Law enforcement group calls for big changes to cut down on police shootings

Continuing protests in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere have law enforcement experts calling for change.
Continuing protests in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere have law enforcement experts calling for change. The Associated Press

As tensions rise around the nation over police shootings and overly aggressive law enforcement tactics, a police research and policy group has issued a blunt and essential call for change.

“It’s time for an overhaul of police training, policy, supervision and culture on use of force,” says a report issued last week by the Police Executive Research Forum. The group’s members include leading law enforcement experts and commanders from police departments across the county.

The report analyzes controversial police shootings over the last year and concludes that some could have been avoided, even though they were deemed legally justifiable.

And it urges police departments to adopt training methods and tactics that encourage peaceful resolution of issues, instead of conveying to officers that their job is to make no-retreat, split-second decisions that are more likely to lead to shootings.

The report names Kansas City as a department moving in the right direction. Police Chief Darryl Forté has ordered all officers to be trained in an approach called “tactical disengagement.”

“Throughout the history of law enforcement, we’ve had the idea of ‘never back down, never retreat,’” Forté explained in a post on his blog. “We are encouraging and training our officers to use critical thinking and problem-solving to avoid a situation in which they have to shoot someone to protect themselves.”

Kansas City is fortunate to have a well-trained and professional police force, and Forté’s emphasis on restraint and positive community relations has undoubtedly helped avoid some of the friction we’re witnessing elsewhere. But it would only take one egregious shooting or an instance of unnecessary use of force, caught on camera, to blow apart what will always be a fragile peace.

And so while training in tactical disengagement is good, Forté and his commanders must work to make it the prevailing value on the force.

The police research forum’s report puts it this way: “If police leaders are going to change the culture on this point, they must clearly tell their officers what they want them to do, and back it up in terms of evaluations and rewards.”

Other findings of the report:

▪ While police departments generally train recruits and experienced officers in how and when to use a firearm, they spend too little time teaching de-escalation tactics and crisis intervention strategies for dealing with persons who may be mentally ill or otherwise in crisis.

▪ Officers are repeatedly reminded that they face deadly threats at any moment, and their top priority is their own safety. And in fact, the report acknowledges, the nearly universal availability of firearms makes the U.S. the most dangerous to police of any industrialized nation. But some police shootings could be avoided if departments use “a broader approach designed to protect everyone’s lives.”

▪ Police cannot be satisfied with use of force actions that meet the low bar of constitutionality but can reasonably be judged abusive or excessive by onlookers. “We must aim higher,” the report says, “toward a standard that has broader community support.”

A year of digitally recorded police abuses, citizen protests and political upheaval has made it abundantly clear that policing must change. The research forum’s report is a call to action that departments cannot afford to brush off.

Forté puts it this way: “Things are changing rapidly, and you can’t do what you used to do.”

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