The Accountability Factor

What follows is an edited version of an article I wrote that appeared in the July, 1992, issue of “Police Magazine.” It discusses “problem oriented policing” and police/community relations in the context of the assignment I was given. That assignment involved interviewing subject matter experts rather than dealing with my own perceptions of the issues. My own feelings about the current state of policing are covered in an earlier post.

The Accountability Factor

In Brendan Behan’s play “Remembrance” an Irish police officer tells his father why he’s getting a divorce. “We had a nuclear marriage, neither one of us knew how to win, but we both knew how to destroy one another.” It seems clear the Rodney King incident has put police and the public in a standoff where they don’t know how to have a winning relationship.

Political science professor Harlan Lewin says, “From the ‘70s on, there was a growing conceptualization of the crime problem as a law enforcement issue instead of a problem of community dysfunction.” He says that in the ‘70s, there was a marked shift away from giving community action grants to social service agencies and money was shifted to law enforcement grants, essentially placing all responsibility for dealing with the underlying problems of crime to police agencies. He believes police labor groups should speak up and say, “Let the social service agencies deal with social problems and let the police fight crime.”

Norm Stamper, San Diego PD’s Assistant Police Chief disagrees. He favors active partnership between police agencies and the community. This approach, referred to as Problem-Oriented Policing (POP), has had its successes.

Stamper provides a hypothetical example blending several successful interventions already conducted in the San Diego area. There’s an apartment complex in a disadvantaged neighborhood with 100 units. The absentee landlord is afraid to physically inspect the property and the on-site manager reports a 20 percent vacancy rate.

Officers working a POP project in the complex are trying to curtail drug sales. They knock on all 100 doors and find all of the apartments occupied. Further investigation reveals that the supposedly vacant apartments are occupied by drug dealers who don’t pay rent, but share their profits with the apartment manager, thus creating a huge policing problem.

Police officers are responding to radio calls in the apartment complex hundreds of times per month. The officers assigned to the POP project respond by bringing in whatever public, private or social service agencies are needed to deal help deal with the problems created by the scenario.

They also design new rental application forms for the owner’s use since the original form is only about as extensive as a motel registry. The new forms require prospective tenants to provide more information, which allows the owner to do a proper background check. Using the new form cuts the landlord’s eviction rate from 13 a month, to one, and the monthly radio calls for police service are reduced from 400 to 80.

This POP approach allows for greater communication between police and the public whose improved relationships directly reduce crime and the potential for civil unrest. As important as these relationships are, law enforcement needs to develop specific training to prevent a recurrence of what happened during Rodney King’s arrest.

Frank Bucheit, a police training consultant, has developed a comprehensive training program on police use of force because he believes most academy training programs dealing with use of force are too fragmented. In his model, instructors are required to have complete knowledge of all use of force tools at an officer’s disposal. According to Bucheit, those tools include the carotid restraint, nunchuks, batons, handcuffs, chemical agents and firearms.

Although it’s conceivable that classes teaching how to use the tools would be taught by different instructors, the instructors would have to agree ahead of time on the appropriate nature and extent of force allowed, and classes would have to teach where each tool falls within the department’s use of force philosophy. Academy training also has to be supplemented by ongoing training in the motor skills necessary to best use the tools. Bucheit’s training also includes understanding statutes, case law, departmental policy and civil liability.

“Moment of Decision Training” is also recommended. It concentrates on determining whether a suspect has a weapon, might have a weapon, or clearly has none. In each case, the training addresses how to control the situation. “Placement and Posture” covers location of officers, how to neutralize dangerous suspects and how to protect innocent bystanders. Training is also provided on how to assess when a threat requires immediate attention or should be managed by containment.

Bucheit also emphasizes tactical planning in how to avoid being drawn into a situation that requires use of force. He cites an actual case when officers responded to a family disturbance to find a man brandishing a butcher knife in the living room and challenging the officers to go in so he could, “cut their hearts out.” One officer accepted the challenge, went inside with his gun drawn and shot the suspect when the inevitable attack occurred. Bucheit’s training philosophy stresses a mind-set that allows officers to avoid placing themselves in a position of jeopardy.

Bucheit is a strong believer in the POP program, but recognizes that budget constraints are a constant hindrance to effective policing. He believes POP effectiveness could be enhanced by setting up vehicles to facilitate corporate sponsorship. He cites Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) as an example of how the concept can succeed. It sets up specific governmental accounts where private and corporate sponsors can place donations. He believes that supplementing the POP budget like that could strengthen partnerships between police and the public.

In spite of what Bucheit says, there’s no way to completely eliminate police pursuits or violent confrontations. If it’s accepted that street cops will sometimes have to pursue criminals and fight them afterwards, there should be training that teaches officers how to control the way their bodies respond to the stresses.

Dennis Davis, a police psychologist, says that, “As human beings, we never have to lose control.” The “fight or flight” syndrome that officers experience during pursuits and violent encounters is adaptive. In other word, the physiological changes and adrenaline infusion officers experience is for their physical benefit. Since it’s naturally beneficial, it can be controlled to the officer’s advantage. Davis says, “Prediction and preparation are incredibly powerful” and that officers trained in what to expect from their bodies will recognize the sensations as normal. With that knowledge, they can learn to control their reactions.

Stamper agrees and says that technology already exists to simulate volatile situations so officers can train under realistic situations the way fighter pilots and astronauts do. He does acknowledge that adapting the technology for police use will require considerable investment in time and money.

Stamper envisions equipment that simulates chases so accurately that officers can experience the adrenaline rush and increase in pulse and blood pressure that comes with the real thing. At the end of the training pursuit, officers would encounter a combative suspect and learn to “discipline and manage their bodies” during the encounter.

Davis believes that excessive officer reactions can be avoided by what he calls, “accountability training” that teaches officers to be “accountable for themselves, for their partner, for other officers working around them and for their entire agency.”

Officers can gain a mental advantage if they remain detached. Davis says officers should develop the mind-set that, “I have to orchestrate the situation, even if it means bending and not demonstrating power.” That will always put the officer in a place of advantage because they’ll be thinking more clearly than their opponents.

Davis doesn’t put all the responsibility on the cops. He stresses the need for community education and says it would be helpful to develop training in the schools to teach kids about their responsibilities when dealing with the police.

We need to do better than Brendan Behan’s Irish police officer. We need to develop strategies to win, not to destroy one another. Even Rodney King echoed the same sentiment, “Can we all get along, please?”

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