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Opinion Reforming police culture is a daunting challenge

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Earlier this month, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck announced that the department would begin giving out a “Preservation of Life” award. The honor would be given to police officers who show restraint and put themselves at risk in order to resolve a potentially dangerous situation without using lethal force.

At a time in which we’re having a national discourse on police violence, the number of people killed by police this year alone just topped 1,000, and Los Angeles itself has seen its number of police shootings nearly double over last year, the award seems like a positive if largely symbolic effort to encourage deescalation and conflict resolution over brute force.

But that isn’t the way the police union sees it. From the Associated Press:

It was a seemingly innocuous announcement. The Los Angeles police chief said he would begin acknowledging officers for resolving potentially deadly situations with non-lethal means.
The Preservation of Life medal will be one of the department’s highest honors, along with the medal of valor, given out for acts of heroism, Chief Charlie Beck told the Police Commission earlier this week.
Two days later, the union that represents officers in the nation’s second-largest city wrote a blog calling the award “a terrible idea that will put officers in even more danger.”
The Los Angeles Police Protective League blog, published Thursday, said officers already are trained to preserve life and that the award “suggests that officers must go above and beyond their normal activities to avoid harm.”
That prioritizes the lives of criminals over officers and comes at a time when police feel increasingly threatened, the blog said.
“What we don’t want to see is a flag-draped coffin and the chief speaking at an officer’s funeral stating, ‘This brave officer will be awarded the Preservation of Life medal,’ ” the blog said.
Union President Craig Lally said the blog was published after the group’s nine-member board of directors unanimously approved it.
While Beck had good intentions, the award sends a bad message to the rank and file, Lally said.
“There might be a hesitation there,” he explained. “A lot of these shootings and situations that officers are put in happen within a millisecond and it’s over with. … If they hesitate, they’re dead.”

Lally’s comments are part of an emerging narrative in law enforcement circles that might surprise some people: Cops aren’t shooting people nearly enough. They’re also about as stark and clear a statement yet from a prominent law enforcement advocate about where they prioritize officer safety: above all else.

Beck’s award is interesting — and threatening to people like Lally — because it unsettles what you might call the “Cop of the Year Syndrome.” This is the tendency for police agencies and organizations to not only excuse questionable incidents of lethal force, but to honor them, as a way of dispelling critics. But such honors, of course, only reinforce the notion that police officers should assume zero risk — that at even the slightest hint of danger, citizens’ lives are expendableExamples abound:

  • In January 2005, police officers in Baltimore County, Md., staged a pre-dawn raid on the home of Cheryl Lynn Noel and her family. They suspected that Noel’s son had been involved in drug distribution. When Noel, whose stepdaughter had previously been murdered, woke to the sound of armed men breaking into her home, she grabbed a gun the family kept for protection. When the officers broke down the bedroom door, they saw Noel with the gun, still in her nightgown, and opened fire. According to Noel’s attorneys, the police then shot her again from point-blank range as she lay on the ground. Amid criticism over the decision to serve the search warrant in such a violent manner and the death of a woman who led prayer groups, just after Noel’s family filed a lawsuit against the county, the officer who killed her was given the department’s Silver Star for his “valor, courage, honor, and bravery” in killing Noel. The leader of the raid was later named the police chief for Baltimore County.
  • In December 2007, police in Minnesota staged a massive raid on Vang Khang, his wife and their six children. The cops came in at night, deployed flash grenades and shattered windows. They had the wrong house. Kang exchanged gunfire with the officers before he realized they were police. Miraculously, there were no serious injuries. There was no question that Kang and his family were innocent of any wrongdoing. Seven months later, Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan and Mayor R.T. Rybak awarded the officers involved with a big pile of medals and commendations. In handing out the awards, Dolan said, “The easy decision would have been to retreat under covering fire. The team did not take the easy way out. This is a perfect example of a situation that could have gone horribly wrong, but did not because of the professionalism with which it was handled.” Could have gone horribly wrong.
  • In 2013, two deputies in Broward County, Fla., were given awards for bravery for shooting and killing a man carrying an air rifle as he walked home from a pawn shop. They were given the award even as the shooting was still under investigation, and as witness statements and a photo appeared to contradict their account of the incident. (The Broward County sheriff did at least acknowledge last month that the awards were inappropriate.)
  • Last year, the NYPD Muslim Officers Society attempted to give its Cop of the Year award to Mourad Mourad, officer who shot and killed 16-year-old Kimani Gray in 2013. There too, witnesses contradict the report by Mourad and his partner. Moruad had also been involved in a shooting in 2011 and was the subject of three civil rights lawsuits. Mourad declined the award.
  • The Alabama legislature recently issued honors and a commendation to a police officer who shot a man and Tased a woman during a 2014 traffic stop. The honors came at the request of the Birmingham Police Department, which also issued the officer a medal. The legislature is now considering rescinding the honors after dash cam video leaked to a newspaper appears to contradict the officer’s account of the incident. Law enforcement officials had the video all along but had refused to release it to the public.
  • Last October, the Santa Anna, Calif., city council honored a police officer who is being sued for shooting an unarmed man in the back.
  • In 2011, a police union awarded its Officer of the Year honors to an officer who just months earlier had shot and killed unarmed Pace University student Danroy Henry, Jr. Officer Aaron Hess fired at Henry’s car as it drove away from a disturbance at a bar. Police say the car had struck an officer, although witnesses disputed that claim. Hess was later award the highest honor given by the National Association of Police Organizations.
  • That same year, the two Las Vegas officers who shot and killed Erik Scott outside a Costco were honorable mentions for that award. Scott, a West Point graduate with no criminal record, was legally carrying at the time. Police say he was acting erratically, and cited his painkiller medication. Scott’s family says the police told him to both drop his guns and raise his hands, then shot him when he didn’t comply with the contradictory orders. Though Costco had cameras that could have captured much of the incident, the store and the police say those cameras malfunctioned. The lieutenant who nominated the officers told the Review-Journal, “What potentially could have been a bad situation they brought to an end with no citizens being hurt.”

You get the idea. Police groups want law enforcement officers to get all the plaudits and rewards for taking a job that sometimes requires acts of bravery. But they don’t think cops should assume any risk. As former Baltimore police officer Michael Wood explained when I interviewed him in June, there’s nothing brave about shooting a potentially dangerous person from 50 feet away. “You know what is heroic? Approaching the young kid with the gun,” Wood said, referring to the shooting of Tamir Rice. “Putting yourself at risk by waiting a few seconds to be sure that the kid really is a threat, that the gun is a real gun. The hero is the cop who hesitates to pull the trigger.”

Neil Franklin, a former Baltimore cop, Maryland state trooper, and current head of the drug reform group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, made a similar point when I interviewed him in 2013:

“I think there are two critical components to policing that cops today have forgotten. Number one, you’ve signed on to a dangerous job. That means that you’ve agreed to a certain amount of risk. You don’t get to start stepping on others’ rights to minimize that risk you agreed to take on. And number two, your first priority is not to protect yourself, it’s to protect those you’ve sworn to protect. But I don’t know how you get police officers today to value those principles again. The ‘us and everybody else’ sentiment is strong today. It’s very, very difficult to change a culture.”

An award that acknowledges actual bravery — acts in which a police officer assumes added risk in order to save lives — isn’t going to change police culture. It’s the slightest of pushbacks. But the union can’ t allow even that.

I suspect that Beck’s efforts here will only bring him more grief. Over the last year, the reform-minded police chiefs in Salt Lake City and Cincinnati were fired. In Salt Lake, Chris Burbank was allegedly fired for his handling of sexual harassment complaints by three female officers. I don’t know what motivated the complaints or if they had merit. But he was an eloquent voice for reform. In Cincinnati, Jeffrey Blackwell was held up by the White House as a paragon of less aggressive, less confrontational, community-oriented policing. His firing  was celebrated by the police unions, and was allegedly due to “low morale” within the department. Take that how you will. Police advocates have also attacked Denver Chief Robert White for his reform policies, including his less confrontational approach to protests,

One reform-oriented chief also still on the job is David Brown in Dallas. I’ve praised Brown in multiple posts here at The Watch for the way he handles police shootings, his approach to protests, his policy of transparency when it comes to disciplining his officers (he announces punishments and transgressions on social media), and his efforts to give cops better training in deescalation to prevent shootings. (Which isn’t to say Brown is perfect. He isn’t without his blind spots.)

Those policies appear to have produced some tangible results:

Police Chief David Brown says this shift toward de-escalation is driving a sharp drop in excessive-force complaints against officers. In 2009, the year before Brown became chief, 147 such complaints were filed. So far this year, 13 have been filed — on pace to be the lowest number in at least two decades.
“This is the most dramatic development in policing anywhere in the country,” Brown said in an interview Friday with The Dallas Morning News. “We’ve had this kind of impact basically through training, community policing and holding officers accountable.”
Brown says his commanders have improved the quality of so-called reality-based training and increased required training hours for street cops over the past year. Trainers model the scenarios on real-life events recorded by officers’ body cams, dash-cams, and the media.
“We can learn from what Dallas is doing,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C. “That’s what police departments need — they don’t need training in silos: one day about the law, one day about firearms, one day about crisis intervention.”
Brown believes the Dallas training has also led to a 30 percent decline in assaults on officers this year, and a 40 percent drop in shootings by police.

But Brown too has encountered some serious opposition. Earlier this year, several local and national police advocacy groups and police unions essentially called for him to be fired. Police union officials told the Dallas Morning News that Brown is “vindictive” and “too heavy handed on punishment.” Police officers are leaving the department in record numbers — some because they were fired, others due to morale. (It’s worth noting that another big reason for the Dallas defections is low pay, which would seem to me an issue more for the city council than for Brown.) WFAA reported in July that a police union survey conducted earlier this year found that “80 percent of police officers rated their morale low or the lowest it’s ever been. That survey also found that 87 percent did not believe they had the support of the command staff to do the job in the manner that they’ve been asked to do it.” At least two members of the Dallas City Council recently expressed concerns about Brown’s performance.

Brown has even faced criticism from the media for his efforts to give cops training deescalation, or his efforts to concentrate resources on policing for violent and serious crimes instead of traffic enforcement or low-stakes crimes like shoplifting. That has vastly reduced the load of the city’s municipal courts. But it has also reduced city revenue, which is a good way to draw the ire of city officials. (Brown’s response: “The purpose of traffic enforcement is to improve traffic safety, not to raise revenue.” Imagine!) Make no mistake: The culture that reformers such as Brown are trying to change is entrenched.

And yet despite losing personnel, Brown has not only managed to oversee a dramatic drop in police-involved shootings and complaints against officers, he has also overseen a reduction in crime. It’s true that violent crime in Dallas has increased a bit this year over last. (And yes, the city was among those cited in that context-free New York Times article about the allegedly soaring homicide rate.) But that’s on the heels of a year that saw the city’s lowest murder rate since 1930. In 2009, the year before Brown took over, there were 166 murders in Dallas. Last year there were 116. This year the city has had 122, on pace for 137 by year’s end. That would give 2015 the city’s third-lowest murder rate in 85 years. Brown has done all of this while keeping bad cops in line, reducing complaints against police, reducing police-involved shootings and losing a good chunk of his department.

So far, the Dallas mayor and city manager are backing Brown. That may be in part because of the vocal support Brown has received from churches, community groups and civic leaders outside of city government. There’s a good lesson here. Ultimately — and unfortunately — reform comes down to politics. If voters make it clear to elected officials that they want reformers such as Brown in office, mayors and city councils will have some political cover to stand by chiefs embattled by police unions and law enforcement advocacy groups. But those groups tend to be loud and enormously influential, particularly at the local level. Without support from voters, civic groups and sympathetic politicians, leaders such as Brown will go the way of Blackwell, cities such as Dallas will go the way of Albuquerque, and the opportunity for real and lasting reform will be lost.