By Ron Hosko, LE Action President
What can or should be done to ease growing tension or mistrust between police and the public in America today?
President Obama believes he knows and has launched a national tour to offer his views on the present state of law enforcement and how to improve relations between police and the public they serve. The President’s actions follow a report issued by a task force examining 21st Century Policing, a report he commissioned after police and public clashes occurred in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City.
On the surface, the report offers dozens of recommendations and "action items" for police activities that might better engage and build trust with the public.
However, a closer review of the 100 page report and 50 pages of recommendations reveals a classically political approach to improving law enforcement practices. The task force produced little more than an expensive wish list of unfunded requests for police departments and the Department of Justice to navigate.
The task force’s effort, offering a list of politically correct suggestions, wholly failed to acknowledge the central reality that, unless considerable resources are allocated for additional training, infrastructure, and personnel, sets an unreachable bar.
Considering the very limited resources of most local police forces, the President’s report may be mostly useful as a doorstop.
Among the report's central suggestions: that police, "embrace a guardian, rather than a warrior mindset." This recommendation appears reasonable and tracks with much of the report's overall tone suggesting that if the police were nicer and more approachable, much of the tension between police and the public would dissolve.
"However, these recommendations defy some painful realities of American policing—that police are too often under-trained, under-equipped and under-informed to predict which citizen encounters will suddenly turn violent."
The police profession is one like few others. An officer's courtesy is often viewed as weakness; an officer's cautious approach can be regarded by a criminal as an opportunity.
Look no further than the brutal execution of two Mississippi police officers recently killed while conducting a simple traffic stop; a deputy U.S. Marshal gunned down trying to arrest a fugitive in Baton Rouge, La.; or a Philadelphia police officer's "end of watch" battling two murderous brothers attempting a robbery.
Should police officers be courteous to the public? Of course. Should they recognize the signs of a mentally ill citizen and take steps to de-escalate the situation before anyone gets hurt? Yes!
However, police also have a clear right to defend themselves from violent attacks. When police officers act forcefully, they typically do so to control dangerous situations and save lives, often deciding on the appropriate level of force in mere seconds.
Suggesting officers can play only the role of friend/community protector ignores the realities of Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and so many other communities where police regularly encounter violent offenders.
The report suggests that police should do more to engage in, "positive non-enforcement activities" and mentioned one example of officers serving ice cream on Mother’s Day. Many police volunteer off-duty time for community service to help promote good will.
However, in many cities across the country, police are needed to patrol larger areas with fewer personnel and are often sent from one high stress situation to another. Police cannot sacrifice patrol work for ice cream vending, flower delivery, or pick-up basketball games.
To recommend police resources for such activities demonstrates a lack of knowledge of law enforcement resourcing and priorities, or perhaps simply the political bent of the task force’s organizer—the President.
Following the report, the White House moved quickly to block federal agencies from providing local police departments with certain kinds of equipment, such as armored vehicles, grenade launchers, some high-caliber weapons and bayonets.
The issue of a "militarized" police force has been repeatedly exaggerated by the news media with precious little evidence of the use of such tools against civilians.
Police need safe vehicles, protective gear and other tools to keep both the public and their own ranks safe.
The recent rioting in Baltimore saw more than 100 police officers injured after an indecisive mayor offered, "we also gave those who wish to destroy, space to do that as well.” It took a greater show of force to bring the rioting under control and restore order to a city in chaos.
The President’s report on 21st Century Policing unfairly raises public expectations on already strained police departments. If this Administration is serious about finding realistic ways to ease tension between the public and law officers, a serious effort must offer useful recommendations and funding for training, equipment, and personnel.
The riots, looting, and subsequent massive spike in violent crimes in Baltimore only reinforce the need for more than a cursory review of law enforcement practices and a presidential public relations tour.