Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Cameras Aren't the Answer

I’m taking a quick break from bail to weigh in on the current, seemingly endless series of incidents concerning law enforcement officers and the public, one of the latest occurring during an undercover sting where I used to live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A lot of people are rightfully concerned that without cameras, we wouldn’t even hear about a lot of the incidents, like the one in North Charleston, South Carolina, when the officer shot Walter Scott eight times in the back.    

Yeah, it was a good thing somebody had a camera at the scene, because it appears that the officer in South Carolina was getting ready to say something like, “He took my Taser, and so I feared that he posed a significant threat of death or serious bodily harm to others.” These days, you can shoot a guy in the back and get away with it if you say the right thing afterward.

But more cameras, including body cameras on the officers themselves, aren’t the answer. Instead, the answer to restoring the relationship between law enforcement and the people they serve in America is a complete overhaul of practically everything that the officers currently do.

Police departments and other law enforcement entities should start with their mission statements, re-drafting them with the help of citizens so as to memorialize the contract that allows them to carry and use deadly weapons on our streets. Interacting with citizens has to be positive for everyone. I know a police department today that actually punishes its officers by making them work at the department’s front desk where the public comes to ask questions. So when officers screw up in that department, their punishment is to interact with people. How messed up is that? I’ve been to that front desk, and the people working there aren’t the happiest campers on the playground. The whole thing is a fundamental disconnect between the police and the people they serve.   
Law enforcement should also completely change its hiring practices – I know another police department in Colorado that didn’t want to hire ex-military or people with law enforcement experience; instead, it hired waiters, who knew how to serve, and then taught those waiters how to be police. The relationship between the police and the public in that town, by the way, is exemplary.  

Law enforcement should completely change its training, too; the current method of training that involves giving orders and ratcheting up the response based on the amount of resistance to those orders is simply not working. Police and other officers must be taught to diffuse environments, to occasionally back away, and to understand the overall perspective of the situation.   

Finally, law enforcement should change its primary focus, which over the decades has slowly drifted from protecting the public to protecting the officers. This isn’t the first time that we’ve had to question our fixation with officer safety. After Columbine, we recognized that officer safety was secondary to saving people’s lives in an active shooter scenario. Quite frankly, if we’re all that concerned with officer safety, we really shouldn’t allow undercover sting operations to begin with. They’re pretty dangerous.

If I were younger and wanted to create a social science theory describing what people wanted in their police forces, I would call it “the Matt Dillon Theory” of law enforcement. If you’ve ever watched Gunsmoke, then you know that Matt often ran headlong into danger to help people. He faced the bad guys upright and played by the rules. Occasionally, he’d have to shoot it out with them, but only if they’d been warned and decided to shoot Matt first. He never shot women (hey, it was the 50s), drunks, or kids. And he never, and I mean never, shot anyone in the back. In my opinion, that’s the kind of law enforcement officers we all want. What we have, instead, is pretty far from it.

I like cops – I know a lot of cops, and I used to work with cops when I wrote about a billion parking tickets back in the day – but I can’t ignore what’s going on. The biggest public backlashes we get in America are when single incidents reinforce and amplify the public’s notions about what they already believe. The fact that people are taking to the streets to protest these single incidents is because the people generally believe all officers are angry, power hungry control freaks looking for a fight. It’s going to take more than body cameras to change that perception.