FIVE ISSUES THAT MIGHT PROTECT YOUR AGENCY FROM A ‘FERGUSON’
by Lou Reiter
©2014 Lou Reiter, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)
Far too much criticism has been hurled at the police and far too little understanding of the difficulties of the police work prevails. This criticism and lack of understanding has resulted in alienating the police from the public, so that they go about their work with scant consideration of the public just as would any other group of people who were criticized unintelligently. At the present time when strenuous efforts are being made by many police departments to increase their efficiency, it is ungracious to dwell on the inefficiency of the police in general. - Sutherland, “Criminology,” 1924
In America, on the other hand, the student of police travels from one political squabble to another, too often from one scandal to another. He finds a shifting leadership of mediocre caliber – varied now and then by flashes of real ability which (sic) are snuffed out when the political wheel turns. There is little conception of policing as a profession or a science to be matured and developed. It is a job, held perhaps by the grace of some mysterious political influence, and conducted in and atmosphere sordid and unhealthy. It is a treadmill, worked without imagination or aim, and with little incentive except the desire to keep out of trouble…We have, indeed, little to be proud of. It cannot be denied that our achievement in respect to policing is sordid and unworthy. With all allowance for the peculiar conditions which make out task so difficult, we have made a poor job of it. - Fosdick, “American Police Systems,” 1915
And here we are now, nearly 100 years later, with Ferguson and similar accusations from a wide range of public and political fronts. It appears the outcry may have legs. Local and national study commissions are being proposed. What we do will be closely scrutinized.
Now is the time each law enforcement agency should take stock of critical areas and determine whether there is room for improvement, need for corrective actions, or a sense that you’re reasonably secure. There are five (5) specific areas you need to assess to ensure your comfort:
Protocol for handling force investigations, specifically officer-involved-shootings
IA/OPS quality control
Community policing and other outreach efforts
Is your agency prepared to handle a major force or shooting? It’s too late to put together a protocol after the incident happens. You will fail and be made to look foolish! Consider the dichotomy that’s occurred in the past few weeks. Some force incidents have occurred and there has been no turmoil in those communities. While other agencies have created their own problems with botched up investigations or prematurely ruled the incident as in policy without a good grasp of the facts. These latter ones are on the front page and on the local TV news. What has yet to be challenged, other than during civil lawsuits or a federal investigation, has been our administrative review of these types of controversial incidents. Can you reasonably support your analytical decisions? If you have no formal review process, stand by for deserved criticism. We all will have to become more transparent in this review.
Is your PIO (Public Information Officer) prepared for this type of critical incident? Most agencies are so small that this is left for the Chief or Sheriff or some other randomly selected person. It’s too important a function not to have someone selected and trained to handle this task without embarrassing or creating mistakes that will come back and haunt your agency later. Avoid at all costs a premature pronouncement without supportive facts.
Positive community outreach, even if it’s not officially referred to as Community Policing, will garner your agency that valuable commodity often called ‘social capital.’ It’s that bank account with your community that you can go to during troubled times. Too many agencies rely on special officers or programs. The best source of social capital, however, comes from your officers on the beat and investigators who regularly contact your crime victims. Field officers need to get out of the cars and walk and talk and put away those cellphones. Investigators need to spend more time out in the community and less time on the telephone. Social capital is developed from a one-on-one relationship between community members and your employees.
And lastly, does your agency have a recruitment strategy? Matt Dolan of PATC emphasizes this need. Many people are pointing an accusatory finger at us and noticing that few police agencies are ethnically representative of the community being served and that most officers don’t even live in the community being protected. Even those agencies that are aggressively pursuing minority recruits are having trouble achieving reasonable numbers. It is a difficult, daunting task. The only salvation your agency may have is to have a reasonable strategy that lays out your efforts, even though they may not be working.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.