In one, a cop pepper-sprays an Army second lieutenant as he sits in his vehicle after being pulled over. Another video shows officers wrestling to the ground and handcuffing a 73-year-old woman with dementia who had allegedly taken items worth about $14 from a store. And one year ago next week will be the anniversary of a searing video of George Floyd dying under the knee of former police officer Derek Chauvin.
As a police reformer, I find myself caught between good cops who feel misunderstood and activists who want to defund police departments, or at least reimagine what policing looks like. I see a flurry of legislative proposals at the local, state and federal levels, but most of them scratch only the surface of what is truly needed.
So what can be done? How do we change not just the operations but also the culture of policing? And how can we generate the sense of urgency that this issue deserves in all 18,000 police agencies in the United States?
The key to answering these questions may lie in the very technology that brought these issues front and center in the first place: video.
The explosion of video — both officers’ body-worn cameras and bystanders’ cellphone footage — presents a unique learning opportunity for police, but police have to be willing to take advantage of it.
One barrier to changing U.S. policing has been an unwillingness to question the actions of officers in another city. But to move policing forward, that reluctance has to be turned on its head. The notion that you shouldn’t “Monday morning quarterback” other officers is simply wrong. Worse, it is holding us back.
The existence of so many videos allows police departments everywhere, of every size, to do something right away. Here is what I propose.
Select a video of a recent officer-involved shooting or other use-of-force incident from anywhere in the country. Assemble your command staff and play the video. Then start the conversation by asking a simple question: “What would our department have done if this situation occurred here?”
These conversations are difficult, so it’s essential to ask the right questions. Typically, the first question that police ask in these situations is, “Were the officer’s actions justified?” That’s important from a narrow, legal standpoint. But the larger question needs to be, “What could we have done differently that would have prevented this outcome?”
There are other questions that need to be asked:
· Were the actions of the officers appropriate and proportionate to the incident or any threat they faced?
· Were the police even the right agency to handle this call?
· Did the officers’ communications, tactics and decision-making escalate the situation?
· Could other officers have stepped in to prevent a bad outcome?
· Did officers render first aid if the subject was injured?
· Have we developed a culture rooted in the sanctity of human life, in which the goal is for everyone to go home safely?
Those are all questions that police personnel are not accustomed to confronting. But that’s why they are so important to ask.
After police chiefs have this discussion with their department leaders, they need to bring in their street cops and first-line supervisors. Ask them the same questions. Have the same uncomfortable conversations with them.
The goal is to create a culture in which police agencies encourage open and honest discussions on controversial topics.
Then, chiefs need to meet with members of the community and other city agencies to get their input as well.
Think about what a powerful message that would send — asking the community for its perspective on how police officers in another city acted, and how they would like their own officers to perform in a similar situation. And asking other parts of the government what they could have done to assist.
Only by involving all stakeholders in these conversations can we get the results we are looking for. This process also needs to be ongoing. Police chiefs should never let a tragedy in another location pass without trying to learn from it. And these reviews need not be limited to incidents with bad outcomes. Police and communities can analyze success stories, too, such as the recent incident in which Newark, N.J., officers rescued a suicidal man who was threatening to jump from an overpass.
Video cameras have exposed a side of policing the public rarely saw in the past. But video technology has also created a library of incidents that police agencies can learn from. Our police culture can begin to change immediately if police are willing to use the difficult incidents of today to prevent the tragedies of tomorrow.