The world watched two black men in two different US cities die at the hands of police this week.
In the first incident, an anonymous bystander filmed two Louisiana police officers find a gun in the pocket of 37-year-old Alton Sterling, then pinned to the ground, and shoot him in the chest. Another graphic video, shot by the owner of the store where the incident occurred, later emerged.
The next night, Philando Castile’s girlfriend recorded a live Facebook video of the aftermath of a traffic stop that ended with a Minnesota police officer firing multiple shots into Castile’s arm. While police and state officials haven’t confirmed many details, Castile reportedly informed the officer of his concealed weapon (for which he had a permit) and simply reached for identification, as instructed. The 32-year-old school cafeteria worker died later that night at a local hospital.
Both incidents have fanned the flames of a national debate about the use of force and apparent racial bias in policing, and they have prompted renewed calls for better policies. In an interview with CNN Friday afternoon, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton hinted at her plan for greater standardization in policing.
“As president, I would implement the very comprehensive set of proposals that I’ve been making for more than a year, including we must do more to have national guidelines about the use of force by police, especially deadly force,” she said. “We need to do more to look into implicit bias. And we need to do more to respect and protect our police.”
A general lack of effective training and uniformity within that training, however, acts as a significant blockade to a more peaceful future, many experts said.
In fact, it’s the “biggest issue” facing police departments today, Chuck Drago, a former police chief in Florida with over 30 years of experience, told Business Insider.
Lower levels of force
No national standards exist for the use of force, or other policing tactics, for that matter. Pulling from various Supreme Court cases, an officer is legally justified using lethal force if the officer reasonably and objectively fears the person will cause death or serious injury to the officer, other officers, or the public.
“I think that officers are trained with the mentality that, ‘Oh if it’s reasonable, I can shoot.’ It’s a bad mentality,” said Drago, who now acts as a consultant for various law-enforcement groups.
Even the way cops handle concealed weapons, which ultimately led to Castile’s death, can vary from officer to officer. In many cases, critics, from law enforcement to activists, feel police have become overly reliant on their firearms and have failed to adequately deescalate civilian interactions with lower levels of force and even simple communication.
These lower levels of force can include weapons less lethal than guns, like Tasers and other kinds of stun guns, Drago said. Effective communication can also negate the need for weapons. Many police, however, may not feel as comfortable with these methods and instead turn to their holsters, Drago added.
“A police officer in crisis will jump to the firearm quicker than other forms of force because he or she feels the most confident with the firearm,” Drago told Business Insider in a previous interview. “We are not teaching police officers communication skills or how to be proficient with less lethal defensive skills.”
‘A bond between the police and the community’
The Dallas Police Department on Thursday night suffered the deadliest attack on police since the September 11, 2001, attacks on US soil. It came at the hands of a 25-year-old US Army veteran “upset about Black Lives Matter,” the city’s police chief said, amid peaceful protests occurring in the city.
In an era of rising tensions, the Dallas Police Department served as a model for progress, as Business Insider’s Natasha Bertrand reported.
Since the department instituted a “shift to deescalation,” excessive force complaints dropped 64% from 2009 to 2014, according to BuzzFeed criminal justice reporter
And after a string of officer-involved shootings in late 2013, Dallas Police Chief David Brown upped the frequency of mandatory lethal-force training from every two years to every two months, The Washington Post reported.
The Dallas Police Department’s lethal-force policy also identifies the “protection of human life” as a primary goal, which emphasises that officers should exercise “great restraint” with lethal force and treat it as a “last resort.”
During the protests in the city Thursday night, Dallas police forewent riot gear and even stopped to pose for selfies with protesters.
“I listened to eyewitness accounts of the protest, and they praised the police and their tolerance and sense of commitment to the people in the protest,” Drago said. “There does seem to be a bond between the police and the community.”
Lack of national standards
With the lack of national policing standards, some organisations attempt to at least monitor and unify how various state and local departments create their individual policies.
The Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), for example, bills itself as the “public safety solution.” Through joint efforts between elected officials, state Supreme Court justices, police chiefs, academics, and more, CALEA reviews and discusses police affairs in the US and creates standards with which jurisdictions must comply to receive accreditation with the organisation.
“We tell the agencies what needs to be done. How they do that is dictated by the community, the demographics, lots of things,” Travis Parrish, director of client services and relations for the CALEA, told Business Insider. “I would not want inner-city Chicago policies applied to my very rural community that I live within.”
Other organisations, such as the International Association of Police Chiefs (IACP), cite similar goals. Accreditation or adherence to any of these directives, however, remains optional for police forces across the country.
Among the federal, state, and local levels, the US boasts an 18,000-agency-strong police presence. On top of the obvious difficulties coordination poses, accreditation takes time and money, which some police departments may not have. Still, experts tout the benefits of a more standardised approach.
“I would love to have a more consistent approach to training, policy, and procedure with regard to use of force,” Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former Tallahassee police officer, told Business Insider. “
Unfortunately, that’s incredibly difficult in the US.”
An excerpt from CALEA’s fifth edition for standards for law-enforcement agencies emailed to Business Insider reads: “An officer may use deadly force only when the officer reasonably believes that the action is in defence of human life, including the officer’s own life, or in defence of any person in imminent danger of serious physical injury.”
It’s similar to what Supreme Court cases have dictated, although CALEA does establish more specific standards, such as generally prohibiting warning shots and ensuring appropriate medical aid.
“I think it would be great if CALEA would get some better defined standards in some areas,” Stoughton said.
Even though states typically create their own accreditation agencies and standards, some may allow the use of Tasers, while others don’t. Some may prohibit chokeholds — the physical tactic that caused Eric Garner’s 2014 death in Staten Island — while others allow them.
“That’s downside to our factionalized policing, compared to the national policing like they have over there” in the UK, Drago said.
The United Kingdom has different demographics and a much lower rate of gun ownership than the US. But overall, a high degree of standardization exists among departments across the pond.
For example, the UK’s College of Policing oversees firearms training nationally. And national legislation, such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 (PACE), help set and regulate standards of behaviour for officers, including the use of force and videotaping interrogations.
In the US, accreditation doesn’t necessarily mean that organisations won’t face problems or controversy, however. The Dallas Police Department, for example, does not currently receive accreditation through CALEA. And the Baton Rouge Police Department, which was involved in Alton Sterling’s death, does.
Neither department responded to Business Insider’s requests for comment.
Twice the rate of whites
Even better training, however, may not be able to address one of the main complaints against police today: implicit, racially tinged bias.
Police can use lethal force when they reasonably and objectively fear for their or other’s safety. The Black Lives Matter movement, however, argues that police are more likely to see blacks, especially males, as threats and thus, more likely to use lethal force.
After the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, President Barack Obama delivered an impassioned statement Thursday night filled with disturbing statistics about being black in America.
Among those he offered: Last year, African-Americans were shot by police at more than twice the rate of whites.
Policies can’t control what happens in the heads and hearts of police. But even some case law introduces the issue of race, perhaps unintentionally disguised as poverty, into discussions of crime and policing.
For example, a Supreme Court case from 2000, Illinois v. Wardlow, found that cops have a right to stop people for fleeing at the sight of officers as long as other suspicious factors are at play — like a high-crime area.
In many cases, high-crime areas double as areas with high rates of poverty. And it’s no secret that poverty disproportionately affects people of colour in the US.
“If it’s a wealthier neighbourhood and you see a minority, you won’t get suspicious,” Drago said. “But if you see a 1989 car with one door painted a different colour and six people packed into it around all these Mercedes, that’s what draws suspicion.”
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