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Shoot first, ask questions later? Rethinking police culture in America, part 1

After a series of high profile shootings, many are calling for a re-examination of the relationship between police and their communities in America. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A large percentage of interactions that occur between a cop and a non-cop are inherently hostile ones.

Generally speaking, when the average citizen comes into contact with a police officer, there’s a non-trivial chance that the citizen will end up being fined, having their property confiscated, or their liberty taken away.

And as we saw in the shooting death of Daniel Shaver, sometimes those are the best possible outcomes.

It’s not exactly a state of affairs that is calculated to get any human interaction off on the right foot. Even the people who are polite when they get pulled over are at the very least annoyed at the inconvenience to their day, and probably resentful at having to pay a speeding fine.

And as the evening gets later, or alcohol and drugs get added to the mix, each one of these interactions becomes a potential time bomb.

From a brute force perspective, the cops are overwhelming, odds-on favorites in the event any actual physical hostility breaks out between a police officer and a suspect.

Even on the occasions where suspects are physically much stronger than the police they encounter, the police have at hand as part of their standard uniform a dizzying array of pacification devices, including (at least) a service revolver. They also generally have available via radio an additional supply of other police officers, all of whom will likewise be carrying various force instruments, including guns.

Taking on a cop in any sort of physical confrontation is, therefore, almost exclusively the province of the heavily inebriated, the mentally ill, and the terminally foolish. So in one sense, police officers don’t need to worry about reducing hostility in their interactions with the population, so long as they always make sure that they can win when hostility does break out.

And yet, there are reasons for the police to worry about it anyway.

First, there are moral reasons. “Protect and serve” ought not be an empty motto for the people we grant the awesome power of lethal force (along with a taxpayer-funded salary). Almost everyone has been the drunken a**hole at a party at least once — If at all possible, people shouldn’t have to die because they had the bad luck to be the drunken a**hole in front of a cop.

Even citizens who are belligerent to police for no good reason do not deserve to be tried and executed on the spot for their offense. America is not a totalitarian state, Contempt of Cop is not an actual crime (nor should it be), and if cops can walk away from belligerent jerks without killing them, then they should.

It doesn’t speak well for the health of our liberty in a constitutional Republic that the previous paragraph is a controversial one sometimes.

Second, there are also pragmatic reasons for the cops to de-escalate every possible hostile confrontation they can. Although the cops are overwhelming, odds-on favorites to ultimately win any hostile confrontation with a single citizen, they are outnumbered by those same citizens by about 300-to-1 in America.

To paraphrase Hopper from A Bug’s Life, if the citizenry gets mad enough at the cops, things can go sideways in a huge hurry.

Even good, legally justified shoots can cause civil unrest that is very hard to get under control, especially in communities that are alienated from and frustrated by their own police departments.

It’s one thing to say that the media and hucksters bear some of the blame when things like this happen, but wouldn’t it be better to just not have the shooting in the first place, if you can help it?

I know most cops agree. I think every cop in the Ferguson, Missouri, area believes Darren Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown (and the Obama Department of Justice agreed), but I also know that they would rather, all things have considered, not have had to deal with the months of angry riots that the Brown shooting caused.

That is not to say that they believe that Darren Wilson should have had to die just to prevent rioting. From what I can tell based on the Department of Justice report, Wilson not only was almost certainly justified but he also may have had no choice.

But there are plenty of everyday interactions where police use force that could have been avoided if the officer had been consciously de-escalating from the beginning of an inherently hostile interaction instead of allowing either panic or hubris to ratchet the tension up.

Cops do a lot of heroic things, some of which tragically involve shooting suspects that might otherwise have killed or seriously harmed an innocent person. But sometimes the most heroic thing they can do is to have the training and self-control to defuse a situation while it can still end with everyone walking home alive and unharmed.

Take, for instance, the viral video of the arrest of “Pearl Jam guy.” The video went viral because drunken renditions of “Even Flow” are always funny, and somehow even funnier from someone who is handcuffed.

However, what I saw in that video was an important lesson about policing in this country. In the beginning of that video was a man who was initially belligerent and possibly ready to cause a problem in spite of his handcuffs.

By the end, however, he was content, ready even to be friends with the cops who were arresting him. Why? Because instead of screaming at him to shut up and slamming his head down on the hood of the car, they had the presence of mind to get him talking about something that made him happy (which was, for whatever reason, the band Pearl Jam), and the situation immediately de-escalated for everyone involved.

In other words, I saw great cops.

On the complete other end of the spectrum from the hero Pearl Jam fan cops, you have Mesa, Arizona, officer Charles Langley. Unlike officer Philip Brailsford, who actually fired the fatal shots that killed Daniel Shaver, Officer Langley has never had to face a trial for his actions, because he fled to the Philippines.

Officer Brailsford was acquitted for shooting Shaver, which has touched off a minor firestorm on the internet. I think, quite frankly, that one of the main factors that may have been in the jury’s mind was the firm belief that the wrong cop was facing trial.

Sure, Brailsford pulled the trigger, in a decision that is easy for some to second guess. But it’s hard to watch Shaver’s death and conclude that it wasn’t at least mostly Officer Langley’s fault.

See, Brailsford was just there to take orders, which in this case involved holding a gun on a suspect, and firing it if necessary. Langley was the on scene supervisor who took a situation involving a drunken a**hole with a BB gun and turned it into a huge and well-deserved black eye for his entire police force.

What possible reason could there have been for Langley to have approached the scenario in the way that he did? Why, when confronted with two face down suspects who were clearly attempting to comply with his orders, did he feel it necessary to yell at about 100 decibels? Or to repeatedly insult them and shut down any attempts on their part to ask questions? Why was it repeatedly necessary for him to repeatedly scream that if the suspects failed to play his game of Simon Says properly, they would be shot? What message could that have given to the other officers (including Brailsford), other than “be as trigger-happy as possible”?

And maybe I am just a crazy libertarian, but when cops drag people out of their hotel room at night and hold them at gunpoint, the correct answer to the question “What is this about?” isn’t, “Shut up. I am not here to be tactful and diplomatic with you. You listen, you obey.”

Langley’s instructions have been faulted for being confusing and contradicting, which they were. He has also been faulted for deviating from standard operating procedure.

However, even had Langley’s instructions been crystal clear and by the book, his demeanor and bearing seemed almost calculated to escalate tension, rather than de-escalate it.

There are situations when police have no way to meet a threat other than with a display of overwhelming, loud, obnoxious force. It shouldn’t have taken a Rhodes scholar to realize that these two people in a La Quinta hallway were not that situation.

Police departments across the country are instituting de-escalation training programs that try to train cops on how to avoid shootouts, not win them. The Dallas Police Department, for instance, has been using them to great effect, having drastically reduced both officer-involved-shootings and on-duty officer injuries.

I’m sure that de-escalation training sounds a lot like a pointless, politically correct bureaucratic waste of time to many backers of the blue. I’m sure many hear about such a thing and think that the reason life is so hard for cops is that they have to deal with this pointless crap instead of doing their actual jobs.

But the overwhelming evidence is that it works – and that when departments do it, police are safer. Even if you don’t care a bit about suspects getting shot less, that ought to qualify as good news.

But the Daniel Shaver case shows that there remains a lot of work to be done in America. While de-escalation works where it has been tried, it hasn’t been tried in nearly enough places. Only about 16 states mandate de-escalation training for police. In the other 34 states, it is haphazard and infrequent. A recent survey suggested that in these states, the vast majority of officers get zero to one hours of training per year.

The most frequent reason given for why de-escalation training does not occur in a given police department is cost — but given what can happen when hostile situations between police and non-police don’t get de-escalated, perhaps it’s time for police departments to re-think where this particular priority ought to fit on their totem pole.

One last thing…
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