Police accountability expert discusses Dallas incident

By Samuel Walker and Nicole Stockdale
Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — Dallas police Officer Robert Powell made national headlines after his traffic stop of NFL player Ryan Moats outside a hospital where his mother-in-law was dying. Powell resigned Wednesday, but the story isn't over in Dallas, where the Police Department's internal investigation continues and public outrage refuses to quell.

To help put the incident into perspective, Points editor Nicole Stockdale conducted a Q&A with Sam Walker, a nationally recognized police accountability expert. Here is an excerpt of their e-mail conversation:

What advice do you have for teaching officers how to discern between lawbreakers' legitimate emergencies and ticket-avoiding excuses?

Departments need to have a written policy on this issue. There are times when the emergency is genuine (imminent death, child birth, etc.), but there are also probably occasions when the driver is simply lying. We should not leave officers with no guidance on how to handle these situations. It might be that officers should allow the driver to proceed - but with no speeding or red-light violations - and follow him or her to the hospital. If it turns out to be a lie, the driver should be arrested for both the original traffic violations and lying to an officer.

The main point is that a lot of input is needed on this. Police professional associations should develop model policies to guide local departments.

How much leeway do officers have in deciding to write tickets?

They have enormous leeway. This is an inherent problem, as many situations are ambiguous (for example, the speed or how "reckless" the driving was). And officers should definitely be given guidance on the use of race in traffic stop decisions.

This reflects my view that written policies to guide officer discretion is one of the keys to professional policing.

Some officers have noted that it might have been easier for an older officer to de-escalate the situation than for a rookie like Powell, who had been on the force three years. Have you found this to be the case, or is personality a bigger factor than experience?

There is some evidence that older officers may be better. But the really important factor is whether departments have formal training programs on de-escalation. They should, and there should be regular in-service training over them, as refreshers. Department policies on police-citizen encounters should also direct officers to de-escalate. Some of these training programs are known as "verbal judo."

The immediacy of Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle's response and apology has surprised some. Is this indicative of a new trend in how police departments handle cases like this?

Chief Kunkle is to be commended for his response. This definitely represents a new trend in police leadership. I have seen examples of this by Chief William Bratton of the Los Angeles Police Department and Sheriff Leroy Baca of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, although I am sure there are others. The chief should take a public stand as a way of expressing the values of the department to the community and to department employees. This development is long overdue.

If this is a new trend, what's the norm? And what's the danger in doing it the old way?

It is still a very small, early trend, not yet a movement. The danger is what we have had for decades: a lack of response and continuing community distrust.

Before resigning last week, Powell offered his own apology to Moats for his "poor judgment and insensitivity." In general, are public apologies enough to assuage the anger of the injured party - and the public?

Public apologies are very good. They do not necessarily represent all that needs to be done, but they are an important part of it. (Discipline, for example, might be warranted in some cases.) This is also a new development. There was a serious shooting incident involving the L.A. Sheriff's Department a few years ago, and the officers made a public apology through their attorney. (They did not admit they had done anything wrong but did apologize for the impact on the community.)

Many people view this type of apology as disingenuous - I'm sorry not for what I did but for how it made you feel; why do you think it's helpful?

It is easy to understand why people would see them as disingenuous. I choose to look at them as another step forward to a fuller form of accountability. They will acquire greater meaning when coupled with other actions: meaningful discipline, where warranted; the steady development of better policies, etc.

Are police officers more or less accountable than they were a generation ago?

Officers are definitely more accountable. This is one of the most important developments in policing. The reasons are numerous: (1) the growth of written policies governing discretion in critical incidents; (2) the growth of requirements that officers file written reports after critical incidents; (3) improvements in internal investigations of incidents; and (4) the spread of external citizen oversight, most importantly the auditor model, which can audit how a department is doing with regard to the above three items.

Copyright 2009 Dallas Morning News

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