Boiled Frogs and Police

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The Parable of the Boiled Frog

If you put a frog in a pan of boiling water, the frog quickly jumps out.  On the other hand, if you put a frog in warm water and slowly increase the temperature, the frog boils to death.  The hypothesis here is that when change in an organization’s environment is gradual, their leads the do not realize what’s happening. It is a good metaphor today for police to consider.

This is what I think is going on with police and their militarization. After 9/11, it seemed like a good idea to prepare police for the obvious – another terrorist attack. Those who should be standing by to respond is our state National Guard. But where were they? They were either in Iraq or Afghanistan or about to go there. Rather than refusing this new role, police stepped into the gap.

Since that time the President and his 21st Century Policing Task Force has spoken about this problem and yesterday the President ordered the supply of military surplus equipment to our nation’s police to be curtailed.

One of the Task Force members, Susan Rahr, former Sheriff of King County in Washington State, and now executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, had this to say about the problem:

“Why are we training police officers like soldiers? Although police officers wear uniforms and carry weapons, the similarity ends there. The missions and rules of engagement are completely different. The soldier’s mission is that of a warrior: to conquer. The rules of engagement are decided before the battle. The police officer’s mission is that of a guardian: to protect. The rules of engagement evolve as the incident unfolds. Soldiers must follow orders. Police officers must make independent decisions. Soldiers come into communities as an outside, occupying force. Guardians are members of the community, protecting from within.”

In turn, after receiving input from police and academics throughout the nation (including yours truly), the Task Force recommended:

“Law enforcement agencies should create policies and procedures for policing mass demonstrations that employ a continuum of managed tactical resources that are designed to minimize the appearance of a military operation and avoid using provocative tactics and equipment that undermine civilian trust (2.7).”

Furthermore, I wrote this in Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off… (2012).

“Like most people in the United States, I witnessed the tragic day of September 11, 2001. But unlike many other citizens, I was paying close attention to the effect it had on our nation’s police. All of us in America since that fateful day have lived in fear. And our police, for the most part, have done so as well.

“Our nation’s police have been unable or slow to return to the community-oriented role they were in the process of working through— such as soft methods of crowd control, neighborhood policing, and focusing on solving community problems. Too many of our nation’s police are busy looking instead for terrorists in the community rather than support from it.

“This new militarism has gripped police and turned them away from the pursuit of community policing to focus on technology to solve their problems and antiterrorism as their new focus. It isn’t that the threat of urban terrorism should be ignored, but rather, who should have the primary responsibility? I see the police as community workers—not urban commandos.

“Police officers, working closely with their communities in our nation’s cities, should take advantage of their unique role to guarantee fairness and effectiveness in their practices. This is the paramount local strategy to prevent domestic terrorism. I have often thought that negative contacts, day in and day out, with the poor and people of color have done more to erode our nation’s security than any international threat.

“The state National Guard, not the police, should be the primary organization to respond to situations that are beyond the capability of local police departments. They have the logistics, intelligence, and weaponry to do so. The guard is local, and has the equipment and support systems to do this. While our local guard units have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, police in many cities have had to fill the gap. It will be difficult for police to give up that role when they return. In the meantime, there has been a substantial regression in their progress toward community policing.”

Recalling the “Parable of the Boiled Frog,” the challenge I make to our nation’s police is this:

  •  Could you be the frog in this pot?
  • Is your environment becoming dangerous, but you do not realize it?
  • When you do, will you have enough time and energy to jump out of the pot?