Guest Post on Policing in Problematic Times

I blogged last week about the police shooting of a black man in Florida. I’ve talked about Black Lives Matter as well, and I’ve been trying to follow the reporting and discussion online. Recently on a friend’s Facebook page, a commenter talked about how the police should be trained to shoot to wound instead of shooting to kill. Which…isn’t how that works. It’s hard to have these conversations if all you know about law enforcement comes direct from Hollywood.

A U.S. police officer named Griffin weighed in and offered his perspective and experience. I appreciated the knowledge he shared. We chatted a bit more after my post last week, and I invited him to share some of his thoughts on the blog. His friend Adán, a retired police administrator from a department in an urban area, also contributed.

Both men recognize that our nation has systemic problems with race and other issues. That creates very real conflicts for the police. (As a police officer, your job is to enforce the law. What do you do when the law itself is racist?)

I don’t expect everyone to agree with everything. But their post gave me more to consider, and is a good reminder that these problems exist on multiple levels, from the individual to the global and everything in between.

Thank you to Griffin and Adán for taking the time to write this. Please remember they’re guests on my blog. I’d appreciate if we treat them as such.

The whole thing comes in at about 4400 words.

Adán: I’ve been pretty on-edge recently due to recent events. I’ve often been able to work things through by writing stuff down. I don’t mean to presume anything for anyone else, but perhaps this will help others too.

Before you dismiss a paragraph out of hand, please read through it first.

It seems clear that there is systematic oppression and a culture of Black criminalization in our country and within U.S. culture. Even in popular media. In The Lion King, how do you know Scar is the “bad” lion? He’s darker… Consider why people laugh at the “gang-banger” Sprite commercial — it’s because the Black men in the commercial aren’t stereotypical. It’s funny because it’s unexpected…

Griffin: I’ve previously spoken about how certain laws have a disproportionate effect on the poor; if you can’t keep your car registered and in good working order, for instance, you’re going to get stopped more often. As African-Americans are disproportionately represented among the urban poor in this country, they are subject to more stops, leading to the perception of being singled out. A perception that is supported by vetted studies.

The overwhelmingly common motive behind the actions taken by police officers is enforcement of the law. If the nation wishes to change police activity, they need to vote change the law.

A simple example:

Vehicle registration — CA law requires registration fees be paid, and a sticker be properly affixed to the rear plate. If you don’t have a sticker, police can pull you over.

As the lack of a sticker is no indication of the lack of safety of the vehicle or driver, this could easily be changed to “no sticker, no stop” and enforced in a strictly administrative manner, with allowances to low-income vehicle owners.

Adán: The system of oppression and the process of criminalization is not as a result of police work. But police work is impacted by it, and must deal with the consequences.

From 1980 to 2008, there was a stark disparity both in the number of African-Americans killed, but also African-Americans that killed. Most murders were intraracial with Whites killing Whites 83% of the time and Blacks killing Blacks at 95%. African-Americans account for a distinctly high percentage of the homicides and violent crimes in the US.

DO NOT BE DISTRACTED. There are long-standing systems of oppression, racial inequity and a culture of criminalization of Black youth.

Police officers are thrown into this situation and expected to respond without bias, and without error. It is clear from recent events that the general public has zero tolerance for even perceived bias, and clearly no tolerance for human error. This makes sense. Police officers have the responsibility to make quick decisions between custody & freedom, between using force or not, to kill or not. But remember, these men & women grew up in the same society & culture described above. Expecting a total lack of bias is not realistic. Expecting completely error-free decision-making under extreme duress is irresponsible. Add to this that the average officer-involved-shooting is over in a matter of seconds, and bad things are going to happen:

Let’s try a scenario. You’re a police officer with all of the aspects of your current identity — race, gender, age, education, etc. You are dispatched to a liquor store on a report from a business employee that they saw a gun, and you get a description of the person with a gun.

You have two choices: respond or do not respond. Since you’re a police officer, let’s go with the “respond” choice.

You arrive on scene and see someone in the parking lot who matches the description of the alleged person with a gun. You don’t see a gun. You can contact the person or not. Let’s go with “not.” Then your choices are “leave” or “go talk to the reporting party (business employee).” Again, you are a police officer, so “leave” isn’t an option. You go to talk to the employee. (Note that this means you divert your attention from the alleged person with a gun.)

The employee points out the person you saw in the parking lot as the one they saw with a gun. You have basically two choices: believe the employee or don’t. Assuming you have no objective reasons to not believe them, you again have a choice to either contact the person in the parking lot or not.

Hopefully we can agree that a police officer with a report of a person with a gun in the parking lot of a liquor store — absent any independent information that the gun is being carried legally — can’t just leave. So you have to contact the person.

You have the option of contacting the person by yourself, or wait until at least one additional officer is present. But the purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t really matter which you choose.

You contact the person. They can either comply or not comply.

If they comply, you will determine whether or not they have a gun, and whether or not they have it legally. IF THEY COMPLY, you can either send them on their way with their legally possessed gun or arrest them for their unlawful weapon. No one gets hurt. Yea.

If they do NOT comply with your verbal instructions, you have choices: leave, make physical contact, deploy a less-lethal option, deploy a firearm. We assume in all of these situations that you will continue to ask and/or demand compliance.

Leaving a non-compliant person who may have a gun really isn’t an option…

You make physical contact. They can either comply or not comply.

If they do NOT comply with your attempts to physically control them, then you are struggling with a person who may have a gun, and who did not comply with your verbal commands or attempts at physical restraint. What are your options now? You can back off and try verbal again, you can deploy less-lethal options, or you can deploy a firearm.

If you back off and try verbal commands, they can either comply or not comply (see above…).

Let’s go with less-lethal options. They are typically electronic (taser), impact (baton) or chemical (OC/mace). They person can either choose to comply or not comply.

Griffin: A bit of the politics of tasers.

Adán: With the taser-style option, you may get the situation where they have no choice but to comply due to the effects of the taser. You can then determine whether or not they are armed, and whether or not it is legal. You could technically send them on their way with their legally possessed gun, although now an arrest for obstruction is possible, or you can arrest them for their unlawful weapon. No one gets hurt any further.

If they voluntarily comply after you either deploy or use the less-lethal tool, you will determine whether or not they have a gun, and whether or not they have it legally.

IF THEY COMPLY, you can either send them on their way with their legally possessed gun, arrest them or obstruction or arrest them for their unlawful weapon. No one gets hurt any further.

If they do not comply, what other options do you have? Back off and attempt verbal control again; Attempt physical restraint again; Attempt a different less-lethal option; Deploy a lethal option (firearm).

Don’t forget that they may still have a gun and they may decide at any point in this process to use it against you or someone else. They also have no department policies or case law governing that illegal use of that gun. If you don’t already know, guns can easily be fired from within a pocket and it is something commonly taught to inmates by other inmates and is a part of police training as well.

IF THEY FAIL TO COMPLY with verbal, physical and less-lethal, how likely do you think they will be to comply with those choices again?

Now, add this piece of information: During your physical contact and use of the taser, you realize that the person is, in fact in possession of a gun and is continuing to not comply and resist your attempts to subdue them.

Your only other choice at that point is lethal force.

In this scenario, the police did not commit an “unprovoked” shooting. It was provoked by the choices made by both the officer(s) and the subject. There were MANY places during this scenario where compliance would easily have resulted in no force being used.

Jim: To me, the scenario Adán describes sounds like the “ideal” flowchart. In other words, that set of choices by both the officer and the person with the (alleged) gun shows how the process is supposed to go. But then we see cases like the one in Florida, where the available information suggests the man who was shot was doing everything in his power to comply, and to show that neither he nor his patient were a threat.

I wonder how different the reaction might have been to that Florida shooting if most of the incident hadn’t been captured on camera. But as Griffin notes, cameras aren’t a perfect or simple solution either.

Griffin: Cameras are not a cure. Violence always looks bad. Always. Unless you are intimately familiar with the laws governing use of force and the circumstances of an individual case, you are unlikely to be able to accurately judge the legality of a shooting. So, unless you are willing to educate yourself and wait for all of the evidence to be presented, you are likely going to be very upset with the verdicts arising from the courts.

Not only does the officer record everything, but the recordings must be stored, and stored for a very long time. Most jurisdictions do not have the technical capability to store enormous amounts of data, and must outsource the storage to commercial entities.

The data must be stored for many years due to the statute of limitations, which is quite long in most serious cases, and in homicide, has no limitation. If you hope to defend officers from complaints, then color of law statute of limitation is seven years from the date of incident, provided it’s not an ongoing violation.

Multiply that by many officers, many incidents, and you see how large an amount of data must be stored. Aside from the prohibitive cost of such storage, there is little to guarantee that those commercial entities that store the data will be well-regulated and the data will remain exclusive to the defense or prosecution of the cases recorded.

What I wish to draw attention to in line with this argument is the case of Technoviking. While the man was recorded by a civilian, and not committing any crimes, he felt the use of his image was damaging to his life. So much so that he sued, and won.

Now imagine a recording made by officer cams: take the person in the apartment, the person on the street, whose personal image and behavior, however lawful, becomes permanently associated with an incident, regardless of their complete lack of input on the making of that incident or the way the incident played out.

Also, individuals who know they are being recorded can be far less likely to come forward and identify themselves on camera. This can be to the detriment of investigations.

All that said, what I would suggest is a video camera that activates on drawing a weapon from the duty belt. I believe Taser already does something like this with some of their products, taking still photos of those who are shot with the Taser, so it can be done. I believe something like this would better reveal what’s going on in a deadly-force situation and limit the invasive potential of police recording all people, all the time, most of whom are merely going through rough times.

Adán: The systematic oppression and culture of bias wasn’t created by police officers. Police officers typically work to protect those who can’t protect themselves. Police officers who work in predominately Black communities are very aware that Black Lives Matter, and work to protect those lives from others that would prey on them. They work with and support Black residents and business owners and children. In those communities, well over 95% of the people who commit murders are also Black. The police’s responses to murders and apprehension of those criminals are not race-based; they are action based. The actions of those who chose to kill others in their communities.

Jim: Just like most of those who commit murders in primarily white communities are white, as Adán noted earlier.

Adán: In a local Bay Area jurisdiction, I did a study of all violent street crime reported to the agency. Over a ten-year period, more than 80% of the violent crime reported to police was reportedly committed by a person of color. That sucks, but it’s a fact. Now, let’s say you’ve been working at that agency as a street officer for those 10 years. You receive a call of a robbery that has just occurred, with no description provided yet. If you are looking at the white folks leaving the area, you have a 80% chance of missing the criminal. If you only stopped the people of color leaving the area, that would be wrong, but you have the highest statistical chance of catching a violent felon. Some officers end up doing the wrong thing for what they see as they right reason: catching the violent felon.

There are police officers that commit violent acts based on their biases, other evil intent, or incompetence. The Diallo & Bell cases in New York, the Scott killing in South Carolina are examples. But the recent cases have many pieces to indicate they are not in this group.

DO NOT BE DISTRACTED. Politicians and others who control the power in our country want you to focus on the outcomes of these systems of oppression, not the systems themselves. Police officers are not the (primary) system of oppression.


Jim: But there have to be things individual officers and departments can do as well, right? Things like training and procedural changes and improved hiring practices and so on?

Adán: Training, sure. Targeted hiring, absolutely. Dallas has some great advancements, as have many other departments.


Quality of Recruits

Police departments across the country have a hard time hiring suitable candidates, so often departments are making do with what they can get, or simply do not hire and work with what they have, kicking the can down the road and making for large gaps in experience. This leads to desperation-hiring when the shortage becomes acute, with some smaller departments accepting people who don’t have the best history of sound decision-making, including hires from other departments that their previous command may have been happy to see the back of.

Recruits need to see police service as an option. If, culturally, there is a high degree of resistance to the idea of working as a police officer, then members of that culture are unlikely to apply. “Snitches get stitches,” is an excellent example of the cultural baggage many inner city minority youths have to overcome.

An example: All the black officers I have ever worked with, and some for only a single day, were called some variation of Uncle Tom at least once by a member of the public in the short time I worked alongside each of them. One of whom was my field training officer, by the way.


Departments are now training officers for approximately 6-8 months in a classroom/range/gym/track setting, then another 6-8 months field training where they are trained by a (hopefully) experienced officer. Field training is, for me, the most critical period, as it’s when the officer interacts with the public. If you are in a smaller department, you may not get as much experience during field training. This becomes critically important in incidents like the one in Florida, where if the officers are familiar with the behaviors, they’re more comfortable with the situation and therefore less likely to be subject to stress-induced stupid. Depending on the state, officers are also required to attend refresher training every few years, and in CA, to qualify at the range every six months. These range qualifications are often just shooting paper targets, but my department has started making it a refresher on use of force law and criteria as well.

The initial training period is followed by a probationary period where the recruit can be fired for just about any violation and/or screwing up.

I believe training and recruitment runs well in excess of $200,000. That’s a lot of money to invest and then dispose of based solely on a training officer reporting failure. Often, administrators are not terribly experienced in the field themselves (and almost never up to date on recent conditions), leading to a disregard of the training officer’s input and an officer who may or may not have been suited to the job.


Recruitment and Training, Continued

Griffin brings up some good points. Remember that California is one of the states with higher hiring standards. It’s nearly impossible to fill a vacancy with an entry-level person faster than 12 months from the time it comes open, and it indeed costs upwards of $200,000 per officer, which puts a strain on small departments. Those small agencies may find it essential to hire “laterals” — officers who have already been to the academy and worked at another agency. Laterals tend to leave their former agency for a reason, and I’ve never seen it be a positive reason. So they are often a curse that comes with the blessing of being able to deploy them more quickly. has the hiring and training standards for CA agencies. BUT, there is no penalty for not following the guidelines. They can take away your “POST certification,” but if you don’t care about that, then so what? The Alameda County District Attorney’s office (the office of the top law enforcement official in the second largest county in the state) has a sworn Inspectors Division that does not follow POST guidelines for hiring and training.

If an agency DOES follow the POST training guidelines, it would require every sworn officer below the rank of Lieutenant to spend more than 5% of their on-duty time training. If you have a small agency that can only get the funding to cover shifts, they would need a 5% budget increase to hire enough people to back-fill for training time. Good luck with that request…


Situation on the Ground

My personal opinion of how we got here with regard to mental health: Reagan, as governor of California, started the state along the route of making our cities unfenced asylums by shutting down mental hospitals. He repeated this at the national level. As a result, officers are now called on to do more, with less training, in uncontrolled environments, than the mental health professionals of yesteryear. People subject to altered mental states who find themselves in acute crisis are ALWAYS going to be among the most difficult of calls. Mental health training is great, but training is not experience. If officers see a safety issue that has to be addressed by reducing an immediate threat posed by the person in crisis, then force can and will be used. Patience from all those officers involved is important and experienced scene command is important, but can sometimes be hard to come by as situations develop too fast. The public has varying levels of knowledge of this situation, and varying levels of interest in listening to reason over their existing bias.

For example: I once had a 5 minute-long struggle in the middle of a major thoroughfare with a guy in an altered mental state. As my partner (a former collegiate wrestler of some repute) and I overcame him, he started whacking his head against the pavement while screaming. Concerned he would injure himself, I laid an elbow across his jaw and pressed down to prevent him from building momentum. After medics arrived and we tied him off to the gurney, I was approached by the 911 caller, who said she’d had to call because the man was in crisis, but, “I thought mental health people would come, not you. You hurt him! You were choking him.” I began to explain, but the sergeant who arrived on scene after we had the subject restrained, stepped in and did a better job than I could at the time.

Overcoming Racial Bias & Policing

Consistent foot beat assignments. Walking a beat and slowly earning the respect of those policed is the surest way to overcome distrust. This cannot be accomplished overnight, and must be fully supported by command, as it’s also incredibly expensive in terms of manpower: a foot beat does not respond to calls outside their beat, does not transport prisoners back to the station, and in fact, rarely seems to be doing anything to the outside observer other than talking to business owners, residents, and the local problem children native to his beat. Children also get to see an example of officers on the street, rather than in their home or apartment complex, dealing with a situation they only see the end result of — with all the yelling, screaming, crying and possible violence that accompanied it.

It’s also slightly more dangerous than regular patrol, as your backup often has no idea you were where you are when you come up on the radio for aid. Also, smaller, more specialized departments do not generally have the manpower or need for foot beats (e.g., university police departments and smaller jurisdictions).

Adán addressed something important: we respond to the public’s calls for service. My district has a neighborhood that is affluent. I cannot count the number of times calls have come in regarding a suspicious person, where all that defined that suspicion was the race of the person. That’s obviously wrong, but I am required by law and my oath to follow up on a call for service.


Community Trust

“Community Policing” can be as elementary as the walking beat-officer model Griffin describes. Deploying single officers with hand-held radios in radio-equipped cars is primarily a cost-saving model. It is very costly to effectively cover an urban area with foot-patrol officers. BUT, that is how you best stay away from the “occupying army” image that was used to describe LA Sheriff’s Office policing of Compton and other areas, and the “NHI” attitude on the part of some officers. NHI means No Humans Involved, and was actually a phrase and abbreviation used in some urban, high-volume departments to describe things like two drunks fighting in front of a liquor store, or two prostitutes bickering on a corner.

What happens when you start to de-humanize the community? It makes use of force less onerous. This is exactly how the military has always helped 18 year olds deal with going onto the battlefield and killing someone else’s 18 year olds. Many of the ethnic and racial slurs we hear are the result of combat training & experience. How else do you deal with it? Why do you think 22 veterans a day commit suicide?

Jim: There’s obviously so much more we could get into. The intersection of poverty, race, and crime. The ongoing arms race among cops, criminals, and the general public. Blatant fearmongering. Media representation and misrepresentation. But this is already more than 4000 words.

My thanks to both Griffin and Adán for taking so much time to write and share their thoughts. As I said, I don’t expect everyone to agree with all they’ve said. There are parts I have problems with – some from my own knee-jerk reactions, and some deeper disagreement and frustration.

There’s also a lot that makes sense, and gives me a better understanding of where people like Griffin and Adán are coming from, and the situation they’re in. I hope it’s helpful to others as well.

I’ll close with several additional links Griffin shared: