Trending Topics

4 changes every LE agency should make ahead of police reform

If we can quickly make some meaningful changes on our own, that may empower our supporters to reestablish logic


Posters and signs are hung on fencing around the East Precinct building of the Seattle Police Department, Sunday, June 14, 2020, inside what has been named the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) in Seattle.

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

As I write this article, we are in day nine of seeing seven square blocks in downtown Seattle under the armed control of anarchists who have declared the area surrounding a Seattle PD precinct house the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone - CHAZ.” President Trump has vowed to “straighten out the problem” if it is not quickly resolved by local and state officials.

U.S. police officers are not trained or equipped for an offensive operation to drive off armed combatants, so unless a negotiated settlement is made, this operation will need to be led by Washington National Guard troops using armored vehicles for maximum protection from small arms fire and improvised explosive devices. In a worst-case scenario, the president can waive Posse Comitatus and use the Insurrection Act to send in elements of the U.S. Army or U.S. Marine Corps, the way President George H.W. Bush did in Los Angeles in 1992.

Alongside the Seattle debacle, we are also seeing a nationwide call to “defund the police.” Both Los Angeles and Minneapolis have discussed starting that process. At the very least, we could see oppressive “reforms” legislated against police agencies at the state and possibly national levels. The VAST majority of police agencies and officers do not need to be reformed, but the country as a whole is at a point I call “beyond logic.” I suggest we quickly make some meaningful reforms on our own and hope they will empower our supporters to reestablish logic if it is still possible.

Here are four changes police agencies should immediately implement:

1. Rigidly control the use of force when making arrests

We know that officers should use only the force necessary to overcome resistance to arrest. Very few unarmed criminals are shot by police, but such shootings do occur and are generally justified by extreme circumstances, generally an officer about to be knocked unconscious and/or lose control of their firearm.

Short of such a rare occurrence, we need to use the least amount of force that will accomplish the arrest. Even more importantly, we need to STOP the application of force once the arrestee is under control. Kneeling on a man’s neck for more than eight minutes AFTER he ceased resistance is quite simply, a homicide.

An essential part of controlling the use of force involves those officers – especially supervisory officers – who arrive in support of the initial arrest. The involved officer may be so incensed by the subject’s resistance that they are stuck in the “fog of battle” and not thinking clearly. It happens.

Those officers who arrive with a clear perspective may need to rescue the suspect from an overwrought cop who is “beyond logic.”

In my 40+ years, I have stopped three arrest situations that had gone too far. One involved repeatedly face-punching a handcuffed prisoner (mine). Another involved an officer repeatedly slamming the rear door of a squad car on a suspect’s ankles after he had kicked the officer who was trying to get him in the back seat. The third was to break the chokehold (legal then) on a suspect who had already become semi-conscious and was no longer resisting. When I first told my buddy to let him go, he replied, “Nope, I’m gonna’ kill this one.” The suspect had almost killed a newborn infant and my partner was “beyond logic.” I peeled him off and the suspect wasn’t seriously harmed.

Note that in the above-mentioned situations the blows were being repeatedly delivered and the chokehold was continuing well beyond what was needed. That is why cooler heads need to step in and get the officer under control – whatever their rank and whatever their agency.

2. Purge the bad apples

I think the police hiring/screening process effectively weeds out those who want to hurt people. Most young cops have the right mindset. It is generally the more experienced officers who become abusive after several years of frustration with arresting repeat offenders.

Supervisors must closely oversee those officers who are developing bad use-of-force habits and take immediate corrective action. If the officers continue their heavy-handed behavior, they need to be fired, quickly.

The officers in the recent Minneapolis incident were fired immediately, as they should have been. They were not put on paid administrative leave for months on end while the investigation takes place and departmental justice is carried out. If the chief/sheriff/director has probable cause to believe the officers are blatantly wrong, they should have the power to terminate the officers’ employment immediately.

3. Modify the power base of unions

This one will get me some nasty feedback. Many police unions will defend every officer to the utmost every time they are charged with breaking rules. The unions MUST change their approach to ensuring an officer is treated fairly but admitting when an officer was wrong. A union that takes every disciplinary case to arbitration is actually encouraging the use of excessive force by bad cops who know they will be protected.

This, in my opinion, is how our disciplinary system became so ineffective at stopping bad cops and crosses over into politics. In heavily union states, public employee unions donate to the campaigns of candidates who will vote to protect and reward the unions, who will continue to donate to the campaigns – and on and on in a continuing downward spiral. This frequently leads to arbitration systems that will rule for the unions almost all the time. Arbitrators who cross a union are not likely to get chosen again, and they are paid by the case.

Public employee unions should be prohibited from donating to the campaigns of elected officials – period.

4. Grow a spine

Many chiefs/sheriffs/directors have evolved over the last 40 years into politicians. It is LONG past time police agency heads learn to think for themselves and act decisively. The Minneapolis police chief fired the four involved officers immediately. Good move. But, during the riots that followed, the elected officials in Minneapolis resorted to the riot control tactic of “Let the crowds burn out their rage.” Bad move.

I am an agency head and I am occasionally required to do things I don’t fully agree with. We all have a boss. But my mayor knows there is a limit to what I will do. We both know I may someday draw a line he cannot cross, a line beyond which I will resign, and he will have to explain why he is looking for a new chief. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen many department heads say NO to governors who pushed them too far. Those agency heads reached their limit and drew their line at actions they deemed unconstitutional. Most of those who drew the line were sheriffs, a breed of agency head that is inherently political but stood up for what they thought was right.

In the move to defund the police, we see sheriffs are again leading the way, refusing to serve as a safety net for a city that chooses to shut down its police department.

What’s next?

There are dark days ahead. I am perfectly happy to be living in “Mayberry” where I expect to be safe from the hell we are seeing in our nation’s major cities, at least for now. Many of you are living and working in that hell.

If force is needed in a situation, use what is necessary, including deadly force when you have left no option.

Pulling back from an overwhelming crowd on the street is prudent. But YOU are the legal, designated agents sworn to protect your citizens. Take the streets back when you amass the necessary resources. Chemical agents are a legitimate tool, not weapons of mass destruction to be prohibited by politicians. They are effective when used properly and allow you to take back lost ground.

Watch your six and look out for each other.

Stay safe!

NEXT: Reforming law enforcement starts with law enforcement

Dick Fairburn has had more than 26 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming. He has worked patrol, investigations and administration assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst, and as the Section Chief of a major academy’s Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident Training program.