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Palm Coast Friday, Dec. 16, 2016 1 year ago

8 things law enforcement can do to win the public's confidence

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Use of force has threatened the relationship between law enforcement and the public. Here's how to fix it.

By James L. Manfre

Guest Writer

I have had a unique perspective over a 24-year law enforcement career on the actions and attitudes of police managers and police officers as an investigator, a prosecutor and a sheriff. Because I have never attended a police academy or worked as a street cop, my views of what I have witnessed are not colored by the police culture that permeates law enforcement decisions and reactions.

I believe that there are real reasons for and solutions to the problems plaguing law enforcement around the country when it comes to community relations and the use of force.

First of all, the public must acknowledge the difficult mental and physical conditions that the average street cop must contend with in order to do their job well. The lion’s share of street policing is done by men and women between the ages of 19 and 30. After that period, because of seniority and experience, most are elevated to a special unit or a supervisory role. Most of the interactions with the public are with the youngest and least-experienced personnel in the organization.

Last year, our 80 road deputies who take emergency calls responded to close to 150,000 calls for service ranging from traffic accidents, domestic disturbances, the mentally ill, reported crimes from theft to violent incidents, and natural deaths. We are asking our law enforcement officers to wear a lot of hats as peacekeeper, marriage counselor, mental health evaluator, crime stopper, traffic law enforcer, neighborhood watch, youth director and homeland security assistant.

Police also work the debilitating 12-hour shift rotation that has them changing every three months from a day to night shift, which causes family and physical stress. Police face the daily danger of gun violence, traffic accidents and heart and blood pressure issues. They are exposed to people at the worst moments in their lives — people who may be physically or mentally traumatized by a crime committed against them, the loss of a loved one or domestic disturbances, and who may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. 

Second, we are asking our police to make split-second decisions on life and death while dealing with these conditions. As in any other profession, law enforcement officers sometimes make mistakes. Unfortunately, when law enforcement is wrong, it can result in the loss of life or serious injury.

In order for police to do their job well, law enforcement managers need to embrace certain best practices to properly train and prepare their personnel.

 

1. Community policing philosophy

This philosophy espouses the central concept to good policing, and that is treating every person in every encounter as a customer. This point of view allows the officer to maintain a neutral attitude toward the citizen they are speaking to, regardless of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or national status.

This concept, where it has been successfully implemented, engages the community in assisting law enforcement in reducing crime through neighborhood watches, town hall meetings, youth activities and transparent communication.

 

2. Body cameras

In this age of video, it is essential that law enforcement have accurate video records of their encounters with the public. Body cameras are a game changer and positively influence the behavior of the citizen and the officer because each knows that their behavior is being recorded.

In every agency that has implemented body cameras, use of force and citizen complaints drop dramatically. And that has been the case in Flagler County since we have implemented this technology. In addition, it saves time in the prosecution of the arrest by allowing the prosecution and defense attorney an opportunity to review the evidence to evaluate the strength of the case against the defendant.

 

3. De-escalation training and the use of less-lethal force

De-escalation training teaches an officer to lower the temperature of encounters with the drunk, the addicted, the mentally ill or suicidal and the outright angry citizen. It is counterintuitive to back off or lower your voice when confronted with a verbally or physically abusive person, but, with practice, this is exactly what a well-trained officer will do.

In addition, by using Tasers or beanbag ammunition in a properly altered shotgun, violent or suicidal persons can be subdued without injury to the officer or suspect. 

 

4. Yearly training on the basics

The jobs of the line officer and the line supervisor, corporals or sergeants, are difficult ones. They need to make critical, split-second and lifesaving decisions in the heat of battle. The more training they receive in those areas, the better able they will be to make the right choice.

By using virtual simulators that can create real-life shoot or no-shoot scenarios, the officer has an opportunity to hone these critical decision-making skills.

 

5. Discipline and accountability

A fair system of discipline and accountability should be used consistently and without bias when there are policy violations or internal investigations of police misconduct. This, I believe, is law enforcement’s weakest point in that the police culture becomes defensive when it needs to be its most transparent and forthright about its failures.

On the other hand, the public needs to understand that the proportion of annual complaints against the million law enforcement officers and their tens of thousands of encounters with the public is very small. 

 

6. Outside agency review

The use of outside agencies to review use-of-force complaints must be made mandatory nationally. It is impossible to conduct an investigation of one’s own officer when there is an allegation of criminal conduct. There are too many internal issues that arise from this situation and, regardless, the public views any result other than criminal charges as a cover-up.

 

7. Diversification of staff

A diverse staff of officers who are reflective of the community’s makeup should be recruited. It is hard for every agency to recruit African-Americans, Hispanics and women simply because the pool of applicants is so small compared to white men. This does not relieve the law enforcement agencies from actively recruiting and ensuring a fair and nurturing environment for these officers. 

 

8. Enlightened leadership

The law enforcement manager, whether chief of police or sheriff, must be open to changes and bettering the profession. None of the above will happen without this type of leadership.

The law enforcement manager, whether chief of police or sheriff, must be open to changes and bettering the profession. None of the above will happen without this type of leadership.

I have witnessed both the enlightened manager and the backward leadership style. You can tell the difference by the negative news stories.

The backward manager’s agency is always in the news regarding some misdeed. The enlightened manager’s agency is rarely in the news for something negative.

A concrete local example has been the Flagler Beach and Bunnell police departments. Over a period of years, there was one negative story after another involving both agencies, regarding potential police misconduct. With the hiring of Chief Matt Doughney in Flagler Beach and the hiring of Chief Jeff Hoffman, and, after Hoffman was hired by the Flagler County Sheriff’'s Office, Chief Tom Foster in the Bunnell Police Department, those agencies have turned the corner and now will run out of the negative news cycle. 

 

Conclusion

Clearly, law enforcement needs to do more to ensure the confidence of the public. And the implementation of the aforementioned steps would help greatly. The federal government should ensure these best practices by providing federal dollars for increased training and to defray the costs of body cameras.

Law enforcement must do a better job of communicating its mission on a daily basis to the citizens it serves. Citizens must do their part by understanding that they are receiving 24- hour, seven-day-a-week protection from their local police. And to receive the maximum from this service they are paying for requires support and cooperation, but also vigilance and a demand for professional, fair and unbiased interactions.

 

James L. Manfre is the sheriff of Flagler County.

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