Opinion: Stop setting cops up for failure

Calls for police reform and additional police training come up against limited resources – people and money


Of all the wrecks I had as a young deputy, the most noteworthy (or at least one of my top two) involved an armored SWAT vehicle. Prior to our department procuring a modern BearCat, the SWAT team used a 1970s-era, Air Force-surplus Peacekeeper – a vehicle that I imagine was problematic even when it was new.

The only visibility for the driver came from two narrow “windows” (tiny slits of thick armored glass) on the front that were only a few inches tall. Our particular Peacekeeper was even less roadworthy, due to the extra layers of armor we’d fitted it with. The poor old thing would struggle to make it up hills and bringing it to a stop with the original brakes required even more effort.

One fateful day, I was alone in the tank driving to an event on the other side of the county. I had to pull into the parking lot of a small hotel to check on some issues with the vehicle. As I pulled up to the unloading area outside the front door of the hotel, the tall turret on top of the Peacekeeper slammed into the edge of the hotel roof. Preoccupied with the numerous other safety flaws of the vehicle, I’d forgotten about the turret. I’d driven a 15-foot tall vehicle under a 12-foot overhang.

Having a better police department might come at the expense of higher taxes or less elaborate parks. This, unfortunately, is something that politicians and policy-making bureaucrats are often unwilling to do.
Having a better police department might come at the expense of higher taxes or less elaborate parks. This, unfortunately, is something that politicians and policy-making bureaucrats are often unwilling to do. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

ONE WRECK – NUMEROUS LESSONS LEARNED

I still have the letter of reprimand from the department. It contained some sanctimonious language about how I needed to be more careful and should be ashamed of myself. I keep it because, as a chief now, I need to remember the lessons I learned from that incident. Outside of the obvious (don’t drive a car under something shorter than the car), I also learned that a leader has a responsibility to avoid setting their subordinates up for failure.

I deserved that letter of reprimand. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which a guy doesn’t deserve to be reprimanded when he drives a tank into a hotel. But the part that always bothered me dealt with the fact that I was out there in the first place. That Peacekeeper, you see, had no business being on the road. At all.

It wasn’t roadworthy (or even street legal). If my agency wanted to use it, we should have trailered it or restricted its travel to emergencies. But we drove it everywhere. We knew the armored vehicle probably wasn’t the safest thing to have on the road, but no measures were taken to mitigate the risk. Instead, the risk was just passed down the line to whomever the unfortunate person was who happened to be driving when the statistical likelihood of an accident finally caught up with us.

That blindness to inevitable risks reminds me of challenges now facing community leaders and the law enforcement field. There’s a lot of talk about police reform. Politicians are tripping over themselves to declare that they’re in support of building better police departments that can serve and protect their communities in the way they deserve. Those are good things. The problem is that while talk might be cheap, reform isn’t.

RESOURCES AND REFORM

True excellence takes resources, and it often means sacrificing in other areas. Having a better police department might come at the expense of higher taxes or less elaborate parks. It means decision-makers taking heat from angry citizens who don’t want to pay those taxes or would prefer to see that money go to another function. This, unfortunately, is something that politicians and policy-making bureaucrats are often unwilling to do. Their public claims to be in support of reforms often ends at the claim itself.

Plenty of studies have explored what can affect the likelihood an officer will act inappropriately in the field. We know that officers who are overworked and tired are more likely to make mistakes. We also know that proper, frequent training can decrease the likelihood that officers act inappropriately.

You don’t need to be a scientist to understand these things. It is common sense. Yet all around the country, governments are funding their police departments in a way that doesn’t reflect these realities. Studies have confirmed what we should all know through common sense: Officers who are overworked may be more likely to use force or mistreat citizens, some of the very things reformers want to address.

TRAINING: EASY FIX OR IMPOSSIBLE ENDEAVOR?

When confronted by an angry citizenry demanding change, politicians are often willing (even anxious) to address the training part. Ed Flynn, a former chief of the Milwaukee Police Department is known for saying that “…there is no social problem in America so complicated that the solution isn’t more training for the police.” What he’s lambasting is the tendency of politicians to overlook the deeper issues in society in favor of a proverbial quick fix that makes them look good for their constituents.

What is lacking in these mandates (or the response of the local governments that implement them) is the time to train. Most law enforcement agencies don’t have time for frequent, quality training built into their work schedules. Training is treated as an “extra” feature of the job and is simply accomplished by having officers come in on their day off. Under the shift design of many departments, officers actually work built-in overtime, just to keep the basic shift schedule filled. This means that the “extra” work of training is actually done on top of overtime that is already mandated.

SHOESTRING STAFFING DOESN’T CUT IT

As a chief, I’ve led three different departments, worked for four, and have been exposed to countless others. I’m still shocked at the way many local governments approach their staffing needs. It seems that most approach their police department’s staffing needs from a perspective of “What is the absolute minimum number of employees we can hire and still keep a minimum number of officers on the streets during each shift? What’s the absolute, rock-bottom number of people we can pay to keep things from completely falling apart?”

Staffing in this manner leaves shift supervisors and division leaders to scrape up an adequate number of officers to keep the schedule filled every time someone goes on vacation or calls in sick. It’s as if we’re all caught off guard by the fact that an officer may choose to use a sick day or vacation week. This is incredibly ironic, given that the organization granted those benefits in the first place.

This shoestring approach is a function of human psychology, not of logic. It’s an approach that reflects local governments’ desire to tell their constituents they have a police department while avoiding the politically painful decisions associated with allocating finite resources to essential public safety functions at the expense of other good (though non-essential) services.

In an appropriate, logic-based approach to staffing, mathematical formulas would be the basis for decision-making. It is entirely possible to analyze a law enforcement agency’s staffing needs based on workload and desired level of proactive activity. Expected vacation time, training time and other benefit-related considerations can easily be factored in. There is no excuse for any agency to be staffed in a manner that requires officers to work “extra” in order to do things we know will occur every year (such as mandated training).

THE COST OF BURNOUT

Law enforcement, under the best of conditions, is a challenging endeavor, and officers see things on a daily basis that can lead to burnout. As the profession evolves, we’re increasingly realizing just how important it is for officers to have some semblance of a life away from work.

The non-work relationships and recharge time that come with a balanced home-work life are essential for men and women who are sent out on a routine basis to deal with the darkest parts of the world. Forcing these officers to routinely give up that precious “off-time” is a recipe for burnout.

As activists, politicians and many law enforcement leaders call for reform, we need to acknowledge that these oft-vaunted answers are not without expense. They cost time, which translates into money. As agencies across the country move to improve policing with extra training, it’s imperative they also realize that an overworked officer can be just as dangerous as a poorly trained one.

Obviously, high-quality, frequent police training is essential if the profession is to improve. But policymakers and money-allocators need to realize that if departments aren’t properly staffed to allow adequate training time, the cost doesn’t go away. It simply gets passed down to the men and women on the front lines. When these officers crash and burn, it’s not fair for those at the top to simply saddle officers with the blame. They’ve been set up for failure.

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