Dallas PD leaders speak out on police shootings, militarization and protest

In my post about how police respond to protest I interviewed Maj. Max Geron, who runs the Media Relations Unit, Community Affairs and Planning Unit of the Dallas Police Department. Geron is also a security studies scholar who recently wrote his master’s thesis on policing and protests at the Naval Postgraduate School. Geron has since written a post of his own at the blog Homeland Security Watch. A few excerpts:

The tweet read:

“Honestly, of all the people that should be upset about #Ferguson, why aren’t the other police who actually do “protect & serve” speaking up?”

It came from one of the people who follows me on twitter and while not directed specifically at me, it was directed to me. It is an excellent question and speaks to what I think needs to change about law enforcement.

It’s not simply about social media use by law enforcement, although in my view that needs to improve. It’s actually how we talk about and how we respond to protest. Law enforcement officers are often quick to say that we are here to protect the rights of those who want to express dissent as well as the rights of those against whom the protest is directed. As true and simple as that statement is, the reality of it is exponentially more complicated.

The images from Ferguson, Missouri are disturbing and disappointing to those who recognize their role in law enforcement as servants of the public as opposed to strict enforcers of the law, maintainers of order or members of a paramilitary organization. While enforcing the law is a primary function and order maintenance is a part of that job, they are but components of the larger public servant role. Additionally, while police agencies are paramilitary in nature, law enforcement leaders now, more than ever, need to guard against the increase of militarization currently underway.

I’m disheartened that police unions and associations across the country are concerned about citizens photographing police while in public and have no qualms about speaking out against it. This adds to the concern of the public that we are moving more towards a police state and slowly eroding the freedoms we should cherish in this great nation . . .

Long before Michael Brown was shot, the Ferguson police department seems not to have recognized that they were in a precarious position for several reasons. Their minority representation was not reflective of the community they were policing. In the language of social identity theory, the police in Ferguson, Missouri are a 53 person out-group with the ability to take not only the freedoms of the in-group but their lives as well. Much work must be done in that department and community to repair the perceived injustices. Police need to do more to recruit candidates that are more representative of the population they serve, while at the same time making inroads to the citizens with their current cadre of officers.

Their strategy for policing protest, if they had a formal one, seems to indicate a lack of understanding of the effect that a strong show of militarized force can have on a community that believes they have been disenfranchised by their police department. By being members of the “out group”, they were incapable of understanding the impact such a tactical display would have on the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri. Furthermore, their initial refusal to release the name of the involved officer supports the theory that they were unable to understand how that could be perceived as an inability to be objective and impartial in their investigation . . .

Finally, do not make the mistake thinking this is solely a Ferguson issue, a Missouri issue or mid-West issue. This is a homeland security issue and was evidenced in the responses to the Occupy Movement in 2011 across the country. The increase in militarization is a national issue only thrust into the forefront of the American awareness by the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. The withdrawal of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan has left thousands upon thousands of former soldiers looking for work. For law enforcement agencies looking to hire qualified candidates, former soldiers appear to be outstanding recruits.

We are only beginning to consider the implications of the flood of former military personnel joining the ranks of civilian policing. I submit that more study into this phenomenon is needed. The issue of militarization of American policing is not just the acquisition of military equipment; it is the infusion of so many former soldiers into the ranks of the civilian police.

For American police, retention of the “servant” mindset is more critical than that of the “warrior” mindset.

Meanwhile, Geron’s boss, Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown, recently wrote an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News. Brown recalls a moment when a Dallas police officer had just shot and killed a man, and how he elected to respond.

As I began putting on my uniform, for some strange reason, I flashed back — clear as day — to my initial interview to become a police officer.

“Why do you want to be a police officer?”

“I want to help people, sir. I want to serve my community. I want to make a difference.”

I said those words to a police department recruiter 31 years before I received that Dixon Circle call. On that summer day in 2012, I was going to get a powerful lesson on what serving my community meant . . .

Tragically, what is happening in Ferguson won’t be the last story of its kind. What I think is worth noting from the Dixon Circle incident is what we tried to do as quickly as possible:

We immediately informed the public in a news conference about all the facts as we knew them. We assured the public that a complete and thorough investigation would be done.

We released the name of the person we shot and the name of the officer.

We described the investigative process and the fact that a Dallas County grand jury would ultimately decide whether the shooting was justified.

We answered every question we could — both from the residents and from the media.

Perhaps most important, we drew down the number of officers that were in the neighborhood.

One poignant moment during this crisis involved a sergeant who was on the scene. He broke the police line to go into the gathering crowd and console someone he knew among the residents. That sergeant, like me, was born and raised in Dallas and plugged in to the community — in many ways part of the community.

That sergeant’s background, and his actions that day, made a big difference.

As I’ve written here before, although I have quibbles with some of Brown’s policies, he has clearly demonstrated that he’s a police chief who understands the meaning of “serve and protect.” He’s not only willing to fire bad cops, but also willing to announce their firings on social media. He has been willing to endure the wrath of police unions and advocacy organizations on issues such as mandating additional lethal force training for his officers. (Bizarrely, that policy also earned him a scolding from the Dallas Morning News editorial board.) He also has the good sense to choose advisers like Geron. We could use more police executives like them.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."

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Radley Balko · August 20, 2014