Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Police Training and Chain Letters

My future-father-in-law forwarded me the text of this open-letter, ostensibly authored by Retired Sgt. Kenneth Gross (this might be him), and asked me what I think.  What I think, is that this would be best filed under "don't even get me started", but nevertheless, I've decided to post my own open-response.

I think the problem that the former sgt refers to is both "societal" and "training". He raises some good points, in that this is not "all cops", and I suspect our president and many top administrators could use additional "training" to understand the training, challenges, trials, and tribulations of our law enforcement officers who put their lives at risk every day.

The "training" this sergeant initially refers to, i.e. being raised in a supportive and loving environment that includes family, religious institution, sports teams, and schools, is a broad generalization, and assumes a level of privilege that we associate with the American dream, but is in considerably shorter supply than most people think.   He undermines his own argument about the ubiquity of such an upbringing by saying that police officers are the "Thin Blue Line" (I know that to him this means something else, but try an internet search, and one of the first things to come up with the movie by the same name about a man wrongly convicted by a corrupt justice system) separating us from "total anarchy".  Are police what maintain "civilized society"? I think this sort of hyperbole really doesn't do much of a service to service members, who do take real risks, but are not all that stands between us an anarchy: hopefully, as the sgt notes, our societal up-bringing and common values are what keep us from running the streets naked while looting.  Do these things still happen, of course (or something like it), but I think we're still a long way from total anarchy and the need for a strict police state.

Meanwhile, any time someone talks about the guv'rmint "dumping mounds of cash" on anything, you can be relatively certain that argument is going to lack nuance and facts. When it comes to understanding welfare's role in society and its causes, plenty of people have well-intended, but essentially misguided ideas about who benefits (see "welfare queens") and what the rules should be. The fact is, that the Pew Research Center reports that more households and people than you may think receive some sort of government benefit from Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, TANF, Unemployment benefits, or WIC/SNAP (food stamps). I've been on welfare, and benefitted from Massachusetts reduced cost healthcare before ACA was passed.  I used it for a short time, and stopped when I was doing better.  Of course I had a family safety net, and far more extensive education and privilege than most people who need that aid.  And, incidentally, the elderly and children make up probably the two largest groups that receive these benefits.  I assume most people would not advocate for putting Americans aged 70+ back to work, or stripping parents of benefits that would result in children going hungry. 

We need to educate citizens such that they have the skills they need for jobs that will pay them a living wage.  Millions of jobs in this country pay wages so low that even working two supposedly "full-time" jobs puts them below the poverty line.  A job flipping burgers isn't going to support someone the way they need.  If that were my only options for employment, I'd probably turn to crime.  But while a broader discussion if these issues is important to society, it doesn't really have much bearing on whether police need additional training and accountability.

When trying to achieve a particular standard, norming is necessary.  Police departments can't know which officers are not going to uphold the values of their job, whether by choice or ineptitude, but training improves quality and decreases failures, and so by necessity, it makes sense to train ALL police.  Everyone in my workplace undergoes multiple mandatory trainings every year, and the highest responsibility most of us have is protecting sensitive student information. Police have the responsibility of deciding when to wield lethal-force, and making that choice should invite review and followup training every time.  

Having a rigorous and transparent system in place is beneficial to those with and without a badge.  Let's say for the sake of argument that it's "less than 1%" as the former sergeant suggests (which sounds to me like a made-up number), and let's reduce it further to fewer than .25% of all cops. Going by DOJ law enforcement numbers, that's still over 2000 cops with the power of life or death in their hands.  If we cut in half, or even in quarter, I'd still have a problem with that.  Would you say it's okay to have even 500 gun-toting racists, idiots, or just fat guys with anger management issues and a license to kill? That's no Six-Sigma (the management philosophy meant to reduce defects to 3.4 in every million opportunities), and there are things police could do, and even things that we should reasonably expect them to do, that could help a great deal:

1) Undergo regular training on appropriate use of service weapons and physical restraint in the line of duty.  This should include regular physical examinations to be sure that police officers are able to apply the training.

2) Wear cameras and have cameras mounted in their cruisers to maintain a record that holds both them and citizens accountable.

3) Increase communication with the community and solicit feedback and discussion on law and safety issues that are mutually important.

If I were a police officer, I'd want these things: insufficient training is as likely as anything else to get an officer killed or injured in the line of duty (and in fact, far more police officers die due to preventable accidents than due to "felonious" acts), wearing a camera protects officers who are upholding the law in a legal manner from frivolous lawsuits and media scorn, and many urban police departments are undergoing high level PR crises, so having civil and productive conversations with the citizens seems like it'd be in everyone's best interest.

But that's just what I think off the top my head. I don't think this chain letter presents much by way of a solution or an argument against training, so much as it takes offense at government officials' suggestion that more training might be effective in reducing the number of these situations.  This is a complex issue.  Taking any one group or individuals to task for their role isn't particularly productive.  I know that the overwhelming majority of officers serve out of a sense of duty to the greater good, and I respect them for that commitment, just as I respect teachers, firefighters, social workers, and our military; however, that does not mean that police are above reproach, nor that we don't have a responsibility to ensure that our system does as much as possible to protect those they serve, as well as those with the fewest privileges.