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.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Moral Imperative of Intentionality - a leadership lesson from the noxious weed world

In my part of the great American Southwest there’s a terrible weed called tribulus terrestris. Roughly translated it means “pointy weapon of the earth”. We call them goat heads because of their shape and pointy horns. These burrs are worse than their cactus neighbors because they hitch a ride on clothing and drop strategically inside the house in places most likely to be traversed by bare feet. I find it no coincidence that the devil himself is often symbolized by a goat’s head.

After spending a good bit of time wresting them from my yard and gravel drive I began to think about the ease with which they seem to exist. Unlike the cool green grass I try to nurture and grow, or the tiny tremulous tomato plants we fed and watered, the pernicious weeds just got haphazardly dropped in the worst soil on the property and settled in for a long season. I case there is a chance of missing the metaphor, weeds are the damaging attitudes and behaviors in an organization in contrast to a carefully crafted workplace culture.  Here are a few lessons that occurred to me as I stabbed at those wicked roots in the hot sun:

Weeds are lazy and lucky
The things that leaders want, such as loyalty, performance, congruence with the mission, are things that must be nurtured, cared for, and maintained. We can seek to hire people with these qualities but maintaining desired behavior and attitudes is a constant process of growth. Low morale and sloppy work are insidious and barely noticeable but take root in any crevice they find.

Weeds are selfish
Annoying burrs don’t like to work for a living. They take their nutrients from the good plants. The beautiful and helpful growth will be weakened by the weeds. Not only do the weeds need to be stopped, killed, or removed, but the healthy plants must be protected. Pulling weeds near roses can damage the rose bush unless it happens early and carefully

Weeds cause unseen damage
I often am blissfully unaware of the goat head in the driveway until I unwittingly carry a burr into the house where, days later, I discover it in the sole of my bare foot during a 2 a.m. trek to the kitchen. Suddenly my whole attention is directed not only to removing the thorn from my paw, but also planning a venture into the dark web to purchase a nuclear device to rid the planet of tribulus terrestris. But a temporary rage against the annoyance solves nothing. Neither does a brief nuclear attack on the immediate problem. Cultivation and care is the key.

What are the weeds in your agency?
To apply the lessons of weed control the first quest is to find out what the weeds are and where they are hiding. After that comes not only an effort at eradication, but a renewed effort at nurturing the plants that need to be healthy and useful for a healthy environment.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Just another beating?

“Shocking video shows black man being 'beaten, punched and kicked by six North Carolina police officers'” shouts the headline on the UK’s Daily Mail website and echoed by many media outlets. It makes me wonder if they were reporting on an appendectomy whether the headline would read “Woman drugged and stabbed by masked gang”.

While the media are fighting for credibility like never before, the explosive bias of headlines like these can’t be balanced by the occasional reporting of actual facts buried in their narrative. Like moths to a flame, the assumption that police action is not only wrong but outrageously and gratuitously violent, seems to be irresistible. So, just in case any reporters read something other than their own bylines, let me break this down for them.

Shocking implies something wild, unexpected, and deeply wrong. Stories have a beginning, and this is where the story turned shocking – when the man was contacted by police and began actively assaulting them. It was very likely a surprise to the officers, but not shocking. After all, most cops have repeatedly experienced attempts by other to hurt or kill them. That part wasn’t shocking at all.

One perspective, almost always edited for effect by newscasts, showing a small percentage of the action being reported. Unlike television fictional fight scenes, street encounters are not choreographed, are not staged to show the tension-building falls and punches, and are not played to take greatest advantage of camera angles. The scenes, to my career-long disappointment, are also absent the background theme music and sound effects. Video can be evidence of something, but it is rarely automatically proof of anything.

“shows black man”
Why this racist approach to reporting continues in the face of culturally sensitive political censors is a mystery. The suspect’s behavior is hardly an asterisk in these reports and should be the focus of the finding of fact. If race, ethnicity, or gender were equally significant in all citizen-police encounters then headlines reporting the murders of police officers would routinely label the officers or their attackers as white, black, Asian, latino, female, male, gay or transgender. Victim officers are just cops. The demographics of offenders resisting arrest are rarely noted unless reporters smell the opportunity to cry racism.

“beaten, punched, and kicked”
No reader could doubt the connotation of this inflammatory language. There is little room for the reality of the careful calculation and restraint in use of force exhibited by these officers. Baton strikes are designed to be less than lethal efforts to stop an attack by interfering with nerve and muscle function. Baton strikes are aimed at specific parts of the body, but can be ineffective or land on an unintended target area during an actively attacking person. A single strike may not be effective in the most ideal circumstances when the baton is needed, so multiple strikes or strikes at more than one area simultaneously by more than one officer in no way constitutes a “beating” in the common understanding of the word.
Similarly, the use of an officer’s hands and feet to disable an attacker and bring an end to the resistance is perfectly aligned with lawful use of force to effect an arrest. Any observer familiar with the range of compliance options available to police officers to avoid lethal force can see that from verbal commands to empty hand control to Taser to baton, the officers heroically avoided killing a man who seemed intent on violently ending their attempts to take him into custody.

“Six North Carolina officers”
The number of officers is a fact to be reported, but to imply that there was an unfair number of officers against a lone offender is to rewrite the manual on use of force. Whether these officers intentionally engaged in a swarm maneuver, the concept of having multiple officers to enable a more peaceful restraint of a violent offender was developed for the very purpose of reducing injuries to suspects.

While it may be natural to emotionally identify with the officers with the belief that they are angry and offended, the reality is that the officers were using skills for which they were trained, equipped, and authorized to use. The story begins with the suspect’s resistance and violent attacks on the officers. The officers are aware that if the offender escapes, it isn’t just a blow to their ego, it pushes this violent man into the public’s risk. They are also aware that with each officer carrying multiple items which, if seized by the suspect in his frantic grasps, could be used to kill or disable an officer or other innocent citizen, the sooner this episode is ended, the safer it is for everyone, including the suspect.

A fact based headline
So, fellow journalists, can we stick to objective reporting in headlines? How about “Officers work together to arrest violent offender”, then a subheading of “man attempts to punch and bite responding officers, resists Taser”.

Now, roll that video. 

All of it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

A brief history of Street Smart Force training

Hi, I’m Joel and I’d like to share the story of StreetSmartForce training.  

I can easily share my resume, but all that will tell you is that I’ve been very fortunate to know some of the best, most dedicated trainers and educators of our day in the criminal justice field. What I really want you to know is that I really care about America’s police officers. As I look back on my many years of service I am astounded by how I survived! 

You see, I started at a time and place where you got suited up and put on patrol with the possibility of attending an academy sometime in the future. In fact, I was part of the very first class in my home state that started after the mandatory training law went into effect, even though I was grandfathered and exempt. My academy was a whole 120 hours and I completed it in my eighth month of my career.  

Within two years I became a trainer, adding Field Training Officer and Supervisor to my experience. I obtained first responder chaplain certification before 9/11 and volunteered with the NYPD shortly after flight resumed. I also began writing for Calibre Press’ Street Survival Newsline, and still write an award-winning column for 

With further education I began to teach college courses part time and eventually became a full-time police academy instructor before moving into my first chief of police role. My biggest incentive came after taking the reigns of a police department just months after an unresolved officer-involved shooting, just about the same time I was finishing my doctoral dissertation on community policing through the University of Missouri.  

Being directly in charge of an OIS was a first for me, so I hit the research heavily. What I though I knew about high stress violent encounters. That was over ten years ago and led to my registration with the State of Colorado as a psychotherapist, and to my writing three of my books – Forward I Go – a collection of inspirational readings to encourage police officer, The Badge and the Brain – the central tenants of my training centered on human performance under stress, and Fifteen Ways to Calm Your Mind without driving yourself crazy – a guide for anyone, but especially first responders, for dealing in a practical way with anxiety and mental fitness. 

Although I can train your officers or employees on virtually any topic, since the focus of law enforcement right now is the two-fold concerns of use of force and mental health, that is where my current emphasis is. Contact me soon if you have any questions or issue I can help you with – personal or professional, or to get a sample of my training material and quotes on costs – which I’m sure you’ll find quite reasonable and competitive. It will be a joy to engage with you, so call, email, or message me soon!