When former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr took over as executive director of the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission three years ago, one of her first moves might have seemed symbolic at the time. Today it seems prescient.
Rahr ended the requirement that trainees at the state’s police academy salute staff members. Instead, they’re required to strike up a conversation, the underlying principle of that change being that having good communication skills is more valuable for a police officer than observing military-style protocol.
According to the Associated Press, the academy now stresses not only better communication but also such skills as de-escalation, crisis intervention and defusing situations before they blow up into violent confrontations. More training is devoted to handling people with mental or substance abuse problems. Trainees can be marked down for using force when it could have been avoided.
It’s an approach that more police departments are taking, and it couldn’t happen soon enough.
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After a string of police shootings and other violent incidents in recent month — some involving white officers and unarmed people of color — there have been increasing calls for police departments to rethink how they operate, to change their culture to one that is more community-oriented. Critics say too many officers take a militaristic approach to their jobs and look at the public as the enemy; instead of engaging citizens, they’re more likely to quickly escalate to use of force.
Instead of “protect and serve,” their motto seems to be “us versus them.”
Of course, that’s never been the case with all officers. But it only takes a few bad actors to give citizens the feeling that they aren’t respected by their own public servants. Police departments need to do better jobs of recruiting and training to ensure their ranks don’t include that kind of officer.
Much of the impression citizens get of some police departments is colored by how they look: in some cases like soldiers going into combat, complete with armored vehicles and even camouflage. That’s no accident; much of the equipment comes directly from the Department of Defense and its program known as “1033,” which has transferred $4.3 billion worth of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement since 1997.
The Obama administration now has banned the transfer of certain kinds of equipment, but that’s expected to have only symbolic value; most of the military-style equipment distributed by the Pentagon to local law enforcement is not covered in the ban.
Some of this equipment might be justified, especially for riot control. Officer safety must always be a priority, and force sometimes can’t be avoided. The number of officers killed each year testifies to how dangerous their jobs can be.
But in the long run, police who are seen as community partners who respect — and are respected by — the public are going to be more successful in keeping the peace. And they’ll probably be safer, too.