Five ways to reform policing

“The police of this country apparently cannot rid themselves of a delusion they are invested with judiciary powers and can discipline as well as arrest suspects and accused persons.” — The Los Angeles Herald, 1910

A couple of weeks ago, an uproar mounted in the grocery store parking lot where I was parked. People stood gasping with their cellphones out, recording something. There was a young black man — a teen, perhaps — walking down the street completely naked. Someone shouted “Put some clothes on!” He simply shrugged. I began to imagine the myriad of scenarios that could have him to walk naked through the streets. Did he sneak out of a window because he was with somebody else’s someone? Did someone steal his clothes? Is this a body empowerment thing?

I was wrong on all accounts. A black woman quickly drove up, calling out from her vehicle to “Call the police!” Due to the inaction of the crowd and even some protests about calling the police, she qualified her request. She claimed this young man was a relative of hers. He was mentally ill. He needed help, and calling the police was the best thing for him. Frustrated, she chastised the crowd: “Stop recording him, and call the police! He needs help.”

Anthony Hill, a veteran, was killed by a police officer in 2015 while nude and unarmed. Hill was said to be suffering from mental health issues at the time of his death. Source: AJC.com

This situation alarmed me greatly. I could not safe about calling the police for a young black man with mental health issues. This guy needed protection, not the gawking crowd. But would the police protect him?

I was ruminating… Perhaps this was not the first time this family had enlisted the help of the police? Perhaps local police knew about his mental health issues? Still, wouldn’t it be better if his family member was the one to call? Or, better yet, if there was someone we could call who was trained in mental health issues?

Here in the United States of America, police officers receive extensive training. Yet we cannot feel safe calling the police to aid the most vulnerable? So, what exactly are police being trained in?

The truth is the police are poorly trained to deal with mental health issues — and, as it turns out, their training to deal with the general public is limited. While the majority of police interactions with the public are not physically threatening to the officer, the majority of training for officers is based on potential threats that could result in combat. If officers were trained in de-escalation techniques and other factors more relevant to the average interaction, more tragedies could be prevented on both sides of the badge.

The recent death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd led to a resurgence of campaigns calling for defunding or eliminating police departments altogether. Some argue that this option is unrealistic. Well, here are some realistic options we do have and should implement:

1) Strategic (de)funding of police training

In 2019, Hasan Minhaj made the case to evaluate police training in his show Patriot Act. He points out that police training averages 8 hours in de-escalation practices and 129 hours in weapons and fighting. While the proper use of a weapon is a serious and necessary investment, let us balance this out by divesting some from weaponization and invest in safer policing with:

· Increased conflict mitigation training

· Increased counseling and other self-care resources

· Insight Policing training

· Tactical withdrawal options

· Non-lethal deterrent tools, such as “Tasers”

· Body cameras, dash cams, and other surveillance

· Community engagement programs

· Incentives for justice, rather than punishments for police who speak out

· Mental Health First Aid training

While I do think implicit bias trainings are important, they have been criticized as being hastily assembled and ineffective. Even as some developers and police departments see positive results, bias-prevention programs are not being measured or even taken seriously by some police, as this video shows.

Some officers react defensively to Implicit-Bias training, and resent missing out on more weapons training.

2) Eliminate fear-based training

We already learned police training is composed of more firearms trainings than anything else, so why would the officers in the video complain about losing some weapons time? Do they feel they need it? Are they expecting most of their encounters to require a weapon?

Minhaj also brings up the issue of fear-based trainings, such as “Warrior trainings” given by David Grossman of the Killology Research Center. At one time, these trainings were widely used by the police and military. After it was revealed that Philando Castile’s shooter had attended a training with Grossman, these programs were re-evaluated for possibly encouraging the use of deadly force by police officers.

They turned out to be so controversial that Minneapolis (the site of George Floyd’s recent death) banned these trainings last year. Meanwhile, the police union in Minneapolis reacted by offering them to officers for free. Although I agree that officers should be allowed to participate in additional training on their own time, defunding these kinds of programs at the municipal level is a great first step. As tax payers, we have the right to demand safer trainings. If officers do attend Warrior trainings and other such fear-based trainings on their own time, let it state so on their records.

3) End Qualified Immunity

I would love to see increased accountability for officers and officials committing the same crimes others would be persecuted for, and fines or consequences for departments that are found to violate codes and regulations. Apart from the obvious conflict of interest of law enforcement agents being responsible for one another’s prosecutions, civil suits against officers face an even greater obstacle. Unfortunately, state workers all over the nation are granted something called “qualified immunity.”

Here is a summary of qualified immunity by Jay Schweikert of the CATO Institute:

https://house-fastly-unsigned-us-east-1-prod.brightcovecdn.com/media/v1/pmp4/static/clear/6039378657001/8eef483a-690d-437f-90fd-5b5c5f95ed1e/3173d9f7-df51-4e96-9e89-6e14dc1fbd4e/main.mp4

This is an issue of interest across the political spectrum. For years, organizations like the ACLU, the Project on Immunity and Accountability, the CATO Institute, and the Reason Foundation have been working to revise or abolish this unjust standard set by the Supreme Court in the 1960s, which many see as a bastardization of the original law from 1871. The Supreme Court was already scheduled to review the validity of Qualified Immunity in May of 2020, just days before the unjust death of George Floyd further fueled interest in revising the law. A new bipartisan bill has been announced to end qualified immunity for officers but has been criticized for not applying to all government officials, as the original law does.

4) Improve vetting of police officers

As a psychology major, I learned that people who have psychopathic tendencies are more likely to be attracted to positions of power. Granted, not all people in these industries are psychopathic, but we should expect to find psychopathy within the ranks of police, lawyers, politicians, and other civil servants. Thankfully, most people with this diagnosis are not killers. In fact, the majority are productive members of society who flourish in these roles precisely due to the characteristics displayed in psychopathy, according to psychologist Kevin Dutton.

While psychopathy often means a higher ability to stay calm and perform under pressure (a good characteristic in law enforcement), it can also make learning empathy difficult. Likewise some people with this diagnosis engage in lying, manipulation, and destruction “for the fun of it.” Adding a screening tool that helps to identify low ability to learn empathy before hiring new officers may improve discernment between people with psychopathic tendencies that can be an asset to police forces versus those tendencies that lead to police brutality.

Another factor that makes screening prospective police officers difficult is the shortage of people willing to do this dangerous and thankless job. Would you do it? I would be terrified. Let us bear in mind that the police are public servants. It is a citizen’s duty to ensure that they are doing what is best for the public and to create scenarios where they feel safe to do their job. Perhaps changing the relationship between the police and the community will open the doors for more people to feel safe stepping into this type of public service.

5) Implement these alternatives & complements to municipal policing:

· Community policing programs, such as Cease Fire and Reclaim the Block

· Citizen patrols, National Neighborhood Watch and Crime Watch programs, and Neighborhood apps (when corrections are made for implicit bias)

· Independent Citizen Performance Reviews of police departments

· Mental Health Response Teams (for mental health emergencies)

· Anonymous Reporting hotlines (for reporting sexual assault, human trafficking, overdoses, etc.)

· Consequences for calling 911 for non-emergency situations

· Educational programs that encourage alternatives to criminal activity and provide resources and opportunities for fiscal success

· Support groups for people affected by violence

· Free personal development classes in parenting, anger management, finances, and anything else communities need to thrive and reduce crime

· Investment in community infrastructure, neighborhood pride, and financial health

· Increased community ownership

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