Deescalation: Eight Ways to Rein in Our Out-of-Control Police State
December 2, 2014
Gene Johnson and Eric Tucker / Associated Press & Carl Gibson / Reader Supported News & Color of Change
Departments around the country have stepped up their training in "de-escalation" -- the art of defusing a tense situation with a word or a gesture instead of being confrontational or reaching for a weapon. The solution won't come from one specific policy, but from a wide array of reforms that will address the systemic issues that result in police acting with impunity. One policy change would require all armed officers wear and use "body cams" to record encounters with the civilian population.
Teaching Cops to 'Just Walk Away'
Gene Johnson and Eric Tucker / Associated Press
(November 30, 2014) -- The grand jury that declined to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was focused on whether he might have acted in self-defense when he shot and killed unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown. But the case raises another question: Could Wilson have avoided getting into a spot where he had to make that split-second, life-or-death decision?
Departments around the country have in recent years stepped up their training in "de-escalation" -- the art of defusing a tense situation with a word or a gesture instead of being confrontational or reaching for a weapon. Proponents, including the Justice Department, say the approach can improve trust and understanding between police and residents, curtail the unnecessary use of force and improve the safety of officers and civilians alike.
"We haven't taught officers to just walk away," said Cambridge, Massachusetts, Police Commissioner Robert Haas. "But if the only reason a person is acting up is because you're standing there . . . isn't that a viable approach?"
Haas and other law enforcement officials said they didn't want to second-guess Wilson's actions because they weren't in his shoes at the time of the Aug. 9 shooting. But, many said, the case should accelerate a national discussion about police culture and the potential for broader training in de-escalation, which is considered especially important in dealing with people in mental health or drug-related crises.
In Missouri this month, a federal law enforcement team held training with St. Louis-area police, including top commanders from Ferguson, on how unintentional bias affects police work. That approach goes hand-in-hand with de-escalation.
"In every police encounter, the officer and the civilian bring with them and see the world through their experiences. The more these views diverge, the more they immediately see the other as a threat," said Jenny Durkan, the former U.S. attorney in Seattle who led the effort to curb excessive uses of force by city police.
According to Wilson's grand jury testimony, Brown and a friend were walking down the middle of the street when he drove up and asked them to use the sidewalk. When they declined, he suggested it again. Brown responded by cursing at him, Wilson said. He backed up his vehicle to confront Brown, who was carrying stolen cigars.
Brown shoved the vehicle's door shut as Wilson tried to open it, and then attacked the officer through the door's open window, Wilson said. The officer began shooting, then got out of the car, chased Brown, and fired some more when Brown turned around. "My job isn't to just sit and wait," Wilson told ABC News.
In its investigations of police agencies, the Justice Department has singled out poor de-escalation tactics. In a July report on the Newark, New Jersey, department, the DOJ faulted a "pattern and practice of taking immediate offensive action" rather than acting within the bounds of the Constitution and displaying the "thick skin and patience" needed for the job.
In Seattle and in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the DOJ blasted police for too quickly using flashlights, batons or stun guns as weapons when force could have been avoided. In Seattle in 2010, an officer killed a Native American woodcarver who had crossed the street while holding a small knife and a block of wood. The officer got out of his car, and when the carver -- who turned out to be hard of hearing -- didn't immediately drop the tool as ordered, he was shot.
Like Wilson, the officer wasn't charged criminally because of the high bar for such prosecutions against police, but the case helped spur the federal civil rights investigation of the department. A consent decree overhauled the department's training, putting a premium on de-escalation and bias-free policing. The DOJ has already launched a similar investigation in Ferguson.
In practice, de-escalation can take many forms, said Seattle police spokesman Sean Whitcomb. Sometimes it means that multiple officers respond rather than one, because the larger presence can make excitable subjects realize they're outnumbered.
But for an officer, it can also mean calmly introducing yourself, listening to what someone is saying and simply relating to the person. The use of body-worn cameras can also help, experts say, because both officers and civilians tend to behave better when they know they're being recorded. "If we can use language and presence to get people to comply with lawful orders, we can consider that a win," Whitcomb said.
Still, reducing tension can be easier said than done. A 2012 report from the Police Executive Research Forum describes challenges in utilizing de-escalation techniques, saying a younger generation of officers accustomed to communicating through email and other electronic media may be less skilled at face-to-face encounters.
And some officers worry about giving away the upper hand.
A group of Seattle police officers sued over the department's new use-of-force policy. They said while they too want to prevent excessive uses of force, the policy is overly complicated and could endanger officers by requiring them to hesitate before using force. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, but the officers have appealed.
"Traditional police training reinforces that you must always display a very strong, assertive presence," said Sue Rahr, executive director of Washington state's police academy. "But if the officer reacts to a challenge as most human beings would -- by challenging back -- the situation is going to devolve."
7 Positive Solutions to Rein in
Our Out-of-Control Police State
Carl Gibson / Reader Supported News
(December 1, 2014) -- The decision to not indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown was a catalyst for a mass movement all over the country for police accountability. Citizens in over 170 US cities took to the streets last week to protest violent and out of control police forces in the wake of the grand jury decision. The solution won't come from one specific policy, but from a wide array of reforms that will address the systemic issues that result in police acting with impunity.
1. Repeal the Pentagon's 1033 Program
Since the War on Drugs began during the Reagan administration, police departments have become increasingly militarized. The Department of Defense's Excess Property Program (DoD 1033) allows surplus military equipment to go to local and county police forces. This program is chiefly responsible for streets looking like war zones during national political conventions, global trade meetings, G8 summits, the Occupy movement and, more recently, the streets of Ferguson.
NPR examined Pentagon records for the 1033 program and found that an alarming amount of armored vehicles, grenade launchers, assault rifles, helicopters, airplanes, and other high-tech military equipment is landing in the hands of improperly-trained local cops in towns with low crime rates. Repealing this program will result in local cops looking like local cops rather than soldiers patrolling Fallujah.
2. Mandate Body Cameras for All Police Officers That Can't Be Turned Off While on Duty
Over 154,000 people have signed on to a campaign to equip all police officers with body cameras. If a police officers have to wear a body camera and have their actions recorded on video for all to see, it will result in those officers acting with more professionalism, knowing that their actions can't be hidden from civilian eyes. This will result in less racial profiling, fewer instances of killing unarmed civilians, and more professional community policing as a result.
These cameras must not be turned off while police are on duty, and strict penalties must be in place for officers who turn off body cameras while on the clock. Chief Tony Farrar of the Rialto Police Department, in California, conducted a study of police departments that used body cameras, and learned that there were 50 percent fewer uses of force with body cameras in place, and complaints against officers were down to 10 percent of what they were before the cameras were used.
3. Require Strict Training for Use of Lethal Force
When a Cleveland cop shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice to death in a park for playing with a toy gun, he did it within two seconds of arriving. There was no conversation asking him to put the gun down, no attempt to call for backup, and no attempt to subdue him with pepper spray or a taser.
There's no reason to give anyone a badge and a gun to keep the peace if they aren't trained to know when it's appropriate to use deadly force. Whether there's an active shooter who's threatening to hurt people, or a kid playing with a gun that may or may not be fake, it's the officer's job to know when to start shooting and when to de-escalate. Cities and states need to mandate that police go through additional training that teaches when lethal force is necessary and when it's not.
4. Make Police Officers Run for Office
Among the 75 US cities with the largest police forces, 60 percent of those officers commute to work from another town and don't even live in the community they serve. For example, the 53-member police force of Ferguson, Missouri, has only three Black members. This is in a community that's 70 percent Black. And in 2013, those officers issued 32,975 arrest warrants in a town of only 21,135 people.
When a police officers don't live in the community they serve, they have no motivation to invest in the community and help it grow, only in meeting their own arrest quota. This fuels racial profiling, brutality, and unnecessary killings like the shooting of Mike Brown.
However, if police officers had to win the support of the people at the ballot box, they would naturally be more invested in the citizens they served and take a more community-based approach to policing. Imagine having someone knock on your door, tell you they're running for one of the several police officer positions in your city ward, and try to convince you to vote for them.
Police officers running for re-election would get to have their records examined in the public eye, and be forced to defend their actions to keep their jobs. It would truly make the position of police officer more devoted to public service, and help bridge the huge gap of distrust between citizens and police officers.
5. Form Civilian Review Boards with Power to Fire and Indict Police Officers
The mayor of Ferguson just established a civilian review board to monitor police in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, but that should be just the beginning. This mass movement for police accountability should go to city councils and boards of aldermen everywhere, demanding local governments form a civilian review board to hold police officers accountable.
These boards should include both male and female representatives of all ethnicities, and be proportional to the racial makeup of that city. And if you're a current or former police officer, or have immediate family members who serve as police officers, then you aren't allowed to serve on the board. Citizens with particular grievances present their case to the board, and the board looks at all available evidence to see if that grievance has merit. To have any power, these boards have to be able to suspend, fire, and/or indict police officers once a decision has been reached. Police in cities with effective civilian review boards will definitely think before pulling the trigger.
6. Do Away With Felonies for Nonviolent Crimes
California just passed a statewide ballot initiative to do away with felony charges for nonviolent offenses, which immediately qualifies nearly 10,000 incarcerated Californians for early release. California's Proposition 47 reclassified low-level offenses like shoplifting, drug possession, and check fraud of $950 or less. Now, the state will hand out approximately 40,000 fewer felony convictions each year.
When fewer people are in jail, more people get a chance to live their lives without a jail sentence on their record. This logically means fewer people in desperate situations, who are locked into a cycle of having to commit economic crimes in perpetuity because of having to do time from one mistake that blemished a career for good. And as an added bonus, private prison companies will build fewer facilities, as many of them are only built with the promise of a 90 percent constant occupancy rate.
7. Impose Strict Penalties for Racial Profiling
In 2011, a friend and I were visiting a friend in Brooklyn when, out of nowhere, a police car pulled out in front of us and three officers pressed us up against the car and searched us at random. My friend, who is Black, was frisked for several minutes longer than I was. Neither one of us had any drugs or weapons on us, and the police left unceremoniously. As a White man, I can say I've never been stop-and-frisked by the NYPD since, despite visiting the city numerous times over the last three years.
The statistics back me up – out of every 10 stop-and-frisks conducted by the NYPD, 9 of those yielded no results. And data from the New York Civil Liberties Union shows that year after year, 80 to 85 percent of those unsuccessful stop-and-frisks are perpetrated against Blacks and Latinos. If cities everywhere were to penalize officers with unpaid leave who conduct 3 or more traffic stops, stop-and-frisks, or sudden detainments against non-White citizens that didn't result in any charges filed per month, police would be much more careful who they target while on patrol. Call it the three-strikes rule, but for cops.
Too many police act as unaccountable paramilitary forces, and citizens who have taken to the streets to protest this are rightly upset. But these solutions will go a long way in turning police officers into community servants again. Let's make our rage productive and meaningful and turn our protests into action.
Carl Gibson, 27, is co-founder of US Uncut, a nonviolent grassroots movement that mobilized thousands to protest corporate tax dodging and budget cuts in the months leading up to Occupy Wall Street. Carl and other US Uncut activists are featured in the documentary We're Not Broke, which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Carl is also the author of How to Oust a Congressman, an instructional manual on getting rid of corrupt members of Congress and state legislatures based on his experience in the 2012 elections in New Hampshire. He lives in Sacramento, California.
Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.
Body Cameras for Police
Rashad Robinson / Color of Change.org
How can we prevent more tragedies like what happened to Mike Brown? There's one simple solution that would change a lot: making body cameras mandatory for police.
It would change how officers behave in the first place,1 and it would transform how officer-involved shootings are handled and prosecuted by creating a clear record of what happened.
Mike's family understands this — in their statement after the grand jury verdict, Mike's parents called for mandatory body cameras for police. 2 It makes basic, common sense.
Click here to call on federal, state and local authorities across the country to mandate the use of body cameras for police officers. Once you do, please spread the word and ask your friends and family to do the same. It only takes a moment.
There is so much wrong with our criminal justice system when it comes to handling officer-involved shootings -- and much of the needed reforms are hard to get in place. But body cameras are a straightforward, non-controversial solution that would go a long way towards making clear what's happened in the context of an officer involved shooting.
In a study done in California last year, cameras resulted in a 60% reduction in use of force, and an 88% decline in the number of complaints against officers. 3
If police departments can find the money to buy military grade equipment, they should certainly be able to find the money to pay for cameras to protect the public, as well as police officers. And this is truly a two-way street: cameras not only protect the victims of police shootings, they protect officers who are doing their job correctly.
In cases like Mike Brown's, the dead can't testify. It's the officer's word that sets the stage, and the other direct participant has no voice. Body cameras change that, giving the victim of a police killing a voice and creating an objective record of what happened. And with body cameras, the likelihood of deadly force being used inappropriately goes down in the first place, because the officer knows he or she is more likely to be held accountable.
Getting body cameras in use across the country is largely a matter of us demanding it. Once we get to a critical number of people joining the campaign in different states and municipalities, we will work with our members on the ground, as well as state-based and local organizations, to get laws passed. We will also use the pressure from members across the country to demand that federal funding for police departments comes with a requirement that body cameras and other accountability provisions be put in place. This is something that, together, we certainly have the power to accomplish.
We cannot bring back Mike Brown, and we have a tough road ahead to gain a sense of justice for his family, as well as accountability for Darren Wilson. This is one of many reforms that will be needed to transform how the police treat our communities — but it's one clear opportunity to prevent the next Mike Brown from being killed, and to prevent the next injustice along the lines of what we've seen in Ferguson.
1. "Self-awareness to being watched and socially-desirable behavior: A field experiment on the effect of body-worn cameras on police use-of-force," Police Foundation, 03-2013
2. "What Michael Brown's Parents Have to Say," Newser, 11-24-2014
3. "Wearing a Badge, and a Video Camera," New York Times, 4-6-2013
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.