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Do We Have a Policing Crisis? By Larry E. Nevonen, JD, Guest Blogger: 

The following is based on an article in the Wall Street Journal by an economics professor from Trinity College. The article supplied facts, sources, and some history of police-community relations that need broader exposure and exploration. Where do you stand on what we need to do?

The author raised a very difficult question: Factually, who has the better case? Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter? In 2015, 41 officers were killed in the line of duty. There are about 900,000 officers. That means that officers bear a victimization rate of 4.6/100,000 officers. The average American faces a homicide rate of 4.5/100,000. The average American male faces a homicide rate of 6.6/100,000. 

On the other hand, police killed 1,207 Americans. This is a rate of 134/100,000 officers and is 30 times the overall base homicide rate. Justifiable homicides? Probably in almost all cases, but there are no statistics. The article asks the next tough question of are these killings necessary? Are there alternatives? In England and Germany police commit less than ½ of 1% of all homicides. How did we get here?

We know about the “War” on Drugs and the “War” on Crime. The big change in how those wars were fought and funded came from a 1994 crime bill signed by then President Bill Clinton. That bill gave out $20 billion to hire more police, build more prisons, and allow police departments to purchase surplus military equipment. A curious result? SWAT teams have existed for a long time. But the frequency of their use has grown to 50,000 SWAT raids per year nationally.

What happened to the relationship between the police and the community it served during this time period? The article quotes from the book “To Protect and Serve” by Norm Stamper, a man who started as a beat cop in San Diego and rose to become the Police Chief of Seattle for 6 years. When this ex-police chief states that he was trained to believe that his community was irrelevant, there is a problem. Rewards and promotions for officers were based on numbers of arrests, etc,. At the same time, Mr. Stamper quotes a fellow police chief as saying: “As someone who has spent 35 years wearing a police uniform, I’ve come to believe that hundreds of thousands of police officers commit perjury every year testifying.” In this environment is it any wonder that the police end up viewing citizens as numbers, or worse, revenue sources. At the same time, citizens often feel that the police cannot be trusted, when people know that when police get on the witness stand, they take an oath to tell the truth and proceed to lie. Other officers know and support this illegal and immoral conduct by keeping silent behind the blue line.      

The Justice Dept. report on Ferguson, Missouri painted a chilling picture. In 2013, in a town of 21,000 people, their courts issued 9,000 arrest warrants. Many of these warrants were based on failing to pay fines for parking tickets and even housing code violations including overgrown lawns. The city’s finance director had written to both the police chief and the city manager of the city’s financial needs that could be filled by increasing ticket writing.  Police promotions were based on “citation productivity” and the local judges and prosecutors assisted in this fund raising effort to fill the city’s coffers.  It was therefore predictable that any galvanizing event, such as the shooting of Michael Brown, would both trigger mass protest and get a fully militarized police response.  To quote the article:  “One important lesson from economics is that unaccountable government officials will not always act in the public’s behalf.”

And where has all this loss and expense gotten us?  Are we in the middle of a new crime wave?  For insight, the author turned to another book, “The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America”, by Barry Latzer.  In 1900 the American homicide rate was 6/100,000.  During Prohibition, it rose to 9/100,000 then falling to 4.5/100,000 in the 50’s.  A spike up to 11/100,000 occurred in the 70’s.  But the long term trend has been down from there to the current 4.5/100,000 which is among the lowest in the nation’s history.  Is this the result of the zero-tolerance and mass incarceration policies?  It turns out that the curve of homicide rates over time from our neighbor to the north, Canada, bears a remarkable resemblance to our results.  And Canada has not used either militarization of its police or mass incarceration to achieve these results.  Mr. Latzer concludes: “that the major determinants of a crime rate are likely cultural factors and economic opportunity.  The employed family man is going to be less interested in crime than the unemployed and unattached.” 

In this environment of violence and distrust what should a good citizen do?  All I can think of now is my disappointment with this state of affairs in this great nation that is mostly filled with well meaning hard working people including hard working peace officers.  I suggest that we start by opening discussions, using our blessed Freedom of Speech, to open dialogs at a variety of levels. 

 How do we get more openness and transparency in our Police Departments?  We desperately need better police relations with all our community.  We have been making some progress in police interactions with people with mental health problems by recharacterizing the contact as working with someone who needs help instead of working with someone who needs to be controlled.  There has also been progress in seeing child prostitutes as victims, not criminals.  Note how these are simple changes in an officer’s attitude about interacting with members of their community.  But it isn’t that simple.  Implementing these changes takes police management decisions and officer training.  We need to take any and all steps that lower tensions in police-community interactions and are focused on lowering the homicide rates in both blue and black groups.  That will take genuine dialog between both groups in a calm, dispassionate setting.  If we don’t conduct calm open “autopsies” of prior events, good and bad, there will be more such autopsies carried out in many venues in the future over bad events.  Without genuine dialog, not speeches, there are no winners, only losers, here. 

We need the police to lower their blue wall.  Admit it.  It exists.  The recent convictions of Sheriff Baca and Undersheriff Tanaka underscore an “above the law” mentality that must be rooted out at every level of police ethics.  When I hear an ex-police chief state on public television that the only way to get to the truth today in dealing with the police is to sue them, that kind of adversarial environment creates gridlock, not change or trust.  At the same time, front line police officers need a safe, both physically and career wise, avenue to report any violation of law by other officers.  It must be clear to all that their house is clean.  We need systems in place that keep the police accountable to the people.      

1. Our front line peace officers need more support than ever.  By militarizing them, the likelihood of good officers becoming victims of PTSD is very real.  And we need good, honest and healthy officers in the field.  Police career reward systems need to find the difficult way away from quotas, particularly any quota that drives the officer to treat his/her community as a revenue source.  Police management needs to do far better job in helping our front line cop do his/her job right and in a manner that ALWAYS EARNS the respect and admiration of the community being served.  Police management needs to do a much better job.

2. How do we reduce the number of police contacts where weapons are in play?  Do we really need 50,000 SWAT interventions a year in this country?  Can something be done to cut the supply of the weapons and ammunition that the cops fear to face the most as a way to increase their safety in the field?  What gun and ammunition control measures do the police suggest that would increase their safety in the field?  How can we genuinely make their dangerous job safer so that they can come home to their families?  How do we de-escalate on both sides?

3. Is it better to spend public funds on treatment instead of punishment?  In many areas, particularly drug use, it is clear that the punishment model has not worked.  How many police departments financially depend on drug bust forfeitures for a portion of their budget?  And for the many people who carry conviction records, their punishment never ends when barriers exist to those persons re-entering the job force at any level.  A job goes a long way to preventing recidivism.     

Think about these issues. Think about how you can help. Then think about who you vote for at any level. Who will push these problems in the right direction? Who might put gasoline on the fire? Your vote counts and matters. Use it. 

Each of us needs to be able to demand transparency from anyone in public service. And when the trust of the public is earned, only then should full support be given.

We can do better. We must do better. Too many lives have been lost and too much is at stake. Thank you for taking the time to consider this material. 

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