WASHINGTON, April 10, 2015 – Do citizens of the U.S. expect the nation’s law enforcement officers to chase people who broke the law, stopping them in their tracks no matter what it takes? Or do Americans expect our police officers to chase people who broke the law and allow some of them, who are initially successful in eluding capture, to get away?
When a person commits a felonious and often heinous act like murder, rape or abduction, the average citizen expects a law enforcement officer to track down the bad guy and apprehend him with force, even deadly force if necessary. There are many reasons to stop such a criminal. For the most part, citizens want to get this criminal off the streets, the better to prevent future harm to any other individual.
On the other hand, when an individual commits a less personal or less offensive crime such as petty theft, minor illegal drug distribution or other crime against property, the average citizen expects a law enforcement officer to track down the offender and apprehend him or her, but without using excessive force.
Americans are interested, above all, in preventing future crimes and expect an offender to receive justice for violating our laws, especially when they themselves abide by the law.
In North Charleston, S.C., when pulled over for what appears to have been a vehicular issue, Walter Scott ran from a police officer who ordered him to “stop” running. Scott apparently ran from the police officer because he knew he had broken the law, but was also in trouble for an additional issue and was trying to avoid being arrested.
By most accounts, Scott appears to have committed one of the less offensive crimes on the crime spectrum – he did not pay his child support. Based upon the community’s reaction to this event, most do not believe the police should have the authority to stop this criminal by means of excessive or deadly force simply because his crime did not warrant it, even though he was trying to elude arrest.
Thus, the community expected Michael Slager, the police officer who shot Scott multiple times, to have at least given chase. Should the accused have managed to escape, then Officer Slager, they reason, should have ceased active pursuit and employed other means to get him into custody.
The conundrum is this: when law enforcement officers are trained, they are taught to be proactive, to protect themselves and the public. In addition, they are assured that in the heat of the moment, most behavior by a law enforcement officer is deemed to be justified.
Yet, in the heat of the moment, critical thinking can be suppressed by understandable stress and anxiety (flight behavior). At the same time, an adrenalin rush triggered by a stressful, potentially dangerous situation, can create highly aggressive (fight) behavior.
At such times, all of us − not just police officers − can forget that actions and reactions happen very quickly: sometimes too quickly to accurately process.
The way to handle a job that requires critical thinking under stress requires extensive education in what is termed de-sensitivity training. In such training, the law enforcement officer is placed repeatedly in simulated, highly stressful situations, until he or she can accurately process information and think clearly under pressure.
Airline pilots are frequently trained in a similar manner, using cockpit simulators that provide realistic stressful scenarios. Unfortunately, however, many law enforcement officers do not receive similar training that can prove crucial in real-life situations requiring critical thinking under stress.
Another way to handle a job − like law enforcement − that requires critical thinking under stress is to hire the right types of people for the position to begin with. It is well-known in the law enforcement community that some officers become “power-crazed” on the job, potentially leading to overreactions in stressful situations.
There are many reasons why some officers become power-crazed. Perhaps they were bullied as children, were ignored in their families or are of small build, just to cite a few of these possible reasons.
Ultimately, however, the possession of a badge, a gun and other weapons, along with the authority to enforce laws, can give power-crazed individuals the tools they need to exert power over others, perhaps compensating in a way for their past problems.
Obviously, some of these individuals may end up using that power to control others and inflict harm. That means that, to the extent possible, such individuals should be screened out in the hiring process to begin with. Unfortunately, law enforcement organizations are still misidentifying these potential problem hires, with the result that they can and do hire the wrong types of individuals for this job.
An additional problem can occur at the supervisory level. Law enforcement supervisors are the lynchpin of any law enforcement organization. They serve as mentors and instructors, and if they are ineffective, their subordinate officers will follow in their footsteps. Law enforcement supervisors often receive non-standardized supervisory training, if any supervisory training is received at all.
Proper hiring and training are targeted solutions. However, many other solutions are being proposed right now, such as having external investigators investigate the use of force (as compared to internal affairs conducting those investigations) and equipping only a limited number of police officers with guns.
Some highly skeptical citizens believe that only a subset of law enforcement officers should wear guns routinely, and that they should be highly trained in the manner discussed above. That said, we do not want to put our law enforcement officers at risk and we do not want our law enforcement officers to use excessive force unnecessarily.
In the end, however, the solutions are clear. But the desire to implement those solutions comes from local governments who must fund their law enforcement departments to accomplish these goals and closely monitor their progress.