April 13, 2021 18:43

Law Enforcement Challenges in a Political Maze

As new political leadership in our country begins with the bitter aftertaste of tumultuous social upheaval and a pandemic still lingering, law enforcement faces incredibly critical external and internal challenges as we step into 2021. As with many other states around the country, politicians in Sacramento continue to pile on legislation premised on a narrative that police officers are systemically racist and ubiquitously abusing authority particularly towards young black men.[1]

That narrative fails to consider statistics showing the demographic representation of criminal actors, ignores individual attitudes/behavior regarding compliance with authority,[2] and fails to account for communication differences that could lead to misunderstandings and conflicting expectations unfortunately resulting in uses of force.[3]

Nevertheless, politicians in Sacramento, Calif., are on a rabid quest to “reform” law enforcement with onerous mandates and increased scrutiny.[4] Many of these measures certainly make the mission of law enforcement much more complicated and dangerous, especially in safely controlling uncooperative individuals/crowds and encountering deadly threats.

Additionally, the political trend in California is to de-criminalize or minimize many drug and property related offenses. Yet most citizens do not fully comprehend the revamping of the justice system and still expect a high level of service from their police department in dealing with transients, the mentally ill, domestic violence, suspicious people, drug users, thieves, etc.

So how are police officers expected to work under high expectations from the communities they serve while continually being disabled (and “defunded”) by politicians? These are officers who courageously fight crime facing dangerous and deceptive criminals, yet only to see the same criminals back out on the streets before the end of the day. These are officers who are expected to handle society’s most complicated problems beyond ordinary street crimes, whether homelessness, mental illness, fraud, domestic violence, and now, a pandemic.[5]  Officers who feel that they are not entitled to public trust, legal protection, or political support unless the job is done perfectly—an impossible standard—to appease every opinion and political viewpoint about crime and punishment. Officers who are lectured on how to do their jobs by individuals who have never encountered violence and never had a duty to protect others (akin to a “foodie” who has never set foot in a kitchen instructing a chef how to prepare a recipe).

Under such pervasive pressure, liability landmines, and overzealous political expectations, an officer today could experience frustration, fatigue, ambivalence, pessimism, despair, and neuro-physiological changes that could lead to surrender and defeat.[6]   All this in addition to experiencing the “usual” trauma from daily police work. In the long run, these dynamics exacerbate an already tragic epidemic of police officer (and military) suicides due to PTSD and related psychological anguish.[7]

SUPERVISORY RESPONSIBILITY TO PROPERLY PREPARE OFFICERS FOR THIS NEW ERA

“I don’t believe in team motivation.  I believe in getting a team prepared so it knows it will have the necessary confidence when it steps on a field and be prepared to play a good game.” 

– Tom Landry

Acknowledging the New Reality and Expectations

To alleviate the stress and anxiety of officers in this new era of police work, supervisors need to prepare our officers so they can serve their communities without unnecessarily jeopardizing their lives, emotional health, and careers. To achieve this purpose, law enforcement leaders must first be realistic and cognizant about California’s legislative and political expectations of law enforcement. Since the passage of Proposition 47, Proposition 57, and AB 109[8] and the codification of new use of force language[9], the message is loud and clear:  Enforcement/punishment of petty drug/property crimes is not a top priority (although the enforcement of such crimes still remains a priority for most local law enforcement agencies as such crimes tend to affect community safety and decorum). Rather, Sacramento is politically obsessed on qualitatively changing how officers work and make decisions, especially in potential use of force situations. With upcoming bills that claw for even more scrutiny, oversight, sanctions, and transparency of police officers, there is clearly a mistrust of law enforcement in how we work. Of course much of the mistrust is based on false information and personal ideology. Nevertheless, the emphasis on qualitatively reforming police work cannot be more evident.[10]

Mindset and Perspective

During this time of heightened scrutiny and legislative fervor, supervisors must equip their team with the proper mindset that enables them to reasonably protect their communities while being aware of all the new finicky ways an officer can be subject to liability. This objective calls for creative and dynamic leadership, one which emphasizes character development of our officers to help them make wiser decisions. “The high velocity, highly complex nature of the world today demands that organizations, indeed institutions, innovate in order to survive.”[11] Just asking an officer, especially a young, aggressive, and energetic new officer, to go issue citations, make arrests, and “be safe” will not help officers succeed under the current legislative mandates and political climate. They must also learn discernment, knowing when to engage and when not to engage under more convoluted use of force standards. Officers must improve their ability to think several steps ahead, pay attention to detail, and be aware of how their actions and words can lead to certain outcomes. This ability to think things through is more crucial than ever as courts now tend to dissect an officer’s actions leading up to the use of force.[12]  The fact that the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the 9th Circuit’s “Provocation Rule” does not seem to deter some judges from applying his/her own rules.[13] Hence, officers must learn to handle situations with more thought and foresight.

When law enforcement is under such extreme public scrutiny, supervisors must consistently train officers to act, think, and speak more maturely utilizing all the tools of effective speaking and persuasion, which is equally important to learning self-defense/combatives. We must make better efforts at helping officers gain wiser perspective, which can happen when officers understand their role and purpose in the department and the communities they serve. They must understand Constitutional principles, the department’s mission statement, what “the thin blue line” actually symbolizes, and the evolution of community policing tenets. Supervisors should emphasize prudent decision-making where an arrest is just one of many ways to handle a situation (sometimes, the only way). The question is whether the enforcement action taken (or not taken) is the product of quality decision making that takes into consideration equal justice, safety, resources, and community policing principles.[14]

Officers who are trained and trusted to make quality decisions on the field in real time enhances the operational efficiency and effectiveness of teamwork.[15] The ability for officers to make good decisions when a supervisor is not present or available is crucial in a time when police activity is routinely filmed on cell phones and can be shared to thousands of viewers before a supervisor even knows what happened.

Life-long Learning and Personal Growth

To accelerate the professional growth of our officers to thrive under current conditions, supervisors should also promote a wide variety of disciplines outside of traditional police-related training classes, including philosophy, psychology, ethics, sales/marketing, and political science.[16] When an officer’s learning is well-rounded, he/she will have better perspective to better inform his/her decisions. Some topics may be more practical (psychology, communication skills) whereas others may be more intellectual (philosophy, political science). This accumulation of knowledge is more than getting a college degree. Rather, the principle is developing a habit of life-long learning in a wide array of subject matter. The application of diverse knowledge to real-world experience over time will ideally develop well-rounded officers with greater wisdom, further bolstering the officer’s character development.

Supervisors must also stay abreast of political/legislative activity that affects law enforcement. They need to familiarize themselves with the legislative process and bills that affect public safety. Supervisors should use this information to prepare officers for pending changes in law enforcement and perhaps help influence the outcomes of proposed legislation. Although we’ll have to adapt to the laws and expectations already here for better or for worse, we should never stop fighting for sensible criminal justice reform and accurate reporting of facts/news. Adapting to new conditions does not mean that we passively accept the status quo.

Moving Forward with Self Awareness

As socio-political conditions evolve, so too must law enforcement. Rather than insisting on doing things “the way we’ve always done it” to perpetuate some notion of “old-school” police work, we need to adapt to new expectations, tolerances, and standards set by state laws and political events. After all, the state is the entity that grants officers the authority to enforce the law. Should current laws and statutes turn out to be ineffective in preventing crime and protecting innocent lives, then the responsibility is on the electorate—the “People”—to elect new representatives and pass better laws. Law enforcement leaders have a responsibility to educate the public and fight for those better laws as well. More so than ever before, this noble profession is filled with men and women of great courage, humility, integrity, and honor. They deserve the best guidance, protection, and care from their supervisors to cultivate great moral character with a deep passion for peace and justice.

Our profession is resilient. We will always adapt and conquer, and we will honorably fulfill our duty to protect and serve our communities.  But we can only be effective to our communities when we wisely strengthen and take care of ourselves first, now and in the future.

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Henry Hsu currently serves as a sergeant at a California law enforcement agency and is a regional board member with the California Peace Officers Association (CPOA). In his 16 years of law enforcement experience, he has served as a Field Training Officer, Corporal, Property/Fraud Crimes Detective, and ACT instructor. He served on the POA board for 3 years as Secretary, Vice-President, and President. He was selected Officer of the Year and received 5 departmental awards for life-saving and courage. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and Social Ecology, a Master’s degree in Urban Planning, and a Juris Doctorate.  

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Sources/Notes

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-problem-of-policing-isnt-bad-apples-its-a-diseased-tree/2020/06/05/7f110b4c-a757-11ea-b473-04905b1af82b_story.html

[2] In a study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors point out that young black men are “2.5 times more likely to be killed by police more than whites” and that officers in the U.S. kill more individuals than officers in other countries, https://www.pnas.org/content/116/34/16793. The study does not factor in violent crime trends, the level of crime associated with demographics, statistics of unprovoked violence against the police, individual behavior, and cultural attitudes/norms regarding law enforcement. To the extent the study narrows its focus only on race and gender in relation to use of deadly force without looking at numerous other variables, the study’s findings have limited value.

[3] “Does Race Matter for Police Use of Force? Evidence from 911 Calls,” Mark Hoekstra, CarlyWill Sloan, 2020, https://www.nber.org/papers/w26774.

[4] Some examples of proposed bills for 2021: Assembly Bill 48, prohibiting use of kinetic energy devices to disperse non-compliant crowds;  Senate Bill 16, requiring every use of force incident to be subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act; Senate Bill 98, allowing media access to command posts at a protest/rally.  Many of these bills were proposed in 2020 but failed, so are now being resurrected. In 2020, Assembly Bill 1196 was passed to prohibit the use of the carotid control hold, in addition to Assembly Bill 392 from 2019 reforming CA Penal Code 835a to include “necessary” language in the use of deadly force.

[5] “Blame the Police, But Blame Lawmakers, Too,” Stephen L. Carter, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-05/lawmakers-deserve-as-much-blame-as-the-police?srnd=premium&sref=JXWE0ED7.

[6] Lawrence N. Blum, Ph.D, Force Under Pressure, How Cops Live and Why They Die (New York: Lantern Books, 2000), 129-150

[7] Captain Dan Willis, Bulletproof Spirit (California: New World Library, 2014), 1-2

[8] The trifecta of CA’s early crime reform bills which made a large chunk of crimes misdemeanors, allowed for early release of criminals, and pushed inmates down to county jails and then out on the streets

[9] CA Penal Code 835a was amended to explicitly increase the deadly use of force standard to only when “necessary” (under the totality of circumstances as perceived by a reasonable officer) and that officers “shall use other available resources and techniques if reasonably safe and feasible.”  There is also an expectation to use additional de-escalation techniques to individuals with mental illness. Much can be said about the legal implications and ramifications of the amendments (as well as the tough political fight that law enforcement organizations fought to bring the amendments to a tolerable and Constitutional standard). Suffice it to say for now that the thrust of the amendments is to make officers rely more on de-escalation techniques even at a point when force, including deadly force, would be within policy and Constitutionally sound.

[10] I have no objections for improving the quality of police work so long as such efforts are effective at keeping our communities safe, do not impose unreasonable risk to officers, and the ideas are rooted on objective facts, sensible policies, and equal/fair debate as opposed to one-sided hearings filled with lobbyists with extreme political agendas.

[11] David M. Traversi, The Source of Leadership (Oakland: New Harbinger, 2007) 161

[12] https://www.police1.com/use-of-force/articles/the-incremental-erosion-of-the-graham-v-connor-constitutional-use-of-force-standard-8fUFW72RhgBpRNgw/

[13] County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, 581 U.S. ___ (2017)

[14] We should be reminded that one of Sir Robert Peel’s 3 Core Principles of police work is: “The goal is preventing crime, not catching criminals. If the police stop crime before it happens, we don’t have to punish citizens or suppress their rights. An effective police department doesn’t have high arrest stats; its community has low crime rates.”

[15] General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams, New Rules of Engagement For a Complex World (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2015), 199-219

[16] This additional learning should supplement traditional police training in officer safety, tactics, weapons, etc., which is always necessary and should take priority especially with limited training budgets.   At the same time, “traditional” police training may need to expand to address current realities.

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