By Stephen Owsinski:
Police and community relations have been exhibiting fissures lately, and the U.S. House Judiciary Committee does not wish to sit idly by as the media feasts on and mischaracterizes the latest anti-police rhetoric.
There is no escaping hard truths stemming from nationwide encounters in which both civilian and police lives were shortened. Like a snow globe, sometimes life is turned upside-down and stays jumbled. Not much we can do about the snow globe but wait for it to settle. However, when lives are being lost…waiting is not an option.
On the heels of several recent officer-involved shootings (OIS), as well as five slain Dallas cops in July 2016, both U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R – VA) and Ranking Member John Conyers (D – MI) formed the Policing Strategies Working Group, a bipartisan effort incorporating six Republican and six Democrat members of Congress traversing the nation to place fingers on the pulse of cities, with a focus on police/community relations. The objective is to analyze police culture and to enhance relations between cops and their constituents.
The working group is destined to meet people in varying jurisdictions, to hear their stories and perceived obstacles, and to pool information to facilitate best practices in enforcing principles of law and order.
In that regard, underlying factors such as socioeconomic impacts, geopolitical climates, and cultural values and beliefs are crucial to understanding the demographic tempo, like comparing artsy and spiritual grounds of Sedona, AZ to the urban bustle of Chicago, IL. Typical life circumstances are part and parcel ingredients to help explain why one locale is unlike another, therefore distinctly different in terms of perceptions (or misperceptions).
For example, I once investigated a domestic disturbance complaint involving violence and firearms. Reportedly, the 49-year-old wife was a mail-order bride from Russia who severely distrusted police. All police! During my investigation/interview, the Russian-born victim unabashedly leered at me, searched my face, scrutinized my uniform, sneered at my duty belt accoutrements.
And then she said it: “I don’ like KGB, you.” I stiffened.
I then went to work with what I had—a desire to understand, a passion to bridge gaps, and the Oath to help right wrongs. Employing resources, straightforward communication, and citing Constitutional ingredients, I laid out for her that what her “husband” did was “not okay” and that she had great options available for her to move on with life here in America.
At the outset, after a ground-fight led to the arrest of her husband and the confiscation of firearms he used to pistol-whip her, she was ensured of safety in the home. She seemed confused by all which was given and done on her behalf; her mistrust of police was palpable. Neighbors came over to help her settle. Members from the state attorney’s office Domestic Violence Unit came to the scene, interviewed her again, and explained the criminal justice process. Victims advocates arrived and explained they’d be her angels throughout the entire process…and beyond, if need be.
I learned my Russian victim gained employment with the help of Victims’ Advocates. She filed for divorce, I learned. I saw her several times thereafter, each time hugging and thanking me…and apologizing for being standoffish back then. Bad things happen to good people, and happy mediums are there to see…when the blinders come off, when efforts are made, when time is invested, exactly what the Judiciary Committee is concentrated on.
Cultural Diversity was a staple in police academies when I attended. That is not new. It is often called anti-bias training. No matter how it is phrased, it can be a crucial ingredient for police to relate to any demographic group(s) in a city. Depending upon where a cop performs duty, understanding cultural factors may be as instrumental as a handshake or gestural head nod.
My agency hired its first Muslim policeman a few years ago. Our city has had a growing Muslim population since 2000. Since 09/11/01, the divide widened. For years and for all parties, it was like walking on eggshells. Tensions clouded the air of interactions. With our Moroccan police officer spearheading enhanced relations by assuring Muslims the police are for and not against them, communications seeded and soared. The Muslim demographic now professes to understand our police philosophies and methodologies; in kind, our police force has a better grasp of Muslim cultural values, beliefs, and perceptions. Mutual respect and understanding was the dividend; still is.
Frankly, both sides harbored some degree of mistrust, largely based on perception.
I suspect this example exists in many jurisdictions…and the differences, once communicated, are likely to present as commonalities.
As it relates to policing strategies and relations with constituents, the pulse in one jurisdiction will differ from the pulse in another locale. From one state to the next, the flavor may be unalike. From one nation to the next, polar extremes may be vast. The one consistency is the Constitution and its fair, equal, unbiased applications. In the context of making it work efficiently and equally, like most things in life…it takes all parties to consider the other, to unify, to remedy issues together.
If some cops are found to be sullying our nation’s doctrines regarding the rule of law and the Police Officer’s Oath, then that same rule of law applies to their misdeeds. Due process kicks-in…and the system metes out justice.
If exercising your freedom to opine is on the agenda, protest legally, peacefully…and respect others, especially the police whose overwhelming majority equally disdain the minute number of bad cops. No one wants cancer to pervade healthy practices and overshadow positive police conduct.
No one enjoys exposure to injustices, and the very footage uploaded to YouTube depicting cops in questionable enforcement actions are exactly the same used in police training sessions across the nation. Cops are privy, and they are incorporating the learned lessons into their tours of duty, on behalf of people they do not know.
One of the facets the Judiciary Committee is cognizant of is the existence of a nationwide database to aggregate police use-of-force incidents. The DoJ and the FBI declare such a database is slated to launch in 2017.
Distinctions in Policing
At its core, overlooking criminal pasts and lowering police testing standards to enable diversity in law enforcement is President Obama’s proposal, titled Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Pointedly, lowering standards so that others can make the cut in policing is just the opposite of what law enforcement needs – what any industry needs. Such ideologies and programs are counterproductive, and do nothing but ask for t-r-o-u-b-l-e.
The House Judiciary Committee contingent is focused, goal-oriented, sharp and formidable, especially with Congressman Trey Gowdy among its body of constitutionalists.
Pertaining to progressive policing in America, seeking answers to facilitate resolutions is best done walking among citizens in their respective environment, not by merely sitting behind a desk and taking testimonies via telephone. Certainly not by listening to distorted views spewed by media blasts. Getting out, looking people in the eyes, listening to their inflections and seeing their facial expressions, witnessing the foreground and the background, helps comprehension. With comprehension, changes can thrive.
And since it is the job of Congress to write laws, it makes sense to hear the wholehearted sentiments of Americans. Cops enforce what legislatures enact into law, and citizens are expected to abide by the legal frameworks. Police officers appreciate professionalization, and as society grows more complex, judicial bases help cops navigate tumult.
We have landmark cases and statutes by which cops are guided and governed; use them to assess when police activities were within protocols or without adherence. If in violation, supporting arguments with rule of law principles, not hostility, is the national standard by which we all must abide.
By choice, my entire police career was spent working the streets. Not all cared for me when I had to inform them that their opinions do not dictate how the Constitution is applied. Therefore, I was often the messenger with an unfavorable telegraph. In that light is the implicit need for a better understanding of the law, its applications, and how best we can seek amendments (lawmakers) when we feel a disservice. Retributive behavior—attacking cops and others—fuels the very fire one complains is intensely unjust.
Petition your government representatives, speak your mind in diplomatic fashion, articulate your case…and refrain from volatility. The former entails resolution, the latter fuels escalation. Which do you represent?
The U.S. House Judiciary Committee working group is traveling and listening. Just as cops and citizens should do, meet them in the middle…and watch the fog dissipate.
Stephen Owsinski is an OpsLens Contributor and retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a researcher and writer.