When citizens are shooting and killing police officers and police officers are shooting and killing citizens, something is malfunctioning in civilized society. That fact is not lost on former police officers turned UMSL criminology professors Dan Isom and David Klinger.
Isom is a retired Chief of Police for the City of St. Louis as well as an endowed professor in policing and the community at UMSL. David Klinger is a former police officer and a professor of criminology and criminal justice at UMSL. He is also the author of “Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force.” On Wednesday, they joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh to discuss the recent officer-involved shootings in Baton Rouge and St. Paul and the shooting of five police officers in Dallas.
The two echoed remarks made by Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who recently said that we are simply asking police officers to do too much in this country, to compensate for larger societal problems like mental health, poverty and education. Those remarks, which were also said in another form by President Barack Obama at a memorial service for Dallas’ fallen officers on Tuesday, capture the sentiment of officers, Isom said, but now there needs to be action.
“It is really about resources and the political will to do it,” Isom said. “Many people are in crisis when they call the police. This really isn’t about that point of time, it is how you follow up afterward.”
For example, Isom said that if you are called to respond to someone who has a mental health issue, that person will later need caseworkers following up on treatment and medication. If the police are called for domestic violence, even if officer’s respond, there’s still a need for a long-term family therapy.
“What about a child experiencing problems getting involved in minor crimes…who is going to follow up and give that child necessary counseling to move forward?” Isom said. “These things rest upon the shoulders of officers when they’re not resolved.”
More definition and communication about what a police officer actually is in today’s world would help, Klinger added.
“The police need to be understood as something different than they are understood as,” Klinger said. “Now, our society just dumps all their problems on the police. We need to figure out a better model where police are in the community, trying to do their best and try to resolve those issues when they can, but when there’s expertise, bring in the experts. One of the things we know, when we have a gunshot victim, the cops don’t provide first aid, the EMTs provide that. We should do the same thing for other types of problems.”
Both former officers acknowledge a divide between police in the citizenry that is leading to officer-involved shootings and increasing distrust of the police. Here are five solutions that Isom and Klinger talked about that would, they hope, in the long term help bridge that divide.
Employ more officers for community-style policing
The ideals of community policing are sound, but vastly underestimate the number of police officers needed to build strong, deep relationships with communities of all kinds.
“As a police chief of a major city, we were often challenged by not having enough resources to deal with the amount of demands that society places on officers,” Isom said. “In particular, when we talk about community policing, it is a time-intensive effort. When you want people to sit down and make strong relationships with the community, you need more officers to do that and officers need time to form those relationships. When you’re answering calls, dealing with violence and doing all those things officers need to do, it makes that job more difficult.”
Find a way to include mental health professionals
Klinger said that a new model that includes mental health professionals in police officer’s responses to situations is needed.
“I think police have become the government entity of last resort for everything from a barking dog to criminal activity with someone beating a family member,” Klinger said. “Police need to be involved in the stuff they are involved with. But we need a different approach.”
Klinger wondered why police are the “point entity” to come to the aid of someone who is having a psychotic episode.
“No matter how well-trained the police are, they are not mental health experts,” Klinger said. “There are other people with real expertise. If we could figure out a way to get mental health workers to the scene with police, they could help things. What happens too many times is that police get there and the police are a lead entity and the person behaves in a fashion that’s threatening and police are trained to protect themselves and others on the scene...it might devolve to a use of force situation or a shooting. There’s an example of the way our society needs to think holistically about how to get services to people in crisis.”
Crisis Intervention Teams are an example of how that kind work is starting to be implemented at police departments across the country.
Consider the way deadly force investigations are conducted
Klinger and Isom differed on how they believe investigations of police use of deadly force are conducted.
Isom advocated for independent investigations.
“Police departments can move to more independent investigations and prosecutions so that when the decision is made, people have more trust in the outcome no matter who made the decision,” Isom put forth as a solution.
Klinger said that investigations should always be handled by the best investigators in the area. In St. Louis, those investigations are led by the Force Investigation Unit, which is run by Sgt. Roger Engelhardt and was started with the help of Klinger in 2011. Klinger advocated that a group like this, partnered with independent review, should suffice in investigations.
“I wouldn’t want to see a less-expert group come in from the outside,” Klinger said.
If an outside group were to handle investigations, “those guys and gals darn well better have the same expertise as these guys for years have,” Klinger said.
Increase understanding that ‘cops don’t want to shoot people’
Klinger said that people should understand that “cops don’t want to shoot people.” Mentioning the editorial cartoon which ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week about a police officer’s “itchy trigger finger,” which the Post-Dispatch ultimately took down, Klinger said that the public obviously has no idea what goes through a police officer’s mind in a situation of deadly force.
“I’ve interviewed about 300 police officers from around the country who have been involved in shootings and almost invariably they have been involved in other situations where they had lawful warrant without a doubt to shoot and they held their fire,” Klinger said. “The great, untold story of American policing is how restrained police officers are. We forget that police officers interact with people around the country millions of times a year and are involved in some thousands of shootings. We don’t know how many thousands because we don’t have good data. As we get good data, we find that the majority of times that officers could shoot, they don’t. That needs to be told.”
Let civilians in on the inner workings of what police officers do
Along the lines of clearing communication, Isom suggested that officers take the lead on better communication.
“Whose responsibility is it to bridge this divide? It is a dual responsibility but as professionals, public servants, police officers have the first responsibility,” Isom said. “How do we make what we do more transparent, get people to better understand the job of a police officer, and how do we build greater trust? We do expect citizens to trust and respect officers and to cooperate when they encounter officers. The system works better when that occurs. But we also must recognize some people won’t. We have to train officers in the best way to deal with those confrontational situations. It is a partnership to make your community better, but I think it starts with police.”
Isom said that this communication would need to answer the questions: What is the real nature of police work? What are police trying to accomplish? How are police teaching and training our officers?
He also said that police departments should get on top of a social media presence that would allow departments to offer counter information in an officer-involved shooting “before things spiral out of control.”
Police departments really need to be wrapped into social media and get in front of that with counter information before things spiral out of control.
Klinger offered an example of changing the narrative.
“In 1972, NYPD officers killed 93 citizens,” Klinger said. “Nowadays, they only kill 9-10 a year. That’s a ridiculous decrease in the number of people killed. But people don’t understand.”
One place to start this kind of communication?
“I would open the doors to the police department,” Isom said. “Let Black Lives Matter come in and see the training that is going on in the Police Academy, let them ride along as monitors in the police car. I just hosted some training at the university, 100 officers went to valor training, it was officer safety training. Citizens should have been in that room at the time. I think sometimes the things we believe we are trained in are top-secret. They’re not top secret. A lot of them are common sense measures. People being involved and seeing not only what officers go through but the extremely high expectations. We need people to see, hear and be a part of what officers are doing. Not only so they can understand, but also so they can monitor.”
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