We Can Fix Police Shootings
Those cities in the US experiencing dramatic declines in police shootings, how did they do it? Did they round up the citizenry and instruct them on the proper way to react during a police encounter (“Nope, nope, nope—hands on the wheel”)? Or did they go into African-American neighborhoods and distribute fliers (“When stopped by the police, make no sudden movements”)? Maybe they aired PSAs during the nightly news (“Even when surrounded by five officers pointing guns at you, remain calm”)?
Believe it or not, they didn’t. They retrained the police.
In Las Vegas, the city went from one of the deadliest police forces in the country to a model for reform. They focused on “fair and impartial policing” to counter the inherent bias we all have—the vast majority of Las Vegas’s questionable killings had been of unarmed Black men. They now do reality-based training geared toward de-escalation. And they revamped the review board to counter a prior 97% validation of deadly force incidents. In 2014, the city had zero deadly force incidents.
Philadelphia saw an 80% drop in police-involved killings after the department implemented DOJ recommendations. They, too, went to field training where officers role-play realistic situations. Previously, Philadelphia officers had mistakenly perceived Blacks as threats at twice the rate of whites. They also changed the review process for shootings that do happen. Reforms aren’t complete, but as the police chief said, “You can’t fix something until you recognize and acknowledge it exists.”
In Dallas, focusing on de-escalation (for example, don’t shout but communicate) and community policing not only decreased shootings, it was accompanied by a decrease in the city’s murder rate, the lowest in 80 years. If a police shooting does happen, the department decreases the number of officers in the neighborhood around the shooting scene. A spokesman for the department said, “The ideal police response to a protest is no response at all.”
Salt Lake City is changing, too. “Not least among the new strategies is training in bias. Officers should recognize that people of different cultures and races may react differently to police presence.” Terrible exceptions to the new training are still happening, with deadly consequences, because training takes time, which is why we all need to start now.
Gathering at national conferences, chiefs of police around the country are examining policing. Guess what they’re focusing on? de-escalation tactics. “I’m totally in agreement that police don’t know how to retreat in the United States and that we kill too many people,” said the former Boston commissioner. They, too, focused on how departments react to shootings that do happen, with the need to quickly release information about the incidents.
Death at the hands of police is NOT a hopeless, unsolvable mess where we argue sides and nothing can be fixed. It can be fixed. We know this. Police departments around the country are working hard to fix it. All we have to do is ask our hometowns: what are you doing?
Have you, my hometown, acknowledged that police training needs to change? Are you implementing the changes that have been proven to work in other cities? (Las Vegas is awaiting your call :)). Are you training in de-escalation, engaging in fair and impartial policing, using transparent and community-oriented review process? If not, do you realize you are falling behind? Do you understand you are no longer engaging in best practices?
I urge you to write your mayor and ask these questions. We must work to prevent the next American citizen from being killed by the police. We must prevent yet another police officer from being swept into a mind-bending controversy when she thought she was doing her job. We know how to fix the system. We need to get busy doing it.