Intergenerational Conversations in Blue #9


Continuing “Intergenerational Conversations in Blue” – #9 of 9

Exchanges About Police Uses of Force and Community Relationships

Dear Chief,

As I have said, I am troubled by our collective oversimplification of the issue at hand.  Had this encounter ended differently, I regretfully assume that the narrative would be substantially different.  Had the officer applied deadly force in the midst of what appears to have been an assault capable of causing death or great bodily harm, I assume there would have been an immediate call for charges and his job.  There would have been some questions about the justification for the stop.  We would be talking about this officer’s disciplinary file and his mental well-being.  Instead of seeing this man’s record in the news article, we would be reading of his potential.  This case is a perfect case of outcome-based thinking and demonstrates the distinction between the environment an officer works in as compared to that of the police critic.

I am also troubled by the choice being made, on the part of police critics, to avoid addressing the realistic concern highlighted in this case of officers choosing not to act out of fear of becoming the next national story.  I think we have to do a better job acknowledging the complexity of the situations officers are confronted with.  This case doesn’t support the narrative so therefore is not discussed.  It is interesting that you are concerned about the potential for police to ‘war-up’ in response to this, but appear not to be concerned about police inaction caused by the national narrative.  Are you concerned that your words may contribute to police hesitation?

I wonder if you believe there was justification in this case for the application of deadly force and if so, at what point in the encounter?

Do you think Cunningham’s actions will impact police officers and their future interactions with men of color in Birmingham?  What can Cunningham and community members in Birmingham do to minimize the potential for escalated encounters with police in the interest of safety for all?  Would you support a petition to ask Cunningham to leave the community upon his return to the street?

Being fearful of ‘police over-reaction’ is quite telling.  It presumes the worst of our brothers and sisters and appears to reveal an anti-police bias.  The topic of anti-police bias really needs to become a part of the narrative.  It most certainly is contributing to mistrust and escalation.

We human beings are complex.  I have come to be sensitive to the distinction between that which we attend to and that which we do not.  Our environment contributes a great deal to this equation.  As a police trainer, I am becoming increasingly interested in our ability to change officer belief systems through modifications to the environment and inputs.  By intentionally experiencing things that challenge our beliefs, we grow and can improve our empathy and decision-making.  Police critics might benefit from this as well.

Thanks for sharing and allowing me to share.  Be well!

Dear Chief,

I am still digesting the PERF guiding principles and reading the many responses from IACP and police leaders and trainers from across the country. Like most, I find the great majority of the document to be well-intentioned, sensible and in keeping with best practices likely in place in agencies across the county. A number of the principles however are simply not rooted in reality and reflect an irresponsible reactionary approach to problem-solving.

​”How would the general public view the action that we took?”

This assumes a great deal. First, who is the “general public”? Second, can the general public agree on a proportionality test and then articulate and enumerate it in such a way that public servants can implement it consistently?

“If an encounter requires a use of force, officers should start at the lowest level of force that is possible and safe. Officer should never do anything to escalate a situation themselves.”

This goes back to 20/20 hindsight. How can we know, at the time force is applied, if it is the lowest level of force that is possible? On the topic of escalating, the mere responding to a call has the potential of escalating a situation. When a family calls for police to respond for a family member out of control, would you find it acceptable for an officer simply not to respond out of fear of escalating the situation?

Just a couple of my thoughts. What about yours?

Dear Sergeant,

Always good to hear from you (even if we don’t always agree — as you know it’s called “intellectualism” and necessary for any craft to evolve into professional status.

Now for PERF’s “30 Principles:” I am happy to learn that you find most of the report helpful. I hear the concerns you have about the two you mentioned. They truly are “administrative/top leadership” concerns and so I resonate with the recommendations.

You are at a position where that may seem like ‘fluff’ to you — after all, you are at the front end of the system recruiting and training.

I don’t want to appear smug here, but when you get to be a captain I’d like to hear your take on these two again. That’s nothing against you and when I was a first-liner I had many of the some concerns and opinions.

Let’s just say we all are a work-in-progress. There still is a lot we both can learn from one another.

At this point, which transacted a good part of a difficult year in the sergeant’s department, the conversations ended.

I hope my responses were helpful. I know that his were.

 They reminded me of myself early in my career when I felt put upon by the community and that citizens did not understand the difficulty of my job. I finally rose above it – I saw myself and my brothers (then) in blue as leaders who had to take the first step forward.  If change was to come in policing we believed it had to start with us.

Since this conversation the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing has issued its final report and the Police Executive Research Forum (of which I am a life member) has issued its “30 Guiding Principles” regarding police use of force. The Guidelines call for a higher standard of deadly force use than Graham v. Connor and the importance of police recognizing the “sanctity of human life.” 

I hope these two documents are helping the sergeant with his questions. That being said, his willingness to continue to engage and question me has been very helpful.

Thank you, my good sergeant! While we may disagree on some points about how we are to go about policing this great nation, I hope you understand that most of our values about policing are the same.

It’s just that we don’t agree on this matter of how force it to be used — and it could be more intergenerational than not.

Peace, my friend! And be careful out there.