognize this problem, solutions are expensive and therefore minimally available. Meanwhile, the officer on the street is left without support to contend with issues beyond their control.

Police officers are expected to make every effort to diffuse volatile situations using non-lethal force. However, when resistance occurs, officers are also expected to take actions to protect the public and themselves.

At present, there is little consequence for belligerent behavior toward the police and other members of the public. The lack of penalties in these situations has made criminals bolder and less concerned about their actions. Challenging authority becomes a badge of misguided respect. This trend has led the crime rate in big cities to rise significantly for the first time in decades.

Some of the rise in crime is also due to new laws and policies designed to lower crowding in prisons and jails. While a laudable effort, the forcible lowering of prison crowding by any means necessary has far reaching consequences -- particularly on front line law enforcement. The flood of criminals returning to the streets have been provided with no alternative life skills, so most have little choice but to return to crime and future incarceration.

The LAPD has set a fine example of maintaining a workforce that almost exactly matches the racial and gender percentages of the populace in their city. This did not come without hardships, internal strife, or confrontations. I experienced the struggle first hand, but the department kept forging ahead toward a fully balanced labor structure in both rank and file. Many other departments should be looking toward this example. Continuing to ignore the need for a personnel balance to approximate the diversity of the residents a police department serves, will make most other problems impossible to resolve. When a police force is 95 percent white and the citizens in your jurisdiction are 95 percent Black, confrontation, tragic incidents and civil unrest are never far below the surface.

On another front, yearly police PFQs -- Physical Fitness Qualifications -- were abandoned years ago. Without them, there is no standard of fitness to enable officers to handle difficult situations where batons and guns might not be the only answer. With physical fitness there is often a corresponding mental fitness and confidence, from which both police and public would benefit. Police unions and protective leagues shoulder some of the responsibility for the disappearance of law enforcement PFQs. Perhaps it is time to reassess this procedure.

There is an oft quoted line of bumper sticker wisdom stating, never bring a knife to a gunfight. In reality, you shouldn't bring a gun to a gunfight either... you should bring a superior weapon. Times have changed from the days of Dragnet and Adam 12. So too have criminals. In this day of body-armored, heavily weaponized bank robbers, unpredictable and murderous active shooters, and heinous terrorist conflagrations, law enforcement can no longer respond with the six shot Smith and Wesson .38 and basic shotguns issued to officers when I came on the job in 1977.

The militarization of law enforcement is a difficult and pressing issue. Is a police department part of the community or an occupying force? The dichotomy between these two extremes is sometimes very fine. When does the firepower and armored military-style vehicles issued to law enforcement become too much? On the other hand, can it ever be too much -- do we want the officers who protect us to be placed in deadly danger because they have been given a switchblade comb to confront a criminal entity armed to the teeth with massive firepower? If those charged with protecting us fall in the line of duty, how will we then protect ourselves?

I am very much a supporter and an admirer of LAPD's Metropolitan Division SWAT teams. They are the best in the world at what they do. Their personnel are outstanding, dedicated individuals who constantly strive to be the best they can. Their training is state-of-the-art and the resulting execution of their dangerous duties is at the highest level of competency and success. They have saved uncountable lives. They diffuse volatile situations daily. They do this almost always without firing a shot, yet on the rare occasions deadly force is required, they get routinely second guessed by the media and politicians who have referred to them in the past as jack-booted LAPD thugs.

Despite this mislabeling of some of the most dedicated officers in the LAPD and other similar units across the nation, the questions remain... To whom is a city going to turn when under major deadly threat? Do they want that entity to be efficient and correctly armed to get the job done as quickly and safely as possible so everyone can go home at night?

Is the militarization of the police a problem? It is if it is accompanied by a militarized attitude. Seals, Rangers, Special Forces and the other entities who operated at the highest level of the military services are trained to kill and destroy the enemy. That is their mandate. It is the job they are expected to do. The goal of law enforcement is not to kill and destroy. It is to protect and serve.

While giving police departments the weapons and vehicles needed to do their job in today's environment, there also has to be an accompanying emphasis on the goal and mindset behind the use of these tools -- to protect and serve, not kill and destroy. This is an ongoing issue that will need cool and objective assessments to resolve.

The crisis in law enforcement is further fueled by the routinely ignored, invisible, collective condition of undiagnosed PTSD, which is spreading like a virus throughout police culture. It is the elephant in the room nobody wants to acknowledge or address. The them versus us mentality, seemingly bred into law enforcement, slowly rots the core of the altruistic ideals most law enforcement personnel sought to uphold when they began their careers. While some psychological help is available, the stigma associated with it stops many from seeking assistance. This problem is growing and, I believe, becoming a more significant issue in the current poorly -- often disastrously -- handled confrontations between the police and the public.

However, none of the above documented reasons are an excuse for unjustified force, profiling, or misconduct on the part of those who wear the badge.

Let's take a moment to examine that last sentence... Isn't it phrased in such a way as to soften those things the first part of the sentence claims not to excuse?

What if it read: However, none of the above documented reasons are an excuse for blatant brutality, racism,or the intentional murder of American citizens?

There is a big difference between the two approaches. Neither is a correct assessment. As with most things, truth lies somewhere in the middle.

To initiate effective public dialogue, we must develop a willingness to listen openly instead of ranting too loudly to hear anything but our own voice. We must refuse to be diverted by those with violent, self-aggrandizing, political agendas.

To be clear, the great majority of those in the media and public service seek to do their job properly and effectively -- as do the great majority of law enforcement personnel. But, we must also be consciously aware of not allowing opinions on both sides of the issues to be shaded by the manipulations of those interested only in inflaming situations in the name of ratings or who revel in anarchy.

If we do not find a way to stand together, to work together, and to talk to one another, we will continue to spiral down as a society -- and unethical, violent, soul damaging, clashes will continue to contribute to the destruction of the larger humanity.