August 29, 2020

How Do We Get Out of this Mess? Here’s A First Step


Dear PERF members, 

Another week. Another agonizing video of an officer-involved shooting.  And public trust in the police continues to suffer.

The situation has become exhausting. It is taking its toll on communities, especially among African-Americans and other people of color who are left wondering why these incidents keep happening. And it is wearing down police officers, because what happens in one city impacts cops everywhere.

We need to figure out a way to turn this around – and fast.

For the past six years, since Ferguson, police leaders have focused on reforming policy and training, and reengineering what we do. That is important work, there have been meaningful changes, and those reforms must continue and accelerate. 

But there is still the elephant in the room, and that elephant is a police culture that can be overly sensitive to criticizing other officers and reluctant to engage in tough conversations.  Reshaping that culture could help us get out of the morass we find ourselves in. But culture is something that almost no one is talking about or working on.

So where do we start? Changing culture is an enormous undertaking, but here is a first step – a step that is not about blaming individual police officers, but about having conversations to understand what happened in past incidents so we can prevent the next one.

On Monday morning, police chiefs and sheriffs across the country call their command staffs into a meeting. Close the door and turn on the video of the Jacob Blake shooting from Kenosha, Wisconsin. Then start a conversation with your commanders about the incident.

Acknowledge that all the facts aren’t yet known, but stress that what we do know raises a number of questions. What should police officers do when a subject they’re trying to secure breaks free? What happens when the TASER fails? What do you do when the subject tries to get into a vehicle? How would our officers have handled this situation?

At first, there will likely be silence. There will be some folded arms, and people will nervously look at the ceiling. Embrace the silence. Wait until someone speaks.

Eventually, a hand will go up and someone, maybe the informal leader of the group, will say something like, “We weren’t there, so we don’t know enough about what happened.” Someone else may chime in, “We shouldn’t ‘Monday-morning quarterback’ what other cops do.”

That is when you, as the leader of the department, step up and say, “Today, we are changing. Whether you call it Monday-morning quarterbacking or something else, we are having this conversation – not to find fault or assess blame, but to learn from this incident and make sure our agency does better.”

Then, the conversation needs to extend to other parts of the agency. Police executives need to send the video to their research and development team and ask if current department policies provide appropriate direction on how to handle this type of situation. The video needs to go to department trainers, asking them how officers are currently being taught and whether that training needs to be updated. First-line supervisors need to discuss what role they play in these types of encounters.

We also need to share the video among working cops and ask them what they think, what they are taught to do, and how they might have handled that situation. The officers on the street must be a part of the conversation.

And police executives need to have honest and frank discussions with their communities, especially about issues of bias and racial justice. Police chiefs and sheriffs need to be prepared to explain to residents how their agencies are learning from these incidents and working to improve.

And then we need to follow the same process with the next questionable police encounter. And the one after that.

Most agencies don’t do this right now.  Many don’t even talk about their own officer-involved shootings, much less incidents that happen hundreds of miles away.

Agencies also should be analyzing challenging incidents that were handled well, such as the recent hostage standoff in Cedar Park, Texas that ended peacefully after the first three responding officers were ambushed by a gunman in a mental health crisis. This type of critical analysis and learning from others applies to the full range of encounters that the police have.

Monday-morning quarterbacking needs to become part of the DNA of policing. It’s a model that other professions have embraced.

When there is a plane crash or train derailment, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) immediately dispatches a team of subject matter experts to the site. They dissect the incident and make recommendations to prevent similar occurrences in the future. The medical profession follows similar protocols following mistakes by doctors.

The whole concept of Monday-morning quarterbacking comes from sports. What do professional and collegiate football players do the day after a game? They go into the film room to watch what happened, study their performance, and map out improvements for the next game.

But in the police culture, “studying the film” has been always been frowned upon. The culture tends to shut down conversations at the very moment those conversations need to be taking place. This can be especially true when the discussions involve issues of race.

I’m not suggesting this process will be easy. Some incidents, such as the murder of George Floyd, are pretty clear-cut, and the lessons (such as the need to strengthen duty-to-intervene policies) are obvious. Others are more complex and may require a deeper dive because they are likely to offer more important teaching moments.

Regardless of how straightforward or complex the situation may be, police leaders and police agencies need to get comfortable with having these uncomfortable conversations. Importantly, over time these conversations will get easier, and they will become part of how police agencies operate.

As police executives embrace this culture change, don’t be surprised if your training people get defensive about what they are currently teaching.  Here is an exercise to use when the trainers say, “We are already doing this.”

Go to a training class and conduct a quick scenario. Have one person pick up a simulated knife and ask another officer to respond. Does the officer create distance, use cover, and start communicating to defuse the situation? Or does the officer pull their service weapon and begin barking commands to “drop the knife?” That will reveal if trainers are “already doing this.”

A critical part of changing the culture is paying close attention to what your recruits and experienced officers are being taught about use of force, de-escalation, implicit bias, and decision-making, and how that training aligns with department policy and philosophy.

There are about 18,000 police agencies in the United States and approximately 1,000 officer-involved shootings each year. Many of these incidents are now captured on video, both officers’ body-worn cameras and bystanders’ cell phones. So there is plenty of material for agencies to work with and many lessons to be learned.

Failing to discuss these incidents within our agencies – and failing to learn from them – is part of the reason they keep happening with such frequency. And they are going to keep happening unless police leaders acknowledge that it is the culture of policing that is shutting down the important conversations that should be taking place.

Police chiefs and sheriffs need to be leading this change, and they need to be doing it now.  

Because if policing doesn’t change from within, then it will be changed from the outside, in ways that are often counterproductive. The “defund movement” is gaining traction right now because the American people are exhausted from seeing so many images like George Floyd and Jacob Blake.

We need to turn that around by creating a culture that, in the words of Good To Great author Jim Collins, “confronts the brutal facts” about use-of-force incidents that are happening across the country. Chiefs and sheriffs need to embrace Monday-morning quarterbacking because it will improve performance, save lives, preserve some officers’ careers, and begin to rebuild trust with the community.

I look forward to hearing how your Monday morning meetings go.