One thousand citizens killed every year by police; 25 to 35 police officers killed every year by citizens. The numbers are staggering. The deaths of Walter Scott, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner gave names to these invisible statistics. We have heard and seen steady, unrelenting stories of interactions gone tragically wrong. Some were captured on video leading to prosecutions that may never have happened otherwise — the lives of police and citizens’ families irrevocably shattered.
Police have a dangerous and difficult job. They must respond to call after call ranging from simple noise complaints to dangerous shootouts. They are called on to help those in mental health crisis, intervene in domestic disputes, stop robberies in action or deal with those high on drugs or alcohol. Rank and file police officers are vulnerable to burnout when not properly supported.
At the same time, every person in every community has the right to expect police will not use unauthorized excessive force. Our laws make this clear. It is all too evident we are not living up to this requirement.
Last week, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued its report on police use of force. It is a complex issue. It is imperative we get it right.
The courts have set a special standard for use of force by police, based on an officer’s “objective reasonableness,” which must be judged from the perspective and training of the officer on the scene of what may be a rapidly evolving, tense event. This standard is less than self-defense.
Objective reasonableness is judged by the officer’s training even if that training caused the use of force. This is true even if other approaches could have been tried first. Therefore, policies on how police are trained, supported and held accountable are crucial to ensuring the safety of officers and the people they encounter.
Our report found the federal government has not been on the case. The Department of Justice has abdicated its responsibility to assist departments in implementing improved approaches to policing. It has ratcheted back important work to negotiate and enforce court-supervised agreements with cities to improve policing. It’s even stopped its efforts to provide training and assistance requested by the departments. Congress has failed to enact laws for oversight or even fund grants. Crucially, the federal government fails to comprehensively track police uses of force.
Police departments throughout the country can tell us about crime statistics in their jurisdictions, where they happen and what crimes occurred, but they don’t keep a tally or report to a central repository those cases that involve use of force, how they came about, what they involved or, more importantly, why they happened. Departments must collect this data and turn it over to the FBI as the central repository. We cannot make progress on a subject we don’t fully understand.
High profile cases caught on video of shocking, lawless police conduct combined with systemic problems foster a perception that police use of force is not always checked. Lack of accurate data, lack of transparency about department policies, lack of accountability for noncompliance and failure to have a variety of community policing techniques, all coupled with the lack of transparency around criminal and grand jury proceedings, leave room for speculation and distrust.
Training, support services and increased accountability will make interactions safer for both officers and citizens.
This is not just my opinion. Departments that have implemented changes have seen results. In our report, we catalog evidence-based practices already proven in the field. Such practices add support for officers and increase community trust in police. None of the improvements experts recommend take authority or options away from frontline officers to enforce the law; they provide officers with more tools for the different and varied encounters they face daily. But, they do require chiefs and supervisors to provide more accountability and transparency for the public. We should also support officers with better compensation and staffing for two-person patrols in the most dangerous areas. Support and accountability are not mutually exclusive.
These recommendations are common sense moves, but unfortunately, reasonable calls for reform are characterized as being “anti-cop.” Advocates know most officers to do their jobs with honesty and integrity. Force should only be used where it cannot be avoided. To protect and serve requires no less.
David Kladney is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a Nevada lawyer. This op-ed was written is his personal capacity with Amy Royce. Twitter: @davekladney.