It shouldn’t take a tragedy to bring attention to local police policies on the use of lethal force, but it does. The premise of this post is not to argue that community members bear the burden of preventing police misconduct, but that members of the community do have an obligation as citizens to exercise informed oversight of police policies and procedures.
Telling community leaders and other citizens to take yet more time to research and review police practices is relatively easy. And, as mentioned in a previous post, getting familiar with the mission statement publicized by most police departments is as good a place to start as any. Once beyond reading the mission statement, and evaluating it in terms of how it might inform policies regarding the use of lethal force and other controversial items, there are some other questions citizens might raise with members of county commissions, city councils, and boards.
#1. How many of the officers in leadership positions received their initial training prior to 1985? Yes, that’s 29 years ago, but it’s still relevant. Here’s why. Before the Supreme Court decision in Tennessee v. Garner (1985) a majority of states had a “any felony” policy. Police were authorized in most jurisdictions to use any force necessary, lethal included, to effect an arrest for any felonious behavior. Justice White’s opinion place restrictions on this policy stating:
“Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force. Thus, if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm, deadly force may be used if necessary to prevent escape,…”[FindLaw]
In other words, after 1985 there must be a reasonable expectation that the suspect poses a serious threat of physical harm to the officers or others, or has already caused serious harm to others.
Training programs are drafted and administered by senior law enforcement officers, and it’s not unusual to have senior officers conduct the training and perform the administrative reviews of incidents involving the use of force. If the law enforcement agency has an in-service training program emphasizing how seriously the department takes such incidents, and how carefully it will conduct reviews of the use of force, then problems associated with the holdover effect of pre-1985 attitudes can be mitigated.
It’s probably safe to assert that in any institution composed of human beings there will be those who cling to the attitudes of the Good Old Days When…. However, in terms of the unlimited use of lethal force and other controversial practices, those good old days are over and have been for the last 29 years. In the mean time care should have been taken to erase some of the attitudes associated with those not-so-good days. Has the in-service training program addressed the upgrading of current information and re-training for senior officers? There’s been much palaver about Police Culture, but if questions aren’t raised about the contributors to an unproductive culture then we’d ought not be surprised when the answers don’t please us. This leads to the second question.
#2. How much emphasis does the law enforcement agency place on training in community relations? The Nevada Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training has a 16 week training curriculum for category I cadets. Performance Skills consume about 291 hours. Patrol Operations and Investigations take up 165 hours. Law and Legal Procedures average 83.5 hours, Administration and Examinations average 72.5 hours, and Functions of a Peace Officer average 67 hours. Nevada’s curriculum description (pdf) requires POST trained officers pass a written examination (70%) on the following topics:
“(1) Define “traditional/incident-driven policing,” “community-oriented policing (COP),” “problem-oriented policing (POP), “CompStat” and “Intelligence Led Policing (ILP) (2) Identify the four steps of the S.A.R.A. problem-solving model (3) Identify the differences between the traditional aspects of policing and community-oriented policing (4) List the six most important groups with which to partner.”
What we know is that a Nevada POST graduate will be able to score at least 70% on a written examination regarding these models of police work. What we don’t know is how effective the law enforcement agency which hires the young recruit will be at helping the new officer reach out to those six (at least) most important groups. Do we know the proportionality of in-service training programs? Do we know, for example, the relative amount of time expended on physical or fire arms training when compared to in-service education on public and community relations? And thus, our third question.
#3. Does the local police department or sheriff’s office have a formalized way to interact with elements of the community? The Las Vegas MPD has a Multi-Cultural Advisory Committee which meets monthly. The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office has a Community Relations Section. In an ideal world, with adequate funding and resources, a law enforcement agency would have an advisory committee enhanced by a structured way to get recommendations from the committee to all levels of the law enforcement agency in a timely fashion. A reasonable question to ask of city or county officials is what systems are in place to regularly gather information and opinions from the public at large, and minority populations in particular, which will help officers engage with the community more positively? And, then follow up the initial inquiry with a second one — How is this system evaluated, and how often? The next question concerns whether the system works.
#4. How does the local law enforcement agency process, evaluate, and resolve issues between personnel and members of the public? Larger law enforcement agencies have formalized procedures for processing complaints, and IADs for investigating the validity of the allegations. Even the best organizations will receive complaints, and this is all the more reason for the agency to have a written complaint response policy. The Washoe County Sheriff’s office has an Office of Public Integrity for this purpose. The LVMPD has a Citizen Review Board. Before lamenting the lack of citizen complaint resolution, check to see if your local law enforcement agency has a formalized complaint resolution process, who’s in charge of it, and how often is is evaluated?
Drilling down to an obvious source of complaints, such as abuse of authority, misconduct, or downright brutality, can we evaluate community relations by the numbers?
#5. What measures have been taken by the local law enforcement agency to maximize communication with the community? However important it may be — and it is — to have a police department which looks like the community at large, it’s equally important to have a department which knows how to communicate with that public. Does the agency recruiting and retention process encourage members of minority groups to seek employment with the department? How is this evaluated? And, how often? The how is important, but so is the when.
Another line of inquiry in this regard concerns when officers have an opportunity to interact with the public. Are officers isolated in vehicles during their shifts, and accessible to the public only in presentation, ride along, or safety presentations? How and in what circumstances does the department encourage interactions? Traveling down this thread a step further: When is the leadership of the department available to the public? In organized public forums? In press conferences? In periodic site inspections? All of the above?
Public officials should be not only able but willing to answer these, and other, questions for members of the public. Being a law enforcement officer is one of the toughest jobs in the country, and one of the most dangerous. A complementary effort on the part of both the agencies and the public should help those POST graduates perform to the best of their abilities, and provide regularly evaluated systems, structures, and practices which are conducive to good community relations.