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“Police Reform” and the Voice of Credibility

By Stephen Owsinski:

Like a mulcher spitting out tree bits, my daily newsfeed spews the words “police reform.” We clash over contemporary policing in America and how best to enforce law and order.

As defined by dictionary.com, reform means to institute “the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory, etc.”

Since reform implies change, no worthy amelioration can transpire without positive human dynamics (respect, communication) and enriching interactions that we accede are essential. The majority rules, right? I don’t know any law-abiding citizen who does not wish for the most optimal relations between cops and the public they serve. Of several applicable adages, perhaps the most suitable one is “Treat others as you wish to be treated.” For every single one of us, someone in our lineage has iterated those very words. Respect, consideration, patience, selflessness, and any array of virtuous attributes apply.

So why are we stepping on toes, casting blame without possessing complete stories, denying fact-based revelations, imposing our will, and feverishly fulfilling our agenda at all costs while stifling the perspectives of others? Why do we talk omnisciently, as if we were physically present during circumstances when we were absolutely absent? Why do we decry episodes involving police encounters at the behest of what the media portray? Why is every single tragic ending the fault of police? How are the perpetrator and resistor so privileged so as to be immediately indemnified well before the crime scene tape is re-spooled?

Subject Matter Experts

Not often do we get to hear replies straight from cops’ mouths. We seem more apt to pin them against the ropes first before inflicting a tirade of blame. Unfiltered, cops’ answers may educate beyond the myths and propaganda born of the anti-police diatribe. After listening to street cops’ perspectives and ideations, we actually may evolve positively. Coffee with a Cop and Citizens Police Academy programs often result in folks becoming enlightened about police culture. Aha moments are dividends.

As in any exchange between humans, mutual understanding accomplishes so much more. And yes, it goes both ways. Similarly, as in any occupation or skill, you confer with practitioners. Therefore, subject matter experts (SMEs) are the best sources with whom to consult for definitive measures, no?

Why oh why do we not go straight to the horse’s mouth and simply ask street cops, “What did he/she say or do to you that compelled you to react that way?” “Why was that police tactic necessary?” “What did you think when he pointed his gun at you?” “After you discharged your weapon, what were you feeling?” “What ideas do you have to remedy?” “What one thing would you like the public to know about your job?” “What made you become a cop?” These are just a few of infinite possibilities to engage discourse.

Then There’s Politics

Since law enforcement is a government institution, there are political strings attached. Often, those strings become so entangled that reasonableness plummets like a boulder hoisted into the sea. Kerplunk! Bowing to the whims of those outside law enforcement circles, adopting their police modalities, is a typical knee-jerk reaction to so-called “pressures,” largely lacking credibility. Contiguously, the latest dish from the upper echelon at HQ may be the new normal yet be entirely misguided and counterproductive. Elected biceps flex and somehow rule from a political pulpit, often one-sidedly, blind to reality. The culmination is one of backfire, placing cops in more harm’s way.

Just examine the sheriff of San Francisco who sniffed the political winds wafting in the “Sanctuary City” and waved away the covenant we abide by: the U.S. Constitution. SFSD deputies are, by policy and directive, prohibited from enforcing immigration laws. The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department’s sworn strength currently stands at 850 deputies. Although I can’t speak for every single deputy, I am confident that the vast majority abhor compromised oaths, all at the behest of their mayor’s desire to harbor illegal immigrants and renounce cooperation with federal authorities.

The Crime Report and Police Reforms

In a report analyzing police reforms and how to “sell it” to the rank-and-file officers, I found one postulation quite interesting: “If police managers make clear that success in Community Service Policing (CSP) is one of the factors taken into account for promotions and recognition, officers will learn to value it.” This sounds more like an incentivizing strategy than a profoundly ideal concept with applicable, authentic, empirical acceptance. It also insinuates that police have no genuine interest in honoring their sworn oath. Cops are not going to easily digest methods plunged down their throats, especially those they feel are distasteful and without appreciable merit.


Does the dangling-carrot principle equate to success, or is it merely a baited lure to thrust cops in the mix of what they do not believe is equitable? That can be dangerous for cops and an outright disservice for citizens.

“Selling” a notion strongly implies foreseeable uncertainty and potential resistance. Why? When a product or program evinces formidable attributes, people gravitate to it. It is not compulsory, but desired. Police reforms are not George Forman grills or ShamWows or Chia Pets. They are abidance-based tenets, implemented by police, on behalf of all society; we all stand under the principled umbrella we know as the Constitution. Is it the fault of police when some constituents do not play well with others?

Flipside

As defined above, “police reform” more than hints that the police are the problem and need fixin’. Who got to flip that coin and call the shots?

That insinuates the police are broken and some citizens are quaint little angels. Rhetoric aside, every institution has its woes, law enforcement included. The fraction of “bad cops” do not pilot the police vessel and are dealt with pursuant to Constitutional stipulations. If citizens’ stellar behavior were a reality, we would not be focused on police at all. In that context, America may have been named Utopia. In any event, cops have answers, and most of their bases are founded in the laws to which we all adhere; cooperation is implicit.

Most cops are tried-and-true police professionals who believe in getting The Job done efficaciously; after all, their lives depend on operating within what they believe are proven methodologies, despite some episodes that derail. Examine how many times police procedures achieve success. Place the numbers on the scales of justice and see how it all weighs out.

A recent and candid New York Times article examining a few perspectives offered the following: “Officers work to overcome the residue of years of mistrust and understaffing in communities where they still go racing from one 9-1-1 call to the next.” Does that sound like a pack who do not care or are resigned or have surrendered their oath to serve and protect people? Clearly, they could tell you more officers are needed. They can also tell you they do not hold the purse strings to effectuate the resources. Not their fault. That last part also reverts back to the people—and what taxes they are willing to pay for optimal public safety resources.

Parallels

Respectfully, I reminisce upon the Vietnam conflict and how soldiers were castigated for serving in a capacity not many understood. Soldiers back then employed what they were given and deployed on others’ behalf. I suspect many cops today feel as soldiers did back then.

The Vietnam era—when our government placed our military troops in a faraway environment we were ill-equipped to endure under dubious reasoning, armed with precarious plans—ostensibly backfired. Upon mission’s end (respectfully debatable), our warriors who survived returned home to little to no acclaim. Sadly, scorn was more prevalent. Many were spat upon by Americans at our nation’s airport gates, bus terminals, train depots, and maritime ports. The after-effects demonstrated what didn’t work, spoken by the troops who found out firsthand how ill-prepared, weakly strategized, and poorly indoctrinated government leaders were—after placing field fighters in the belly of battle. To this day, it is still hard to digest. Nevertheless, I respect and eagerly listen to all who donned the American flag under the doctrine of good. Cops can surely relate.

Conventional Wisdom

Mind you, I am not even remotely suggesting sticking with old wheels, the ones we agree fell flat. I am, however, emphasizing how street cops know best what will and what will not get The Job done accordingly, safely, and within the confines of police procedures and the law.


Self-initiated police activity is a conventional tact taken by most law enforcement officers. Proactive policing engenders consensual or probable cause contacts. One anomaly is how the citizen is going to react. Therein is when potential contentions arise; some go way beyond comprehension and result negatively for either the citizen or the cop (or both). Sadly, some citizens willingly become myopic at this point, seeing only one perspective—theirs. Saboteurs, often among the media, foster false narratives and keep cops reticled. Police become the proverbial target over and over and over.

Sure, de-escalation techniques are crucial. Being supported when de-escalation methods do not result in positive dividends is another animal altogether. Ask cops about that dynamic, and be ready to get more than an earful. Support (or lack thereof) is and has been a dissension point among cops, neither being supported by their command staff nor being embraced by members of the public when things do not go according to the universal plan.

Police Reform or Social Reform?

It shook me when a Chicago police officer recently endured a ground fight with a combatant and came within a hair of being pummeled to death on a city street, recorded by pedestrians and motorists whose efforts engendered nothing more than activating their lovely little cell phones. While recovering on a hospital gurney, the embattled officer admitted to Chicago’s police chief the reason she refused to shoot her violent assailant—fear of going viral on YouTube, fear of being cast as the next Ferguson-like condemned cop, and fear of bringing disrepute to her agency. She had the legal right to shoot per Illinois statute, she was within department policy to discharge her firearm, countermanded by worrying about her family’s safety and potentially tarnishing her department. She was willing to risk death because of the persistent bullying of the police profession.

Listen to this one particular Chicago cop and witness how antithetical reform measures can be. Her sentiments resonate how loudly and readily the public decry and denounce police actions, even when police procedures are just and more than appropriate. Yet she felt faulted while being maimed by a violent criminal. Frankly, it is a travesty to see this any other way than categorically unequal in terms of treatment.

Conditioning processes enabled such a psyche. Media-driven rhetoric, political posturing, and some law enforcement leadership bending to the whim of misguided hysteria has resulted in a police paradox.


Incidentally, a report produced days before Christmas by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University cited that violent crime is rampant in 13 U.S. cities—Chicago being the worst—while in other metropolis sprawls it is markedly diminished. Why? What are the cops in some cities doing differently than those in severely crime-ridden ones? Police reforms may not be a national issue; a finite scope of what one jurisdiction is doing in comparison to another warrants analysis. Police operations in cities resulting favorably can be analyzed by those in troubled jurisdictions, like lending a winning playbook.

It certainly seems counterintuitive to be highlighting police reforms when the uptick in police officer fatalities is the highest in five years. Synonymously, Gallup Poll results indicate that Americans are quite content with American law enforcement—rather overwhelmingly at 76 percent in-favor.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Considered “a laboratory for policing practices and innovation in law enforcement” by Ford Foundation.

President Darren Walker, New York City is often under the scope pertaining to police science. Befittingly, NYC is home to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a New York City Police Academy-recognized institution whose cadre of professorial intellect is wholly concentrated on its namesake. As such, progressive policing is a mainstay buffet on the tables at John Jay’s Manhattan campus.

Endowments brought in the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) founder Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, whose objective is to study and render findings to elevate police morale and “the community’s perception of [police] officers,” to John Jay with the backing of the UCLA. The CPE and John Jay collaboration bills itself as the “forefront of a national conversation on race and policing.”

Historically, John Jay has been a mecca for not only NYPD cops but also police personnel and criminal justice professionals from all over the globe, harvesting education in the realm of police science and contemporary law enforcement principles. As such, many cops revere the postulations of John Jay educators. Conversely, the myriad cops who attend John Jay surely bring forth real-life experiences and attributes that factor into the equation of what works and what is abysmal in terms of police practices; Socratic Method at its finest.


At John Jay’s February 2016 “Making Room for Justice: Crime, Public Safety & the Choices Ahead for Americans” symposium, street cops were among other criminal justice practitioners, representing all spokes in the wheel of justice reform and transformative practices. Reportedly, a generous mix of voices co-opted discussion and tackled challenges relative to the police profession.

Police officers are traditionally trained to watch their backs and be apprehensive while doing so. Training aside, these traits are rather endemic among cops. It is the nature of the job. Are police executives leading with old-school mindsets, theories, and practices? Are they out of touch with modern-day street beats? Is it equitable to expect police to support something when they are not given support themselves? Will police officers covering the beat be blamed when a police/community utopia does not materialize?

Infamous Unilateral Apology

In October 2016, OpsLens published an article regarding the president of the International Association of Police Chiefs (IACP), Terrance Cunningham—who is also the police chief leading the Wellesley, MA, police force—reporting his publicly stated unilateral apology to African-Americans on behalf of all police. With a connotation emphasizing historical wrongs and injustices against this particular race by law enforcement officers, Chief Cunningham labeled law enforcement “the face of oppression.”


Some cheered, others jeered. Among those jeering, the sentiment was speak for yourself, not me. I did no such thing as a cop. Do not lump me in with those who may have tarnished their badge. I jeered, not against the notion of any wrongs against any particular race, but in opposition to one badge-wearing police executive who sought to put words in my mouth.

Evolution

As we usher in 2017, we still seem to be abbreviating the possibilities of listening to voices other than our own. Year 2016 was rife with protests, any of which depict people of differing viewpoints not even honoring the perspective of the other. Talking over and screaming at each other seemed the new normal. In those same protests, footage illustrates cops holding the line, stoic in the face of adversity, a hair shy of being accosted by a phalanx of unruliness. Professionalism and composure remained. With crimes being committed, politicos prohibited cops from performing police duties. Examine the Baltimore fiasco.

Opening dialogue with those deeply impacted is the noble way to effect change—not just some change, but across-the-board-change.

The horse knows how to race and win against the odds—less than 1,000,000 cops serving approximately 320,000,000 people is a solid testament. To implement progressive policing, let’s hear from the mouths of cops, especially since their very oath is on your behalf. With that notion are substantive thoughts on how to optimize public safety.

Folks displacing debris should not sit curbside and tell sanitation workers how to pick up trash, so why should we expect cops to be told how to perform perilous, life-threatening duties as if they are curious novices?  Let those who do the policing inform police reform, not solely, but as a rudder guiding an object larger than themselves. Cops need collaboration, not condemnation. Cops need back-up, not backstabbing. Cops need to work within themselves and the police culture in unison, to transform—not from something being mischaracterized as “systemically broken,” but toward making a great product even greater.

Inside jobs are not always a bad thing. Supplemented with law-abiding citizens, law enforcers are the best determinants regarding police progress. Having sworn to react to the ugly and the misery caused by others, cops are the true voice of credibility.

As former NYC cop, prosecutor, and current John Jay College professor Eugene O’Donnell levied, “I think the profession has been irreparably damaged and we have to figure out what’s next.” I disagree with the “irreparably damaged” reference. That is verbiage indicative of resignation, not reformation.

Cops are central and not peripheral figures in the law and order schematic. We ought to institute our resources wisely. And at what point do we focus on social reform and self-responsibility?

Stephen Owsinski is a Senior 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.

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