Saturday, June 6, 2020

Who will want to be a peace officer now?

 If you are interested in a career in law enforcement, don’t do it. If you are in it, get out. In my forty years of teaching, practicing, writing, and training in police matters I never thought I would give that advice, but if Colorado Senate Bill 20-217 passes, that advice could not be wiser.

Colorado’s citizens should know that the bill requires all officers to have body worn cameras (BWC) on during all contacts. Police officers do not widely object to BWCs, as they have consistently been to officers’ benefit. But SB20-217 requires the camera on when you call about your suicidal brother, your drug dealing neighbor, or when you want to confidentially report information about a potential school shooter. If the officer fails to turn on their BWC for any contact, even in the case of a sudden ambush, the law presumes that there is police misconduct absent any other evidence.

To ensure that no criminals get hurt during their violent crimes, the bill specifically eliminates the part of the law allowing deadly force when a suspect “Has committed or attempted to commit a felony involving the use or threatened use of a deadly weapon”. The officer must use their telepathic powers of prophecy to know whether an offender will use the next .25 seconds to make their threat “imminent”. The bill also removes a peace officer’s ability to use deadly force “to prevent the escape of a prisoner convicted of, charged with, or held for a felony or confined under the maximum  security rules of any detention facility” unless there is “likely endangerment of human life or inflection of serious bodily injury”, again calling on the officers’ psychic ability which the sponsors of the bill apparently think is taught in the police academy.

The bill severely limits qualified immunity (remaining for all other government actors, just not the police), which has been a well-established protection for reasonable mistakes made in good faith for any government official. Officers are not only disallowed from human error, unlike doctors, lawyers, and accountants, but if they are civilly sued they must be fired as though they had been found guilty of a crime. 

To add to assurance that officers will be uniquely, severely punished, they will not have the benefit of their agency’s insurance coverage and will be personally financially responsible in addition to their loss of career. And, of course, any complaints in the officer will be required to remain anonymous so that the accountability is always a one-way street. Never mind that officers already are subject to federal and state criminal charges, federal and state civil lawsuits, department discipline, and financial disaster as a result of misconduct accusations, even those which ultimately find the officer vindicated.

The bill additionally burdens your local officers and agencies with added paperwork and data reporting that, while possibly beneficial (though by no means certainly beneficial) duplicates much of what is already being reported. You’ll be glad to know as the minutes tick away after your 911 call that your officer is filling out their surveys and will be with you when the mandated paperwork is done. Even with public funds looking dismal,  you’ll be glad to know that the legislator is directing how your police leaders must divert their budgets from crime fighting to managing the new mandates.

Under the guise of reform, the bill’s sponsors are attempting to punish all of Colorado’s 13,000 peace officers for police misconduct everywhere at the cost of the privacy and safety of all citizens.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Real Common Sense Planning for School Violence

Despite the statistical rarity of mass shootings at schools, events are so bone-chilling that that prevention and response has become a priority in every community. As a former Chief of Police on a university campus, a graduate of the Emergency Management Academy and a host of FEMA courses, I have written a number of well researched articles on school safety and active shooter response in addition to conducting full scale exercises and first responder training. I do not minimize the seriousness of the threat, nor the need for preparation. We’ve had enough experience since Columbine to have learned a few things and ignored a lot of other things. Here are some fact-based observations:

1)    The number of well-armed attacks on mass numbers of students is much rarer than reported. In counts of “school shootings”, those violent crimes that are actually interpersonal, domestic, or gang related, or completely unrelated to the fact they occurred on school property also get counted. Certainly potentially deadly, these cases are not what we have in mind when we imagine the horrific random attacks designed to kill as many people as possible, and not the kind of crimes for which much of our preparation attempts to address. These crimes target individuals who happen to be on a campus when contacted by the assailant.

2)    We probably need to stop doing active shooter drills in our schools. There are several reasons for this.
a.     One is that the drills can traumatize students and teachers, normalizing an expectation of imminent violence.
b.     Secondly, since most attackers are students or former students, drills train the shooters as well responders.
c.     Thirdly, there is no template for the way attacks play out. In other words, we are likely drilling a practice that would be irrelevant in an actual attack.
d.     Fourthly, first responder participants in a drill likely will not be the ones responding to an actual event. When the call goes out, every law enforcement agency with a radio will be responding, from the local agency that you’d expect to the game warden. Seldom are all of those agencies represented in full blown exercises which are, by the way, a hugely expensive endeavor.
e.      Fifthly, most active shooter events are over by the time law enforcement arrives, which limits the value of full-scale deployment practices
f.      Sixth, not every police leader has actual expertise in this type of response and, therefore, may not be aware of best practices or be willing to coordinate with the vast number of agencies and personnel to coordinate a response.

3)    Complex systems of response don’t fit with human nature. There are many well intended systems of signs, placards, codes, etc that are part of some emergency plans.
a.     The human brain is less effective when there are too many things to remember. In police training we know this as Hick’s Law, a principle in psychology that says the more choices you have, the slower the decision-making process becomes. Having a seldom used system that requires a lot of decision making increases the likelihood of that system failing.
b.     The frequency of employing the knowledge of these emergency procedures will result not only in their lack of use in a crisis, but also in their lack of awareness by new staff, first responders, substitutes, and visitors.
c.     Coded public address announcements, and even sophisticated alert systems via cell phone, are likely to be heard and received by the attacker or given too late for effective response.
d.     A failure to adhere to the system with 100% accuracy can result in unnecessary panic and are not a reliable indicator of a situation inside a classroom. Does that OK placard in the window really mean the room is safe? If the teacher forgets or chooses not to risk moving toward the door to put up the right placard, will the SWAT team be tossing in a stun grenade?

4)    The attraction of evacuation must be resisted.
a.     There have been zero – yes, zero – k-12 students killed who were behind a locked door secured as soon as an intruder or threat appeared. The classroom with a locked door is unquestionably the safest place for anyone to be in a school shooting. Any protocol that moves students from that safe “protect in place” location increases exposure to attack.
b.     Marching students from inside the school to another location with their hands over their heads makes reunification, accountability, and protection less effective. Allowing students to stay in their classrooms with a safe adult allows the situation to be controlled better than any other strategy. Students can be counted, identified, and released to parents directly from classrooms more efficiently than after a mass exodus past potentially hazardous locations.
c.     This includes bomb threats. The preferred protocol is to have students remain in place while the threat is assessed, or the premises are searched. Bombs are much more likely to be anti-personnel or of limited power than to be of such magnitude that structural damage is likely. That means that movement outside the classroom more likely exposes students to an explosive device than protects them from one. Classroom walls are the students’ best protection while first responders arrive.

5)    Prevention and intervention are possible. Schools are often afraid of privacy concerns like juvenile laws, FERPA, HIPPA, and protecting victims and therefore do not share information about the behavior of students. This is exactly why the Virginia Tech killer wasn’t stopped before he murdered 33 people. On the university campus where I most recently served, our CASH (CAmpus Safety and Health) team reviewed reports of concern from law enforcement, students, faculty, and staff to “connect the dots” on concerning behavior and develop intervention strategies for potential threats from on or off campus. Other behavioral intervention team strategies are available to copy that can be effective and pass legal review. 

   I am not addressing security hardware or security personnel in this commentary, but I’m convinced that it is time to simplify our preparation and response to the threat of a mass killer.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

How To Know When The Activist Is Ignorant

Some common topics arise when lay persons talk about police use of force, and most of them are erroneous in fact or interpretation. Here is a sample.

Clue # 1  They include the Trayvon Martin case in examples of police shootings. Martin was shot by a neighborhood watch coordinator in what a jury later accepted as self-defense. The controversy regarding police was their initial conclusion that it was a case of self-defense. The shooter, George Zimmerman, was a mixed-race 28 yr old whom the press managed to call a white male in order to emphasize the potential for a racially charged story.

Trick question to test the amateur activist: How many times did the cops shoot Trayvon Martin? If the answer isn’t “zero”, the person doesn’t know what they are talking about.

Clue # 2  They include Michael Brown as an example of an innocent black teenager shot without justification by a white police officer. An additional clue is when they mistakenly refer to Brown as “Michael Ferguson”, as I heard a commentator on CourtTV say just today in analysis of the Amber Guyger case.

Brown, always referred to as an “unarmed black teenager”, was 18 years old, nearly 300 pounds, and was 6’4” tall. Hardly the image of the headphone wearing Facebook photo pushed in the press. Brown, who had just walked away from a strong-arm robbery caught on video in which he shoves an elderly shopkeeper (who was Asian – but Asian victimization hasn’t yet become a newsworthy trend) in order to steal cigars to modify for marijuana use. When confronted in a lawful contact by police officer Darren Wilson, Brown approached Wilson who was still seated in his patrol car when Brown wrestled to take control of Wilson’s service weapon. Failing that, Brown attempted to flee, ignoring Wilson’s attempts to take him into custody, and Wilson shot Brown. All forensics verified this account.

Trick questions to test the activist’s knowledge:

1.     How many times was Brown shot in the back? Answer: zero

2.     Who was the first person believed to have started the story that Brown was surrendering with his hands up saying “Don’t shoot”? Answer: Dorian Johnson, who was arrested on a warrant from another jurisdiction on an charge of making a false statement to police during an earlier arrest for theft unrelated to the Brown incident and who later admitted that his initial statement was untrue.

3.     How many autopsies were there on Brown relative to the shooting case? Answer: 3 – all of which confirmed the Wilson’s narrative.

4.     What was Wilson convicted of after the shooting? Answer: After a grand jury, federal investigation, internal investigation, and intense public and media scrutiny, there was zero evidence of wrongdoing of any sort by Officer Wilson. None.

Clue # 3    They are still talking about Rodney King.

Trick questions:

1.     How many officers are still around from the Rodney King era? Answer: It was 1991, a rookie hired that year is likely already retired. Stacey Coons is 68 years old now. Laurence Powell is 58.

2.     In the Rodney King arrest, there were 56 baton blows alleged. How many of those blows were ultimately found to be excessive?  Answer: None, according to the first jury trial, and one or two in the subsequent federal case. (Recent research on reaction time might have negated that finding.)

Clue # 4  They never consider the accountability of the alleged victim.

Trick questions:
1.     What is the appropriate response when confronted with a weapon capable of killing you or others near you or those in the path of that person’s escape? If they say “talk them out of it”, “shoot them in the leg”, or “use your Taser”, they’ll need to spend half a year in the police academy and two years on patrol before they understand differently. They could also read the peer-reviewed research on the rarity of police use of force, and the multiple findings that fail to show race bias in police use of deadly force – but that’s just about as likely.

2.     What is the law in every state about complying with an order by a police officer and submitting to an arrest? Answer: You must. It solves all kinds of problems and avoids your getting shot.

I applaud activism, sound journalism, and police accountability. What saddens me is public opinion and activism based on prejudice, ignorance, and cemented conspiracy theories. What infuriates me is legislation and policy based on that same ignorance.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Deconstruction of Law and Order

I get it. We have a lot of people in jail. We have mental health issues associated with violence and criminality. We have concerns about police shootings. And we have an irrational, emotional, perversely political response by activists, elected representatives, and politicized police administrators.

In this past year we’ve seen California’s Governor sign the repeal of a law that requires citizens to assist police officers. While some saw the law as a vestige of the wild west posse, I see it as a confirmation of bystanders who are happy to videotape a police officer struggling with no sense of responsibility as a fellow citizen. This repeal is symbolically a further tearing away at the essential morality of being a community’s citizen and bearing the mutual burden of peace keeping. The repeal was justified, in part, by the irrelevant use of the law in previous centuries to track down runaway slaves, just to make sure politicians can claim yet another blow against police racism.

Our American ideals of policing are rooted to a large degree in the principles of Sir Robert Peel, the father of English policing for whom “Bobbies” are named. Peel famously said that the police are the people and the people are the police. With professionalization, technology, and increasingly complex laws, policing has become separate from the citizenry and has often cautioned against non-police citizens getting involved. The courageous convenience store clerk who draws a firearm to thwart a robbery is often lightly praised while the public is cautioned to just call 911 if they see a crime in progress.

In New Jersey, Camden Police Chief J. Scott Thomson, now retired, instituted a force policy that requires deadly force to be a last resort. While this is, in fact, the de facto practice in nearly all fatal police shootings, the limitation can be problematic. Stuart Alterman, an attorney who often represents officers, called it an “unnecessary progressive stance” that will lead to more lawsuits against police and put them at risk. Saying the policy “will only cause police officers to second guess themselves during the most critical moments of their careers.”, Alternman stated “With all due respect to those individuals involved in drafting this new use-of-force policy, I’m wondering if it was really drafted by anarchists instead of those individuals attempting to support police officers,” he said.

By definition, a “last resort” implies intervening responses, a prophetic gift of knowing when that moment is, and that all other means have been excluded in the milliseconds during which an officer must decide whether to pull the trigger or give a deadly attacker another moment to repent.

Oregon’s Governor Katherine Brown signed a bill this month ending the death penalty for cop killers unless there is premeditation. So apparently only official cop assassins might face the ultimate accountability for murdering one of our public servants.

Criticizing use of force by police isn’t enough. Jesse Smollet – actor and architect of a fake assault on himself to proclaim a hate crime attack – has his lawyers lashing out against Chicago Police for their aggressive investigation of Smollet’s false report. At a time when hate crimes can literally ignite cities, Smollet’s suits are telling cops not to investigate quite so hard, implying that investigating is racist in an of itself.

A prosecutor in the crime torn St. Louis, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner recently blamed St. Louis police officers for enforcing drug laws that resulted in a contact with a criminal who fought with and attempted to shoot officers who were able to stop the four time felon with deadly force. Gardner is also believed to have summarily dropped several violent felony cases because they involved officers whom she labeled as racist.

In Sacramento, the local police were excoriated for putting a bag over a young arrestee’s head in a video that was widely circulated as an outrageous example of police being meanies. With no understanding of netting equipment specifically designed to keep police officers from being covered in disease ridden spittle from combative subjects, the critique reached a fever pitch.

This kind of reasonable and necessary police strategies often generate a morale killing apology from police leaders, instead of an opportunity to educate the public. Worse yet, they can generate stupid laws that are aimed at punishing law enforcement for doing police work and which create greater opportunities for crime to breed and incentives for police officers to step away from doing their job. Recruitment and retention rates, as well as increasing crime in some areas is a measurable outcome of this rhetoric and regulation.

I don’t have enough blood pressure medication to talk about the Presidential candidates who smear the law enforcement profession, including the one who continues to refer to the “murder of Mike Brown” in Ferguson. This malicious, slanderous ignoring of the facts (i.e. a lie) was spoken in the face of overwhelming evidence that this “unarmed teen” lumbered into a convenience store, stole items in a strong arm robbery in which he shoved an elderly shopkeeper, shortly after which he reached into a patrol car, attempted to take Officer Wilson’s sidearm, and, when Brown continued his assault, was lawfully and righteously shot.

This happened in an era when President Obama invited Brown’s parents for a night out. Yes, the same President that said police “acted stupidly” while investigating a report of a possible burglary when a resident was attempting to get into his locked house after forgetting his keys. Obama solicitously postured a pretend apology by sharing beer and nuts on the lawn with the officer.

On other criminal justice fronts we’re finding massive decriminalization of drug offenses. This may be a well-intended way to increase awareness of mental illness and addiction, or an easy way to reduce costs of incarceration. In either case, one result is that the criminal behavior of drug offenders is not being appropriately addressed. Legalization of marijuana, predicated on the false impression that thousands of people are spending many years behind bars for possession of small amounts of weed, that pot is not addictive, that it is benign and even beneficial, and that sellers in pot shops are local mom and pop operations divorced from big business and organized crime, has had no positive effects that balance against the social ills of it.

I’m hoping that America will do for police officers what we eventually did for military veterans of Vietnam. We moved from spitting on them for being baby-killers, to admitting that they deserved yellow ribbons and appreciation for their service, and stop blaming them for the war. My hope is that our police officers - who do an amazingly professional job every day (according to study after study) and are not the blame for our social ills – will get their yellow ribbons from our fellow citizens, too.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Regulating SuperCops

 Whether you’ve seen the movie The Incredibles or have missed it, you might be living it. The plot centers around a family of people with superpowers that have been ordered by the government to stop fighting crime. Sound familiar? If not, take a moment to review the stories about California mandating restrictions on use of force, Connecticut considering forbidding shooting at vehicles, New Hampshire revising its use of force law, and numerous cities refusing cooperation with federal law enforcement.

In a way, this is a high compliment to the law enforcement profession since these activists and lawmakers are showing us that they believe police officers have superpowers! Here are those magical powers that we need to use more wisely, according to these statehouse policy geniuses:

The Power Over Physics
With the ability to control the path of every bullet, and determine the line of flight of every vehicle, there is no wonder why our powers must be legislatively limited! With computer-like calculations of wind, coefficient of friction, angles, surface tension and porosity, velocity, mass, sound waves, light refraction, and the trajectories of every person in motion, there’s no reason why a supercop like you should make an error with your vehicle or weapon systems.  

In the real world, the variables in any arrest or use of force event are too numerous to even know, much less calculate. Every action that requires deployment of a tool carries with it the risk of malfunction, failure, or unanticipated outcome. Planes crash, rockets explode, and transmissions can slip. Slides and triggers on pistols glitch, handcuffs can slip off, cars can skid, thick clothing can dampen a baton strike or a Taser barb.

Suspects and bystanders can change speed on foot or on wheels. Sound can echo and misdirect. Traction of boots can slip. None of the infinite forces at work in a moment of an officer’s contact with a suspect is without a variable that can alter an outcome. We live under the laws that Newton discovered with no exemption for good works or good intent.

The Power Over Biology
Cops are universally as fit as Chuck Norris and agile as Jackie Chan. One or multiple opponents who dare to challenge our authority to take them into custody can be felled with a few secret ninja moves or wounded with a well placed single shot, John Wayne style. Our senses need no milliseconds to absorb all the information we need to make those instantaneous flawless decisions. Performance on little or no sleep, impervious to the errors of stress or exhaustion, is no problem.

We wish. 

The greatest training advances of the last twenty years in policing have come from a study of human capacity. Even the amazing brain takes time to process sensory inputs, sort through alternative responses, and send the appropriate signals to our body parts to execute that response. Much of the foundation of that knowledge comes from sports psychology and research on human performance in athletics. There is no sport where 100% is the standard measure of performance for hitting, launching, catching, kicking, or directing a ball into a hole, net, or the hands of a team member, but our next morning commentators can’t fathom why an officer did what they did after watching some snippet of cell phone video.

It is individual humans interacting with other individual human beings that constitutes the bulk of a patrol officer’s work. Those interactions cannot assume peak performance by any of the parties involved in an encounter.

Power to Predict The Future
This is the most amazing power of all the superpowers that police officers possess. They know what others are thinking. They intuit motive, merit, and mental capacity. They know what will happen if they make an arrest, or let a person escape for another day. They know if it is a suspect’s birthday, the eve of their wedding day, or if they were just getting ready to make something of themselves if only they got a chance.

The answer to the question of why an officer chose a certain course of action is that the officer acted on the information they had at a given moment, not the certainty of what would happen if a different course of action, or none at all, had been taken. One use of force investigation I reviewed suggested that an officer should have terminated a foot pursuit of a burglar caught in the act of breaking in a vacant home. Since the officer knew the offender, said the internal review, the officer should have stopped chasing the suspect and obtained a warrant instead. This prescription was given even knowing that the officer was aware that the suspect was already the subject of an active warrant which clearly had not made the suspect law abiding and compliant.

Education is Key
Those making policy and law can only do so with the information they have - much of which is provided by activists hostile to law enforcement - or from the misconceptions of movie fiction and false narratives of viral videos. Police officers, leaders, and police advocates may fail to understand that they can take an active role in educating law makers about the realities of policing. 

I recently wrote the members of a state legislature who were on the committee considering a proposal on use of force and received personal replies and questions from several of the members. I was able to explain, in rational terms, the adverse impact of the proposal which was ultimately not passed into law. One of the legislators communicated that many officers had expressed opposition to the measure, but none had articulated the issues until my correspondence.

Your voice can make a difference. It may be your only real superpower.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Police Week - the Asterisk*

I remember walking, tourist-like, through an old cemetery in Savanah, Georgia on a weekend road trip while at FLETC. I just like old cemeteries. One of the saddest benevolent lies is found there: “Gone but not forgotten”. As I scanned the ancient headstones, I notice that there seemed to be one that had garnered special attention. I moved closer and began to read that this was the resting place of the remains of one Button Gwinnet, one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. I inhaled with whispered “Wow” and suddenly felt that I was on an especially sacred patch of ground.

There is hardly a culture where remembrance is not a part. As the son of a WWII soldier part of my DNA is saluting the flag, wearing the poppy pin, and standing at attention at somber ceremonies remembering the fallen. We are compelled to remember our heroes. Even our collective American guilt over our treatment of our Vietnam soldiers blossomed into yellow ribbons for our Iraq war veterans and we finally invited those Vietnam conflict era veterans to the party.

When a police officer dies, we offer a final parade more massive than any Presidential motorcade. Their name is engraved in our nation’s capital and perhaps in state and local monuments. Even in the current era of hostility toward law enforcement, local communities find an outpouring of support when a police officer is killed. Flowers, cards, and teddy bears cover the places where the blood was spilled.

And that is as it should be. Never forget. Never forget.

Then we look around at those memorials and see in the crowd the wheelchair bound former police officer whose career was derailed by a line of duty injury. We see those with the slight, tell-tale limp of a prosthetic. We see one with the stoic expression well practiced to mask the pulsing winces of chronic pain. We don’t see the ones still in their hospital beds attached to tubes and monitors. We don’t see the ones at the rehab center learning how to walk again. We don’t see the ones whose injuries were once described in the newspaper as “non-life threatening” sitting in the darkness trying to talk their own brain out of a panic.

It’s not a competition between those survivors of a line of duty death of a loved one and those who are called into a life of caring for a living survivor. Children left without a mother or father, and children whose lives have also been changed and now must adjust to a mother or father who simply cannot be who they once were, have their own grief and loss to bear. It isn’t fair to measure the feeling of abandonment by the family of a line of duty death when the thin blue line breaks with the passage of time against the feeling of abandonment when an officer’s injury makes them of no use to their agency and they become unemployed and uninsured.

But for the catastrophically injured to be forgotten during a time declared by Presidential proclamation to be devoted to both the dead and wounded is for us to fail in our remembrance of the totality of heroism and sacrifice. 

To forget those law enforcement veterans robs our culture, both as a profession and as a nation, of the completeness of our honor to those who have served with utmost devotion. 

If we forget the hurting of any hero, we may forget the fullness of our own willingness to give all. For behind every dead and wounded police officer stands the living, serving, able ones ready to make that same journey out of safety and into danger. We see it every day. Only by honoring all of those who have given much can we stand resolute to carry on.

*Police week honors the fallen. Let us also honor and help those who fell and are still working to rise up again.

Thursday, May 2, 2019


As Police Officer Memorial Day approaches please remember those who are disabled as well as those who perished. If you are fortunate enough to be retired with mind and body scarred but intact, if you are still on the job - even if grumbling and discouraged - remember those who would give anything to be back on the streets with you. When we are young and fearless and willing to die we seldom think about the willingness to bear chronic pain, to live life looking outwardly weak bowed by deformity, to lose sight and senses that reorder the way we experience the world, to be changed so much in body, mind, and spirit that our families don't know us anymore, to watch a patrol car speeding past and cry because you can't go with them, and to fight your own body while losing friends and finances. Salute the graves, yes. But do not forget the living who gave themselves also.