Everyone makes mistakes. People do and so do their organization’s. Mistakes or errors cannot be totally avoided. And attempts to cover them up, de-minimize them, or argue they are not mistakes always seems to compound the problem.
But there is another way to approach a mistake. They can be great learning opportunities; in fact, teaching moments!
Yes, it would be nice not to have incidents in which the public questions the propriety of a police response or decision, but given the varieties of behavior police encounter, not all will be without error or be considered acceptable in the public’s view.
One city which I have been following is a typical American city with a good police department and much civic pride. But the city recently experienced three police incidents which claimed citizen lives.
Each could have been an opportunity for the police department to publicly review their tactics, training and leadership, and reassure the community of their commitment to lifesaving.
From such a discussion, learning could have occurred — like seeing the need to restate the department’s commitment the protection of life, making a change in their training protocol, or, at least, presenting themselves to the community as concerned, caring and compassionate. It did not happen.
Now a fourth incident is currently in the public’s eye, the violent arrest of a teenage girl of color. While attempting to restrain her, police used multiple knee strikes to her torso, slammed her into the pavement, and applied a Taser repeatedly to her midsection.
Many who watched the shocking video (taken, of course, by a citizen bystander) thought the police tactics were excessive, out of line, and disproportionate to the situation — an upset teenager in shopping center who thought her cell phone had been stolen. The caller to police mentioned a knife, though when approached by police she was upset, not armed, and a good candidate to use conflict management and de-escalation techniques.
This incident is now being reviewed by the district attorney for law violations and the police department for policy or training violations. Short of a press conference right after the incident went viral, there has been little to no public discussion.
Nevertheless, this incident could have been another opportunity for police leaders to practice their commitment to community-oriented policing.
I say this because a true community-oriented policing involves deeply listening to the community; especially if the community is telling the police their tactics are unacceptable and should no longer be used.
A true community-oriented police department is able to listen to angry voices, not respond in kind, and review its practices and make adjustments. Often it is to balance what may be legally permissible with what is desirable and acceptable to the community..
If the district attorney finds that the officers did not violate the law and the police chief finds the officers’ conduct correct in keeping with their training and policy, I sense there is going to be a major problem.
For not to adjust the department’s training, policy, and direction after reviewing the use of force in arresting this young girl is to invite legitimate cries of misfeasance and further erosion of trust and support of the police in this community.
Over the years, the police in this city have an established legacy of excellence, fairness, responsiveness, and a strong orientation and closeness to the community. But community goodwill can be quickly eroded in the absence of corrective behavior.
Many years ago the department put “continuous improvement” into its mission statement. It means mistakes and errors are opportunities for improvement not occasions for organizational self defense.
Now back to the most recent incident. Simply said, none of us would want our daughters, sisters, wives or mothers treated in such a manner as this young girl was. Therefore, a police agency in the 21st century must find more appropriate ways to respond to misbehaving teenagers – teachers do, social workers do, group home supervisors do — and so should police.
Over the past few years there has been a conversation that goes like this: while a law may permit certain behaviors by police, it is not unrealistic to expect them to “raise the bar” in “legal” situations that are unacceptable to the community. This is precisely the argument surrounding police use of force in our country today.
For instance, this department has a long history of doing this. When state law permitted police to use deadly force to apprehend any fleeing felon the police department leadership said no. Deadly force could only be used to apprehend those who pose an immediate threat to police or others. This meant police officers were no longer permitted to use deadly force to apprehend fleeing car thieves who often turned out to be teenagers.
When state law permitted police to pursue and apprehend suspects who evaded capture by fleeing in an automobile, police leadership again said no. The department will pursue only under certain conditions and when danger to the community rises, field supervisors can order an officer to stop the pursuit, to terminate the chase. This meant the probability that a driver fleeing from police would crash into an innocent bystander was greatly reduced. These administrative rules also prohibited police in this city from shooting at a moving vehicle for the very same reasons.
The law permits people to be arrested and jailed for a great number of offenses many of us would consider to be minor. While the law permitted a person to be physically arrested in these cases, police leaders instructed their officers to issue citations in lieu of arrest (which, in effect, curtailed the arrest powers granted to police by the state).
It is not usual, improper, nor illegal, for governmental agencies such as the police, to engage in administrative rule-making (policy development) to regulate and raise the behavior of its officials above that which law may permit.
This is how and why a democracy works. Powerful governmental entities like the police must be able to restrain their authority in order keep in step with the will of the people.
And that means deep and generous listening and continuously improving.