Where Ukrainian police reform went wrong: Former cops speak
Seth Stoughton: &# 171; A new generation of police officers recognize that reform is not only possible but necessary
How do police officers view protests? Is the criticism of the police justified? What needs to be improved in police training? Is it worth depriving police officers of immunity from prosecution?
Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina who was previously a police officer in Tallahassee, Florida, believes it is time for police reform..
Margot Gontard: In the United States, there were massive protests, the participants of which demand police reform. Has this happened before?
Seth Stoughton: This has already happened more than once. You can remember the summer of 2014 and the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, the late 1990s and the death of Amadou Diallo, the early 1990s with Rodney King … You can go deeper into the era of the struggle for civil rights (1960s – GA), during the Prohibition era of the 1920s and 1930s. That is, in the history of the United States there were situations when the methods of police work caused serious public criticism. But now we see something different: it is a much larger number of people participating in mass protests, and a desire for police reform coming from both parties. For the first time, not only police chiefs, but ordinary police officers speak of the need for change and publicly criticize other police officers. This was not observed even five years ago.
M.G .: What changed?
S.S .: I think that some of the police officers who are in favor of change have put on their uniforms recently, in the last five or six years. A new generation of police officers are realizing that reform is not only possible, but desirable. I also believe that the police understand that they need to work in such a way that they are supported by the population..
M.G .: Do you think the criticism of the police is fair??
S.S .: It depends on each individual incident. I think some of the criticism is fair. The police have an idea: «We are against them». Criticism of police actions during individual incidents is also quite justified, for example, actions during the arrest of George Floyd, which resulted in his death..
But some of the criticism is unfounded. I don’t believe that all cops – racists. We do not have a problem of racism in the police, we have a problem of racism in society, which continues in the police. It is not so much the police that should be criticized as the institution of ensuring public order itself..
There is also unfounded criticism. For example, when a police officer is criticized for actions that he performed in accordance with the existing rules. I recently came across the following incident: a policeman stopped a wanted car with a woman driving it. For several minutes he held the woman at gunpoint, waiting for the arrival of reinforcements. This is how we teach police officers to act in high-risk situations. It is possible to have a discussion about whether it is right to do this in relation to the driver of a stolen car, but this practice is standard.
M.G .: Should the training of police officers be improved??
S.S .: Average length of study at the Police Academy – from 21 to 24 weeks, and even less in some states. In my state – South Carolina – the whole process takes only 12 weeks. At the same time, a third of the training took place remotely – and this is even before the coronavirus pandemic. This means that the police are in personal contact with the teachers for only 8 weeks. This is clearly not enough. A manicurist, beautician or hairdresser is taught much longer than a police officer.
It also raises questions about how the police are trained. It consists of many lectures, which often consist of reading out the text of the service instructions. This is ineffective! It’s impossible to teach critical thinking skills, problem-solving techniques, and effective communication. For example, a two-hour lecture is devoted to the topic of de-escalation of conflict situations. But this is clearly not enough. Because this is not a theory, but a practical skill. Police officers need to learn the theoretical foundations, and then practice this skill.
M.G .: Police officers experience the highest levels of stress. How is this problem solved??
C.C .: Not enough attention is paid to this. This type of stress is called «explosive»: A police officer can suddenly go from a relaxed state, for example, when he sits in his car and does paperwork, to a high voltage state with an adrenaline rush, when he needs to turn on the siren and fly to the scene of an accident or violent crime. Police officers witness atrocities and tragedies that have a serious emotional impact. Traditionally, it was believed that police officers have to deal with their problems themselves, and if they fail to do so, then they are not suitable for the job. But this approach led to predictable problems. For example, when a police officer who has witnessed a psychologically difficult incident but is not trained to deal with stress is sent to the next call. At this moment, it does more harm than good..
A police officer who has psychological problems usually does not want to tell anyone about them, does not want to go to a psychologist or psychiatrist. And if he still goes to a psychologist or psychotherapist, then he can say: «Look, this is a serious problem. I have to report this to your superiors as a police officer, you are a danger». And it turns out that the policeman’s problems will become known, and, in addition, he may lose his job..
A few years ago, there was a pool party incident in Texas. The policeman lost his composure, knocked a 14-year-old girl to the ground, pointing a gun at a group of teenagers. This behavior is completely unacceptable. Later it became known that earlier in the day this policeman came to several calls with reports of suicide attempts, one of which was fatal. This is not an excuse, but it may explain why the police officer was unable to think adequately. The problem could have been avoided if the police officer could go to the senior officer and report that he needs a couple of hours of rest to recover from what he saw..
M.G .: How do you feel about the proposal to remove police immunity from prosecution??
S.S .: I think this is a good idea, because the police do not need immunity. They can be sued if they violate someone’s constitutional rights. Typically, this is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and arrests and gives the police more freedom of action. Police officers do not have to do everything right, they can make mistakes, but they must act reasonably. For example, if a police officer searches an innocent person while investigating a crime, then his actions will not be regarded as a violation of the Fourth Amendment..
When we add immunity from retaliation to this, it turns out that police officers receive protection not only in cases when they behave reasonably and reasonably, but also when they exceed their powers. I will add that police officers do not often face legal consequences, so even if immunity is lifted, it will not pose any particular problems for them. If the court finds a police officer guilty, or the parties reach a pre-trial settlement, then in 99% of cases, the costs are paid not by the police officer himself, but by the city or district for which he works..
The application of immunity means that a police officer cannot be sued, that he will not be held liable. But this also means that the one whose constitutional rights have been violated will receive nothing. It undermines people’s faith in the rule of law..
M.G .: How do you rate the police reform bills proposed by Democrats and Republicans in Congress??
S.S .: Both of them, especially the GOP bill, are laying the groundwork for gathering more information about police work, which I think is an important step. But the main conceptual difference between the two bills is that Democrats see the problem as a systemic issue, while Republicans believe that the problem is represented by individual police officers..
A few years ago in Baltimore, a group of police officers were convicted of committing many violations of the law: they robbed people. Why did it go unnoticed? Yes, the problems were created by individual police officers, but they worked in a system that turned a blind eye to such crimes, and sometimes approved them..
In Buffalo, a 75-year-old peaceful protester was violently pushed by police. I don’t think they wanted this man to fall, but it happened and he was seriously injured. One of the policemen knelt down to help the victim, but the other policeman did not let him do it. Both were later charged with criminal charges. As they left the courtroom, they were applauded by a group of police officers. This shows that the problem is not with individual police officers, but with a system that supports and even approves of such inappropriate behavior..
M.G .: How the police perceive criticism?
S.S .: Among the police officers I spoke to recently, there are those who sympathize with the protests: they are horrified at what people of the same profession have done with them. There are police officers who are on the defensive, who believe there are no chronic problems, the police are doing the right thing, and critics should shut up and let the police focus on fighting crime. Many are somewhere in between these extremes and maintain a perimeter defense. It is very difficult to conduct any meaningful discussions in such conditions..
Perhaps now it is necessary that our chosen ones first pass the necessary laws, lay the legal foundation, and then it will be possible to tackle other aspects of the police reform, which may take from five to 25 years to implement..
M.G .: You are a former police officer. How do you feel about protests?
S.S .: It’s a difficult question. There are protesters calling for the abolition of the police. I am not a supporter of this. But I believe that the scale of the protests shows that the police work does not live up to the expectations and demands of the people. As a democratic society, we must take seriously the fact that people do not believe that normal political, legislative and judicial processes can alleviate their plight, so they take to the streets. It is this desperate need for change that we are now seeing. If we do not recognize this, we do not make an honest attempt to change the status quo, we will condemn ourselves to a much darker, more dangerous and confrontational future..