September 19, 2019 | View as webpage

While it has always been important to inform the public of the roles and responsibilities of law enforcement, it is now critical to expand that education due to the current “viral video” environment where every police action is put under a microscope for scrutiny.

Public education comes in many forms. It could be a use of force training day for media and community leaders, a citizen survey gathering perceptions about police activity, or communicating with reporters to tell compelling stories about the work patrol officers do to reduce crime and save lives.

In today’s Leadership Briefing, Chief Joel Shults addresses steps police can take to educate legislators when ill-informed police-related legislation is proposed, and Duane Wolfe discusses how law enforcement can combat the new weapon of “de-contextualization” by proactively providing context of police actions when available.

What community outreach has worked best in your jurisdiction? Email

Nancy Perry, Police1 Editor-in-Chief
How to influence law and policy makers
By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

California’s Governor signs a bill removing the good citizen requirement to assist a police officer. Oregon’s Governor signs a bill reducing the chances of the death penalty for cop killers. A New Hampshire bill proposed this year would have restricted law enforcement officers' use of deadly force. Illinois proposed banning the use of chokeholds, and New York wants to outlaw stop and frisk.

Since Ferguson, various states have debated legislation to make it easier to sue police officers, raise caps on liability, increase prosecution of police officers, ban certain defense tactics, limit searches beyond Fourth Amendment requirements, and impose various training and reporting requirements on agencies.

What can officers and law enforcement advocates do when bad or ill-timed legislation is proposed? Here’s how to be an activist and still stay employed:

Support supportive candidates and advocates

Within the limits of your state’s laws and department policy, help other citizens to be informed of candidates’ positions on law and order.

Whether any police controversies that might ignite a new law are active, knowing where a candidate stands in principle on supporting law enforcement is important to predict how likely they are to respond to viral controversies. And, with all due respect to our fire and EMS comrades, politicians can claim support for first responders and still exclude beneficial responses to specific law enforcement issues.

Groups that are supportive of law enforcement like neighborhood watches, service clubs and columnists can be encouraged to address issues of concern in addition to police leaders who may be limited politically or officially from taking a strong public position.

Keep those cards and letters coming

It’s an old-fashioned concept, but don’t underestimate contacts with legislators. Whether a call to their office staff, a question during a town hall meeting, or an email outlining your position, these things do matter. Make correspondence brief and pithy. Your email might be as simple as putting “Please oppose HB123” in the subject line, with bullet points of your concern in the body.

Be specific

A state legislature was considering a bill I read about here on I thought it was a bad idea so I pulled up the verbiage and jotted down some reasons why I thought it should die. I tracked the bill through the state’s legislative website and saw that a committee hearing was upcoming and which legislatures were on that particular committee. In individual emails, I contacted each of them and briefly outlined my concerns, and added a brief biography for credibility. To their credit, I heard from most of the committee members. A few were boilerplate responses, but several asked follow-up questions. One mentioned that a lot of police groups opposed the bill, but none stated exactly why except for general statements. This representative complimented me on my specific arguments, backed by experience and data. Not that I can take credit for it, but the bill failed to pass!

Watch for origins

Watching trends, public statements and news articles can give you a heads-up on what might percolate into a new statute. Keep an eye on P.O.S.T. board agendas where special interest groups push for burdensome or superfluous training requirements. Keep in touch with your prosecutor, state representative and others who might become aware of pending legislation before you do.

Be willing to proactively offer yourself to testify on bill hearings of interest to you and the profession. You might be surprised how much access and influence your efforts can have.

Make a good argument

There is little merit in the “cops are out there putting their life on the line every day” argument against proposals that might negatively impact officers, or for proposals that might help, such as injury benefits and job protection. Legislators need facts.

Many proposals are long on emotion and assumptions of common knowledge, but short on statistics, studies and adverse potential consequences. You have insider information that can help them make rational and fact-based decisions. If there are financial costs that may accrue, that will get attention faster than anything.

Democracy still works

Our voices do count and will be heard if we make smart use of our influences. You can make a difference.

Additional resources:
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    Head’s up: There’s a new weapon out there

    By Duane Wolfe

    Throughout the academy, into your FTO phase and up to today you have been trained to look for, identify and appropriately deal with weapons you might find at a scene and on the people you deal with daily.

    Over time the types of weapons officers encounter have remained consistent; hands and feet, blades, blunt objects, firearms and a variety of “weapons of opportunity.” You and your partner’s ability to spot those weapons and activate a planned response to handle them has kept you safe. When you miss them, you or someone else may be seriously injured or killed.

    Now, offenders are using a new weapon against you, your partners, your department and the entire profession. It’s called de-contextualization – removing or manipulating the context of an incident to change its perceived meaning.

    De-contextualization can be hidden in plain view, go completely unrecognized and, when not dealt with, it can potentially harm all of us. As with any other weapon, you have to know what it looks like and how it works to render it safe or at the very least, lessen the damage it may inflict.

    So how is it used?

    Manipulating video 

    Smartphones, as you know, give anyone with a phone the opportunity to record anything at any time. The media, including social media platforms and broadcast news, thrive on video. Often the smartphones recording police interactions are turned on after a situation escalates into police use of force. In some cases, the footage is actually edited to eliminate the situation and behavior that served as the catalyst for the use of force and shows only the force officers were compelled to use.

    Without a full video of the incident, the viewer is left to draw their conclusions about what they see and hear. By not having the full incident recorded, the context is removed or seriously skewed. Often, a false narrative follows.

    Ignoring the real reason for the interaction 

    Frequently, we see recordings that focus on some small aspect of a force event but ignores the real reason for the involved officers’ actions. Here are a few examples from recent events:

    • A man was “shot by the police because of a burned-out taillight.” The reality was the vehicle was stopped because the driver resembled an armed robbery suspect. When police engaged him, he attempted to draw a gun, despite multiple warnings from the officer not to do so.
    • A man was shot by police while “simply sitting with his girlfriend and baby.” The rest of the story: the suspect had been firing a pistol in an urban neighborhood. When the police saw him sitting on a curb with a gun in his hand, he fled, then turned and fired at the officers.
    • A man was shot “for selling CDs.” In fact, officers had responded to a report of a man threatening people with a gun. When approached, the suspect fought with the officers, then attempted to draw a gun.

    Changing the meaning of words & phrases

    This is another way to de-contextualize. For example, taking a well-established and generally understood word like “warrior” – one who serves to protect the people – and changing it to mean “Someone who is at war with the people.” Or taking a term like “The Thin Blue Line,” which has represented a symbol of law enforcement for decades, and claiming it’s a symbol of racism.

    Misrepresenting the spirit or meaning of the law 

    A common example of this is when people over-simplify the law and say that officers “just need fear” in order to use deadly force. They inaccurately claim that all officers have to say is, “I was in fear…” and they can justifiably shoot people. Obviously, these statements have taken the law and twisted it to mean something inaccurate and unlawful.

    These are just a few examples of de-contextualization.

    So how do we as individuals, departments and a profession deal with this weapon? The answer is to re-contextualize. Insist that the context of an event, a word or phrase or the law is not overlooked or lost and proactively provide that context when it’s available.

    Here are several ways to re-contextualize:

    1. Provide the public with evidence of why police acted as they did as soon as it’s possible, practical and legal.
    2. Educate the public, including critics, on the law and the duties and responsibilities of law enforcement. Offer citizen academies and invite the media, politicians and critics to participate. This can be eye-opening and helpful in the re-contextualization effort. Offer the opportunity to participate in realistic training scenarios so that civilians can understand the law, tactics and the limits of human performance and gain first-hand knowledge (context) of the realities of our profession. You have nothing to lose. If they choose not to participate, that provides another context.
    3. Continually emphasize ALL the factors that contributed to a particular incident’s outcome.
    4. Understand that not everyone who de-contextualizes is doing it to harm the perception of law enforcement. Most people repeat only what they hear and never bother to delve deeper to gain knowledge of the complex issues at hand. These are the people that we need to reach because they have a mind that may be open to change.
    5. Understand that those who choose to use this weapon do so to further their own agendas. Whether they are our critics, the media or a politician, we as a profession need to publicly hold them accountable for their words and actions. We do not control broadcast media, but we can and should have a profound influence on social media.

    About the author

    Duane Wolfe is currently a law enforcement instructor at Alexandria Technical and Community College in Alexandria, Minnesota, as well as a conference speaker, expert witness, and widely published law enforcement columnist. During his 25-year law enforcement career in Minnesota, he served as a patrol officer, and a use-of-force and firearms instructor.

    Additional resources:
    spacer.gif Top Tweet: When public perception sours

    spacer.gif Be Advised...
    3. Protestors, politics, the press and policing: Policing Matters podcast hosts Doug Wyllie and Jim Dudley discuss the anti-police sentiment that doesn't seem to be going away.

    2. A proactive strategy for a constructive dialogue: Jim Palmer of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association shares key findings from the state's annual public perception survey, which gauges public opinion about law enforcement in Wisconsin.

    1. Police1 readers respond: What one thing most improves relationships between the community and law enforcement?
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