A Former Police Chief Says the Way We Train Cops to Use Lethal Force Is Broken
"When it comes time to pull a gun or a trigger, the standards need to be the same from coast to coast."
Seattle police. Image via Flickr user Adam Cohn
This post originally appeared on the Trace.
Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper knows what it's like to be at the center of a firestorm over police conduct. In 2000, when the World Trade Organization convention took over his city, Stamper's officers were criticized for their heavy-handed, and often violent, response to street protests.
Hundreds of peaceful protesters were arrested and rounded up along with those who had smashed store windows and destroyed police cars. Stamper resigned that year.
Since his resignation, Stamper has become a vocal proponent of police reform. Last month, he published "To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America's Police," which outlines his vision of police forces trained to meet national standards, gleaned from more than three decades of experience in the uniform.
Stamper says police shootings, like those of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, are further evidence that change is urgently needed. He says the prevalence of guns in American society contributes to the distrust that has grown between the police and the communities they patrol—a point President Barack Obama addressed this weekend, speaking in response to the fatal shooting of five Dallas police officers.
Here is Stamper in his own words, as told to Kerry Shaw of the Trace.
When I heard about Dallas, I felt heartsick. I don't have a television, but I'm online a lot, and the alerts started pouring in. These were police officers, selected for the color of their skin.
The other thing that went through my mind was that this will be a huge setback to Black Lives Matter. A number of police officers around the country have been condemning the movement for months. I've even seen links from various police groups talking about how disgusting it is. They've countered with Blue Lives Matter, and that is a movement now.
So what we have is polarization, and polarization is never good. It's worse now than it was before the Dallas shootings.
I was also concerned that the shootings by police that happened before Thursday night's assassinations would get lost, and that as a country we'd forget that people are hurting, and it's not just cops.
As we watch these shootings unfold, repeatedly, on a dash cam of a police car or an iPhone video, we're left with the impression that police officers do not—and this is a sweeping generalization—place sanctity on human life. They're too quick to pull the trigger. We've seen too many [shootings] that didn't have to happen, where there was minimal risk to the officer. That's causing enormous anger and terrible sadness in the African American community and other segments of our society. Many cops are also disturbed by this, but they don't speak out as much as they should.
The Supreme Court has made it very clear that the only time a police officer can use lethal force is when your life or the life of another is at imminent risk. We have 18,000 law enforcement agencies. That's 18,000 different policies for determining imminent risk, 18,000 different sets of procedures and tactics. The room for different interpretations, even within a police station, is substantial.
Since Ferguson, some agencies have really bolstered their training in de-escalation, but many have not. Some are full-blown military stress academies.
Wouldn't it be nice if every cop and every citizen could know what the actual practice was for lethal force? Or for stop-and-frisk or search-and-seizure? When it comes to stopping an American on the streets, or when it comes time to pull a gun or a trigger, the standards need to be the same from coast to coast.
Right now we don't have any national standards for policing. Instead we have a patchwork of policies, with wide variation in training, supervision, and performance evaluation. I think the average citizen would be surprised to know how unsupervised one of the most delicate and dangerous jobs is.
The process of setting and enforcing the standards should be done at the federal level in conjunction with local agencies. Each agency needs to have sufficient muscle to say, "We'll certify every cop, we'll certify every agency. Oh, and by the way, in extreme situations, we'll de-certify any cop or agency."
If you get de-certified as a police officer, don't even think about applying across town. You've forfeited your right to be a police officer.
In creating those standards, we'd have to reach some consistency in training. Now we typically provide many hours of firearms training but very few hours of training in de-escalation. Since Ferguson, some agencies have really bolstered their training in de-escalation, but many have not. Some are full-blown military stress academies.
If you want police officers to act like soldiers—and I'd hope that we don't, but rather as true domestic peacekeepers, partnered with their communities—then the last thing you'd do is train them under a militaristic model.
An academy should pose challenges, but those ought to be structured simulations of what police officers encounter in the real world—people pulling guns on you, knives on you, calling you names. You want police officers to be self-confident people.
We can also dramatically improve training so that a cop can understand how his body reacts in a stressful, ambiguous situation: like when there may be a gun, or when a baby has entered the scene at the same time as a gun. These are shoot/don't shoot scenarios that are likely to occur on the job. Right now we do these simulations once in training. Maybe we bring someone in a second time if they made questionable choices.
Of course, guns play a big role in all this. They put another level of pressure on police officers. Guns make it all the more evident that the next domestic violence incident or bar room brawl could have someone packing heat. Guns make police officers hyper vigilant. And a scared cop is a dangerous cop.
Fear, more than anything, distorts perception. It causes individuals to see things that aren't there. It can cause them to experience tunnel vision. They'll focus on the threat at the expense sometimes of everything around it. Often tunnel vision will not allow you to see an innocent bystander. It will not allow you to recognize that you have an opportunity to take cover, that you don't have to stand there, exposed to someone with a gun.
I am extremely disturbed by the proliferation of guns in the country, and most major city chiefs feel the same way I do.
We need true community policing. I'm envisioning a system where citizens are invited to participate in hiring and instructing new police officers. They'd also be involved in police oversight. (I avoid using the word "civilians," as it creates the mindset that police officers are soldiers.)
And, finally, we have to find a way to end the drug war. By definition, you don't fight a war without enemies. And that's what we're doing, and we're targeting people of color in wildly disproportionate numbers. And then we wonder why there's such a strain on the relationships between cops and young black men.
And you could say, "Oh, they're breaking the law." Well, so are young white men. But black men are being targeted at disproportionately higher rates.
We know prohibition didn't work, and that was very similar to the war we're now waging against illegal drugs. We've spent $1.3 trillion since Nixon declared drugs "public enemy number one," and we have incarcerated tens of millions of people—that number needs to sink in—for nonviolent drug offenses. And what do we have to show for it? Drugs are more available, more potent, and more accessible to our children. It's been a colossal failure.