BY DIANE DIMOND
This nation has faced some tough law enforcement dilemmas in recent years: an increase in murders, drug and gang violence in several major cities, a breakdown in citizen’s respect for authority, police overreaction to situations (ignited by either a macho officer or one who honestly fears for his or her safety) and, of course, the growing number of police-involved shootings that have left civilians — many of them unarmed — dead.
In 2014, an 18-year-old boy in Ferguson, Missouri, lost his life, as did a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun in Cleveland, Ohio. Then, a mentally ill homeless man camping in the mountains in Albuquerque, New Mexico, died after a SWAT team opened fire. In 2015, a 50-year-old South Carolina man who owed considerable back child support fled a routine traffic stop and was shot in the back multiple times. There are plenty of other cases I could cite. These are just a few headline-making incidents in which routine police business somehow escalated to a deadly level.
The federal government hasn’t kept track of officer-involved shootings, but two media outlets have. Databases maintained by the Washington Post and the Guardian conclude there were about 1,000 fatal encounters between police and civilians in 2016. So far this year, the Post reports that more than 350 people have died at the hands of a sworn officer of the law. And I think it’s important to note that the mental health of the civilian played a part in 1 in 5 of those fatal cases.
So, what have we learned, and what’s being done about deadly police-involved shootings? Police officials are surely looking at ways to de-escalate tense situations, right? No. A majority of departments across the country are not.
For all the ongoing training police officers are required to undergo — from firearm proficiency and marijuana investigations to vehicle stops and courtroom testimony — only a handful of states now require officers be trained in de-escalation techniques. According to a recent American Public Media analysis, 34 states do not require all officers to take courses on the best ways to defuse a potentially explosive situation.
Most of the powers cited budgetary concerns for not adding de-escalation training to the continuing training requirements. I would think they’d want to look at the bigger picture and rethink that position.
According to The Huffington Post, U.S. cities have collectively paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements involving wrongful death, police brutality and excessive force, civil rights violations and other types of officer misconduct over the last decade.
It’s not the officers or their department that pay those settlements; it is you and me, the taxpayers, who foot the bill because no one in city government thinks it’s important enough to fund updated training to help fix an obvious problem. Some cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia have agreed to pay out an inordinate amount to settle police misconduct cases.
No matter how hard police unions fight against change, it is pretty clear time has expired on the old ways. The mentally ill are no longer closeted away in private homes and institutions. Given the statistics on fatal police shootings, teaching officers how best to approach and speak to someone suffering from mental illness seems so important. Training those with a badge how best to talk to a gang member dealing drugs on a street corner could help save lives, including the officer’s.
Teaching law enforcement recruits to demand immediate and total compliance from a citizen or that they should always shoot to kill are outdated strategies. It is way past time to inaugurate new approaches to 21st-century law enforcement challenges. Experts know and teach more psychologically based techniques that don’t require officers to draw their guns or resort to manhandling a suspect.
Are those actions still valid in some instances? You bet they are. First and foremost, an officer of the law must feel in control of the situation before them and think of their own personal safety. But if we train our law enforcement officers to anticipate civilian behaviors and defuse potentially violent situations, I can’t help but think everyone would be better off. The officers, the citizens and us, the taxpayers.