This is a response to MinnPost’s July 13 Community Voices commentary, “A blueprint for better policing in Minnesota,” by James Densley and Jon R. Olson.
Let me start by saying that I respect both of these authors and their goal of trying to improve policing in Minnesota. My comments are not a criticism of them; their ideas are the result, in my opinion, of their lack of experience in law enforcement. This is not to say that they don’t understand the criminal justice system. I know they do, but they are missing the experience that comes from working in a squad car. The authors call this article a blueprint. It is not a blueprint; if it were it would have concrete actionable items, which it does not. It is what many academics, politicians, activists, and community members are buying into without knowing the ins and outs of what they are proposing. It is done in most cases with all good intentions, but it is not a workable blueprint.
Our police executives are writing and proposing much the same thing. At a recent conference of the Police Executive Research Forum, police executives from across the country got together to discuss what needs to be done to improve police-community relations. Their answer? Our cops have to be more respectful of the people. With that ethereal notion in mind PERF should have turned to Chief Todd Axtell of St. Paul Police Department and Chief Michael Harrison of the New Orleans Police Department and said: “How do we make that happen?” But they didn’t. And therein lies the problem. How do we make that happen? I don’t have all the answers, but with that in mind, I would like to address some of the issues brought up in Densley and Olson’s commentary.
With regard to police instructors: There is no question that there are active-duty and retired cops who should not be police instructors. They can be identified by their emphasis on “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude, enforcement of the law because the law is the law, and their unwillingness to embrace the community as full partners in the system. But, eliminating retired cops from teaching law-enforcement classes is akin to eliminating retired M.D.s from teaching medicine. The authors appear to base this idea on the assumption that cops are only capable of a warrior mentality, and that is not true.
First of all, retired cops are usually better instructors because they have had the time to reflect on their training and experience over the years and reconnect with their communities in ways that were not possible when they were caught up in the everyday business of policing. They tend to bring a more balanced and mature approach to the table.
Guardians by nature; warriors when necessary
Second, it is wrong to assume that we are strictly guardians and not warriors. This analogy has been used a lot lately and it implies many of the wrong ideas. First, cops do have a role as guardians. By way of examples: We patrol areas to show our presence and availability to the community. We issue traffic citations in order to remind people of the dangers inherent in violating traffic laws. We respond to domestics in order to help men and women get the help they need to either get out of their current situation or get help to resolve their differences.
In terms of guarding communities, we cannot and never will be able to protect everyone. We respond to tragedy; we can seldom prevent it. We don’t have control over poverty, the educational system or employment opportunities for people of color. We know these are huge factors in the criminal justice system; but we have no influence or control of them.
We respond to death scenes, many of them tragic. We must attempt to be consolers when we are asked questions that can only be answered by God.
If you want a warrior/guardian analogy use Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s: We are the sheepdogs: directing, guiding, protecting, and serving – but able and willing to put it all on the line when the wolves attack. And when that attack comes we are warriors, laying down our lives if necessary so that others may live.
Next: I like the idea of a four-year degree because those officers have a little more life experience and often are more “culturally competent.” I led the training of over 300 officers in the Minneapolis police academy and I can tell you that the maturity shown by older recruits was a huge benefit to them, and to the citizens of Minneapolis. Less testosterone-based decision-making and more reflection on their role in policing were evident in role plays and training. I would strongly recommend that an agency only hire men and women over 25 years of age. But mandating a four-year degree for entry into a peace-officer training program only works when the pool of candidates is big enough to support it, and it would eliminate a lot of people of color.
Also, a four-year degree does not, by itself, imply that the recruit will be a good cop. Some of the best street cops I knew, trained, supervised, or otherwise worked with would probably not be good candidates for the dean’s list at a four-year university. But if you knew them, they would be the first people you would want showing up when your life is in chaos and you need a police officer. We don’t need “elite college graduates”; we need people who want to serve their community.
Military model is a disaster
I don’t know what the authors mean by a “rigorous academy,” but I do know that at its core it must be about taking officers to new levels of skills and abilities with positive motivation. The old military model is not only obsolete; it is a disaster for the community.
As the former deputy director of the Police Corps Program, a federally funded program that was supposed to teach community leadership along with police skills, I can attest to the fact that recruiting liberal arts and STEM graduates to be cops is difficult at best, and in today’s climate is probably even harder. Cultural competency from a liberal arts education is extremely desirable and those recruits who have even a basic appreciation and understanding of other cultures are ahead of the game in terms of communication skills on the job. STEM graduates, business degree grads, law degrees, etc., are all sought after by police chiefs because of the contributions they are prepared to make. Salaries, community animosity toward cops, and lack of promotional opportunities in smaller agencies are, and always will be, huge barriers to hiring these potential leaders.
Next: A single state police academy might work if we used the model I worked with in a program called POCOP. Police agencies would hire the persons that they want based on background, education, testing, etc. The agency would make the job offer and the recruit would draw a starting salary when the academy starts. Full salary and employment would be contingent on passing the academy. The academy would provide the core law-enforcement classes and skills training required by the POST Board to anyone who meets at least the minimum education and/or background to be a licensed peace officer in Minnesota. The downside to this is that we would have to dismantle an educational system that provides training across the state. A person trained in law enforcement or criminal justice may or may not end up in a peace officer’s job, but the education in the criminal justice system will be valuable to them in whatever career they follow. We don’t criticize students who pursue degrees in political science, art history, or law even though we know that many of them will never find a career in those fields. Why would we criticize law-enforcement and criminal-justice students or the schools that train them?
With respect to the academy idea, unless things have changed drastically, I would never co-locate the course with the State Patrol. As the deputy director of the Police Corps program working under the auspices of the State Patrol it was my experience that their idea of training peace officers is anathema to what real community policing is supposed to be. The constant screaming, degrading (right up until graduation day), and focus on beating people down mentally and physically was one of the reasons I left the program in 2002.
Location: Twin Cities
As far as location goes, if you want candidates who reflect your community you must put the academy central to the Twin Cities where people have access to it. The St. Paul Police and Chief Axtell truly understand what a community cop should be, and they would be a great resource and venue for any program. Also, transportation is a critical factor for new recruits. Putting the academy out and away from public transportation and making it residential will eliminate many of very candidates every department is trying to hire. Once again, it would make it harder for a person living in hard circumstances to be part of the program.
Next: As for funding, agencies are already paying for the background checks, psychological exams, testing, recruiting, and marketing of their agency. State funding could provide funds for the training, but it might make more sense to just make the academy an affordable, not-for-profit organization led by an experienced law-enforcement trainer working with a civilian from the Twin Cities community. Chief Norm Stamper’s comments on MPR the other day were wonderful and his thought, to paraphrase, that we will know community policing when we see police commanders and civilians in equal roles in a police department, was perfect.
Next: I take offense, and I am pretty sure the law-enforcement training community will justifiably take offense, to the implication that they “breeze over” some of the critical aspects of police training. I am not sure what the “other stuff” is that the authors are talking about. The argument is often made that police training emphasizes firearms and deadly-force training by dedicating many more hours to those skills than it does to communication skills or de-escalation techniques. You cannot compare the many hours it takes to make someone proficient in the use of firearms and deadly force with the training in communications, de-escalation techniques or implicit bias. They are different skill sets requiring different kinds of training. Should we devote more time to communication skills? Absolutely, but once again I go back to my experience and I can say that the majority of poor communication skills are introduced by bad trainers outside of, and in violation of, curriculum or training policy.
Are we too militarized? Yes, but not in the way you probably think. From time to time we are armed warriors with the tools, military and otherwise, that we need to get the job done. As peace officers, we need those tools that at the very least match the weapons and tactics of our worst adversaries; witness Dallas, Texas. The attitude that can come with the use of those tools is the problem. We are not the military. We are citizens working with other citizens to provide a safe environment for all. When we take on the attitude of soldiers occupying an area, based on our equipment, uniforms, and biases against people who are “not us” we become armed combatants with the attitude to match. As human beings we are all capable of acting in truly horrific ways toward each other. Dr. Ervin Staub’s work documents over and over again what savagery is possible: The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence.
Because we are also not sheep. There are times when we must be able to call upon that savagery in a controlled manner. Witness Flight 93 on 9/11. Citizens, when the need arose, became warriors willing to risk it all to save others — knowing that it probably meant their own death. This was a homicidal/suicidal act that would be unimaginable, even to the actors, under other circumstances, but it is a necessarily accessible component of a peace officer’s makeup. The community and peace officers depend on that warrior spirit to come alive when needed to do the things most citizens cannot or will not do. Learning to use that terrible power requires hours and hours of hands-on training lest it be used the wrong way, so we do.
It’s not the gear; it’s the attitude
Next: I have written over and over again about police accountability and the militarization of police tactics. I too want a police department that does not look and act like the military. However, it is clear from recent events that unless you are willing, as a community, to call in the Army or National Guard when we have events like Dallas, and all the other mass shootings and attacks on innocent civilians, you must prepare police officers to work with and use military equipment to end those events. I don’t like that we have gotten to this point, but I am not going to pretend that we haven’t. What we must eliminate is the attitude that goes with the military-style uniforms and equipment. There is a certain amount of pride in what we do and we must fight to not let it become hubris when we put on that uniform. I am guessing that the first uniformed police officers dealt with the same problem, going from civilian clothes to a uniform.
Finally: Many police trainers will say, “We are the law.” When taken out of context that comment sounds terrible, and scary. But what is meant by most trainers is this: Peace officers have incredible control over people’s lives in the exercise of enforcing the law. As peace officers we have a moral responsibility to enforce the law fairly. That means recognizing that every decision made by a peace officer with respect to enforcement is a moral decision. Not everyone should be arrested for an act that violates the letter of the law. Not everyone needs to go to jail. The poor teenage dad with a beater car who hasn’t renewed his plates because he can’t afford to do that and feed his wife and child this month does not need a citation and his vehicle towed even if the law says you should give him one. He needs access to resources to help him make good decisions about how to survive. We are the law and with that power comes the responsibility to enforce it fairly, justly, and with compassion. Most important, everyone needs to be treated with respect. The disrespectful acts that one officer may get away with will at some time come back in the form of anger and violence toward another officer. We don’t want to admit that the horrendous acts committed in Dallas and now Baton Rouge are, in part, a response to the constant barrage on the web and in social media of real police misconduct. But it’s true.
My recent experience with body cameras and working for many months with the New Orleans Police Department convinced me, and the vast majority of New Orleans cops, that body cameras are an essential part of police work. I love the idea of taking it to the next level with cameras facing backward and forward. I believe the law about body cameras in Minnesota is a disaster. Cops must be able to access footage before making their reports. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is able to write a completely accurate report of what occurred in a critical situation based solely on their memory. The body camera law in Minnesota is a trap for police officers and we will reap the rewards of that trap with increased litigation and accusations of lying in our reports.
New technology will hopefully give us more nonlethal tools, but there will always be confrontational traffic stops, warrant arrests, people with killing on their minds, and though we are guardians by nature we must continue to be warriors when necessary in defense of ourselves or, more often, the community we serve.
Michael W. Quinn is chairman of the Inver Hills Community College Law Enforcement Advisory Board, a retired Minneapolis Police sergeant, and CEO of the International Ethics and Leadership Training Bureau, LLC. He is a husband, father, and grandfather.
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