Should local police be warriors or guardians?

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Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies, in riot gear, watch a protest over racial injustice and the Gardena fatal shooting of 18 year-old security guard Andres Guardado, in Compton, California, U.S., June 21, 2020. Photo credit: Bing Guan/Reuters

George Floyd’s death has highlighted a long history of brutal interactions between the police and the people they are supposed to serve and protect.  

Blue ribbon commissions, police reforms, and improved training has helped to a degree but these efforts have not stopped the threats, which put minorities and particularly Black men at significantly higher risk. 

That’s often the consequence of what’s called a “warrior mindset,”which is drummed into recruits in training programs for some of the 18,000 police departments around the country. Modern policing is supposed to “keep the peace,” but it evolved in part from the enforcement of slavery, and part of its legacy is racial bias, according to Seth Staughton. 

Since the death of Floyd,there have been multiple incidents of chokeholds, violent attacks on peaceful protesters, and even more killings by police recorded on cell phones and surveillance cameras, viewed by millions of people. Why is this happening? To find answers, Warren Olney talked to Seth Staughton, a former policeman in Florida, now professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law and a recognized authority on police behavior.

Warren Olney: What kinds of reforms would incentivize police departments to keep the peace and protect rather than being at war with much of society? 

Seth Stoughton:  There are a whole range of things that need to happen, and a number of those changes aren't actually changes that need to be made within policing. A number of those changes need to be made in society more broadly. I don't think we have a race issue in policing, I think we have a race issue in society that is reflected and often magnified in police encounters.  We will never fix race issues and racist issues in policing without ultimately fixing those problems in society more broadly. 

But one thing that we can do outside of the context of policing is to change how we evaluate the success or failure of police agencies.  Right now, when we evaluate whether a police chief or the police agency is doing a good job, we look at crime rates. Policing definitely has a relationship with crime, but that’s just one aspect. When we reward a police agency or a police chief because crime rates are going down, or when we punish a police agency or fire a police chief because crime rates are going up, we may be rewarding or punishing them based on factors that are largely and sometimes entirely outside of their control. We may also be creating perverse incentives when a police agency or a police leader is under pressure to reduce crime. They can adopt aggressive zero tolerance approaches that are effective, or at least that can be effective in bringing down crime rates in the short term, but can ultimately actually be criminogenic,  meaning they can increase crime rates in the mid-term or the long term. 

If officers see crime fighting as the most important aspect of their job, they’ll view things like civil rights as obstacles to their job rather than the fundamental tenets that help define their job. So that attitude of being “the thin blue line that separates society from chaos as part of a higher calling which should know no bounds,” is problematic and can contribute to repressive and oppressive policing.

Olney: How difficult is it to get officers to try to restrain one another in circumstances such as the one we saw with George Floyd in Minneapolis, where one officer was pushing his knee down on the man's neck and the others officers weren't doing anything about it? 

Stoughton: It's very difficult for one officer to criticize another officer, particularly if it could be considered as criticizing another officer in public. Policing has a hierarchical structure; there has to be a chain of command. It can be very difficult for officers to criticize higher ranking officers or senior or more experienced officers. So for a recruit to criticize a more experienced field training officer is to go against many of the cultural norms in policing. That's not an excuse, but it is something of an explanation and it helps inform us on what needs to change. 

There are programs like the New Orleans Police Department EPIC program; Ethical Policing is Courageous, which puts peer intervention at the center of agency culture. It recognizes that one of the most powerful forces in affecting how we behave is what we think our peers expect us to do in any given situation. Social psychologists call this normative conformity; in most situations we behave the way our peers and people around us expect us to behave. So what EPIC did was to take peer intervention and make it about helping other officers instead of just protecting the public from a rogue cop.

Given the solidarity in what can be a very “us versus them” mentality, when one officer sees another officer lose their cool, he has an obligation to step in to help save them from making what could be a career ending mistake. If you want to protect other officers, you need to be courageous enough to criticize them and to stop them. That's been a very successful program that I think can be more widely adopted in other agencies. Peer intervention needs to be part of police culture. 

The Supreme Court and the Attorney General Bill Barr 

Later Olney talks with Dahlia Lithwick, on the latest decisions from the Supreme Court and what those decisions say about the Chief Justice, President Trump’s conservative court, and the President’s Attorney General William Barr.   

Credits

Guests:
Matina Stevis-Gridnef - Brussels correspondent for the New York Times - @MatinaStevis, Seth Stoughton - University of South Carolina School of Law - @policelawprof, Dahlia Lithwick - Legal Affairs correspondent for Slate - @dahlialithwick

Host:
Warren Olney

Producer:
Andrea Brody