Dr. Bradley R. Anders
A couple of weeks ago I received an email from the Missouri Police Officer’s Association that contained a list of House and Senate bills in the Missouri State Legislature. Much like last year, the overwhelming number of bills aimed at correcting perceived problems in law enforcement is nothing short of amazing. Without a doubt, we are at a point in this country where we are witnessing a perverse lack of accountability of law violators and vilification of those who choose to serve their communities. The result is, and always will be, increased distrust of police and a further separation between officers and the citizens they serve. Furthermore, the distrust, lack of accountability, all of it is directly related to how we choose to address criminal behavior and attempt to further restrain efforts of those tasked with responding to it.
Back in the 1980s, we saw the advent of community policing in which police departments took note of the importance of police and community relations. Departments across the country jumped on this bandwagon and began to implement a variety of programs geared towards bridging the gap between uniformed officers and the citizens they served. Great progress has been made, in my opinion, but on the heels of a few highly publicized officer involved shootings and/or in-custody deaths the media has intentionally and recklessly set many departments back decades. What is to blame for all of this police misbehavior? Well according to lawmakers it’s training, of course. In an attempt to stop officer involved shootings, reduce use of force in general, or even control routine interaction with the public, our lawmakers have deemed it necessary to require additional training of our officers, much of which focuses on cultural differences. Not only that, they are crafting bills to dramatically reduce when force can be used. Let’s talk about training for a minute.
I attended the police academy about 14 years ago. It was a basic academy that met the minimum standards set forth by Missouri POST at that time (470 hours). My classmates and I were taught everything we needed to know to move forward into field training as probationary officers. It is here that our training was shaped and solidified; we were introduced to that “how we do it” routine which really did not differ dramatically from academy training save for some handcuffing procedures and high-risk stop procedures. I progressed in that department receiving very few citizen complaints while working in a relatively high crime area. Much like hundreds of thousands of officers in this country, I never shot anyone, I never used unnecessary force when making an arrest, and I never treated anyone differently based on their race or ethnicity. I moved on to a larger department and have continued that trend. Very few complaints, very few use of force incidents, and still have not shot anyone as the situation has yet to present itself. However, we constantly train for these situations in hopes we are physically and mentally prepared to respond appropriately within the parameters of the law. In addition, like all police officers, I attend in-service training and the required annual continuing education courses through Missouri POST including that which addresses racial bias. There is no shortage of training when it comes to law enforcement.
Not too long ago it struck me that through all of this required training I did not receive any training on how to talk to the general public during my time in the academy or in field training, only cultural sensitivity geared towards racial or ethnic minority contacts. I volunteered for training on handling and talking to those with mental health issues, but not one minute was spent on prepping me for public interaction. Yes, there was a spot on my daily observation report during field training, right there to a separate spot for dealing with racial minorities, that addressed interaction with the public, but it was not one of the main focuses of that model. What I did get, however, was training in which I was instructed to take note of someone’s race or ethnicity when dealing with them (by the way there is legislation in the works to take note of someone’s sexuality now). In addition, I have received training to treat people of color differently than I do Whites. Was it my racist brethren in blue that taught me this? No, it was state-mandated, annual training in which we are taught to walk on eggshells around the minority community taking care, for example, so as not to use a growing list of pejoratives that have reached a subjective level of offensive or degrading (“oriental” is now a pejorative…can’t say the word “ghetto”). We are taught to keep our minority contacts lower than the representative population of our communities lest we be labeled as one who profiles based on race. Make no mistake, this, in addition to the blatant hatred directed at police from the citizenry, has created an atmosphere in which police officers intentionally under-police minority populated areas. All of this stems from existing law here in the State of Missouri. Now our lawmakers want to create more laws that further drive a wedge between police and the communities they serve.
In the current Missouri legislative session, there are 198 bills that specifically pertain to law enforcement. Bills ranging from civilian review boards for officer involved shootings to ensuring “cultural competency”. There is even one bill that requires the immediate suspension and dismissal without pay of any officer who shoots an “unarmed person who is at a distance of twenty feet or greater from the officer”. Another interesting one proposes that those who are filing for a state job (Missouri State Highway Patrol included), public assistance, or public housing must not be required to disclose any non-violent felony convictions when applying for such job or assistance. All of this time and money spent on restraining law enforcement with little to no discussion on the social problems eating away at this country. It is almost as if lawmakers in this state intend to further alienate the minority population. Where is the focus on contraception? What about mental illness? Should we be making it easier for drug users and dealers to obtain public assistance? Where is the incentive to use such a program as a temporary option as opposed to a lifestyle? Why are we not addressing the growing culture of violence?
I did not make it this far in law enforcement because I was trained to talk to the public or attended cultural sensitivity classes. I made it this far because I have common sense in dealing with the public. My parents taught me respect as a child and that applies in this line of work. I have been able to foster good relationships in my patrol districts with all races and ethnicities in spite of the training that tells me to treat them differently. The answer to how we bridge gaps in our communities does not lie in creating more laws restricting police action or requiring divisive training. The answer lies in the individual officer alone, and no amount of training or laws will change the extremely few, isolated incidents where police act contrary to existing laws or procedures. The answer lies in programs within the minority community that not only address self-oppressive behaviors and a notable trend in furthering every stereotype the community pretends does not exist. Foster hope and respect for the law and those who enforce it as opposed to furthering hate and discontent. As long as the minority population continues to teach their children that the police are the enemy nothing is going to change no matter what laws are passed. This is a two-way street but the perceived problems are being addressed only on one side.
The continued assault of law enforcement in social media as well as in our legislative bodies will only serve to make our communities more problematic. They will become more problematic not because of a depolicing effect or even because lawmakers have tied the hands of police, it will be because we are effectively enabling criminal behavior and rewarding it at the highest levels. Not to mention, if some of these bills are passed it will further jeopardize the men and women who vigilantly serve their communities. Law violators are not playing by the rules. Let’s not make it easier for them to further victimize the community by restricting police action and fostering unequal treatment and protection. We do not need more laws to tell us how to treat citizens, and we do not need any laws that are designed to ignore equal protection. My advice to lawmakers from the lowest to highest levels would be to focus on issues that directly impact the growing criminal culture and lack of family values we witness in so many low-income areas in our country. Stop placing the blame at the feet of law enforcement and look in the mirror; you are the ones enabling this madness.