Police reform has become a hot topic nationally. Justifiably so when national news video shows an unarmed person running from a police officer, being shot in the back and killed. Tragically there have been a few similar incidents recently, they aren’t the norm, but they happened. That being said, one unjustified police shooting is one too many.
To pass judgment on those involved based on a thirty second news clip would be another miscarriage of justice. A decision as to right or wrong will be made within the courts, and proper sentencing will be carried out for those found in violation of the law.
The need to review and upgrade police policies and procedures, especially those concerning use of force, is something that is done annually by most departments. For those that don’t, now would be an excellent time to start.
There will always be a need to stop unacceptable behavior and the best way to achieve satisfactory conduct is through education. Not just within police departments across our country, but with the citizenry too. I would suggest most police misconduct regardless of magnitude is the result of disregard for policy and procedure.
Citizens who violate laws are held accountable as well, but matters often escalate when the average citizen doesn’t fully understand the rules, or in this case, the lawful power a police officer has to control a specific situation.
Officers who are sworn to uphold the law and are given certain powers to do so, ranging from a simple verbal command to the use of deadly force. I would suggest any police reform package put forth by our government should be coupled with a citizen inform program as well. How many times has, “I don’t have to get out of my car,” led to further escalation of what should have been an “ordinary” traffic stop?
Most people outside of the police profession have very limited knowledge of criminal law. What elements of law constitute a crime? What is probable cause? How does search and seizure work? Under what circumstances can I be arrested? Can police make me get out of my car? A general understanding of those topics and a few others would go a long way in stopping what the general public often perceives as excessive police force.
Perhaps a semester long class in high schools would be a good place to start. Or at police stations, as some departments already do. As much as there is always a need to hone our skills as police officers it is essential for citizens to understand what police can lawfully do. This is not about making the playing field level; this is about everyone having a clear understanding of the rules of the game.
William May retired as Chief of Police from the Townsend Massachusetts Police Department after thirty years of service. He is the author of “Once Upon A Crisis” which takes a close look at post-traumatic stress in emergency services from the inside out.
This is his sixth article for Law Enforcement Today.