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Ways To Avoid Community Violence After Local Police Encounters


Let's meet two law enforcement officials who want to think differently about using force. They are thinking about police encounters from Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore and beyond. Again and again, these encounters have provoked sustained protests. And here's what the two law enforcement leaders are thinking - the story of those fast-moving events actually began many years before. One of the law enforcement officials is in Camden, N. J. That's where President Obama visits today to promote community policing. The president will also say he's limiting local police access to military-style equipment. The chief of police in Camden County is Scott Thomson. When Chief Thomson thinks of the past year of protests, he thinks about history.

SCOTT THOMSON: Up until really the late '60s or early '70s, for the most part, police had been on the wrong side of the issue when it comes to civil rights. And even when you look in parts of the Deep South, the police were enforcers of Jim Crow, and that wasn't that long ago. I mean, we're still - they're still people alive who remember that well, and it's impossible for that to not be passed down from generation to generation.

INSKEEP: Chief Thomson learned that history long ago. Here's what's new to him - the problem was never fully repaired. It is true that legal segregation ended in the 1960s and that police reformed their tactics in the 1990s. Many departments adopted community policing, getting more familiar with neighborhoods. The protests of the last year proved to Thomson it's not enough.

THOMSON: I don't think we've covered as much ground as we thought we had. And I also have to question the fact of, did we ever truly create a basis of trust in our most challenged communities in the country?

INSKEEP: Listening to you lay out your historical perspective makes me wonder - when you encounter one of these news-making incidents where a police encounter is captured on video and people are immediately questioning the specific decisions by the officer in the moment, do you look at that video and think to yourself that actually this problem started 20 years ago or 50 years ago?

THOMSON: I think what the American people are telling us, particularly in our most challenged neighborhoods where we are seeing the reaction, is that this is not a momentary reaction to an incident. They have more to do with history than actually what occurred within the moment that lasted a matter of minutes, at tops. And the community's reaction is that what they saw, what they're experiencing, it's a flashpoint to, in many instances, years of frustration.

INSKEEP: The Michael Brown incident is maybe the classic example of that, given that investigators later found no reason to charge the officer, but what was suspected of happening there really resonated with tons and tons of people.

THOMSON: I think what we heard from the true demonstrators, the true people of that community was their frustration of not knowing their police officers. And what we have found from the Department of Justice reports that have come out, with regards to the predatory type of ticketing that was taking place, was how it clearly struck an emotional chord with the people of that community that has been lying there for quite some time.

INSKEEP: That emotion applies in Chief Thomson's jurisdiction in New Jersey. It includes the city of Camden, which is overwhelmingly black. In recent years, the police force was reorganized. The ranks of senior officers were made more diverse. And Thomson says police tried to strengthen ties to the community. Then those ties were tested.

THOMSON: We had an individual that, during a foot pursuit, ended up becoming paralyzed. And fortunately for us, it was captured on video. And it was a freak accident in which the individual that was running from police, who had a gun, essentially tried to change direction in the middle of his flight and his feet went out from underneath of him even before an officer touched him. And he struck the ground in a way which hit his back and his neck and caused damage to the point where he was paralyzed. But we were very fortunate this was captured on video, and we were very fortunate that the video also showed our officers had this individual on an ambulance within four minutes and in a trauma emergency room within seven minutes. And this was shortly thereafter of Ferguson. And, you know, although we have made tremendous strides in our community over the last couple years with our police department, you know, any police chief in any community, you're fooling yourself, particularly in your most challenged communities, if you don't recognize the fact that it is a fragile relationship.

INSKEEP: What did your department do in the days after that incident?

THOMSON: Well, so in the days after that incident, we communicated with our community leaders. We got the video out to the public as quickly as possible. We did not have an outcry or demonstrations really from our community. And at the same time, we also respected the family that was involved in this and that at the end of the day, they have a loved one that's hurt and we need to respect that. And we had officers that grew up with some of the family that we made sure that they were communicating with the family as frequently as possible. We brought them into our police headquarters. We talked to them. We assured them that there was going to be an independent investigation. And that we would keep them as apprised as we could through this.

INSKEEP: Chief Thomson admits the family does not approve of the police, as indeed they don't. The family of the paralyzed suspect, Xavier Ingram, has sued. They contend that the videotape made public doesn't show everything. And they claim officers stomped on Ingram after he fell. But after the incident, Camden did remain peaceful. That story is likely to get plenty of attention because President Obama plans to visit Camden today and policing may well come up.

You're touching on an interesting point in that after a controversial incident, you need to investigate. Investigation takes time, which means you would need to appeal to the community for patience. But if you haven't built good relations with the community, you're toast. You're not going to get that patience.

THOMSON: You cannot have your first interaction with a public - or the community - be one in which you are asking for something, right? I mean, that's just flawed logic.

INSKEEP: Whether a city explodes in protest or not, may depend on decisions made years before an officer ever pulled his gun or a citizen started recording video. Sue Rahr believes something similar. She's thinking about police training. She is in charge of the police academy in Washington state.

SUE RAHR: You always want to create space and time so that you have the opportunity to engage in some kind of de-escalation strategy with the person first.

INSKEEP: Rahr points to a police shooting in Cleveland, Ohio, last year. An officer approached a man with a gun and killed him. The man turned out to be 12, and the gun turned out to be a toy. An investigation continues. Rahr says the officer might have learned to approach more carefully. That would avoid any sense of danger until he understood the situation. For two years, Rahr says, she has been adjusting the training for every local police recruit in Washington state. They're supposed to focus less on being warriors and more on being guardians of citizens' lives.

RAHR: We changed the training environment itself. We removed a lot of the symbols and the tools of the trade that were on the walls with murals of the Constitution. And we spent a great deal of time talking about the Constitution and what it means to a police officer. I tell my recruits in the first week there at the academy, my entire career, my training on the Constitution, consisted of how to work around it so that I could make an arrest and prove a case. It never occurred to me when I was working the street that I was there to support the Constitution. I viewed myself as being there to enforce the law. Some of the other things that we've done is move away from some of the military protocols. Instead of requiring recruits to snap to attention and be silent when a staff member passes, we require them to engage in conversation because that's a skill they need in the field. Effective police officers are able to engage community members in conversation.

INSKEEP: So you've started this training - changing training - in Washington state before the incidents of the past year. But now we've had the incidents of the past year. And on this program, our correspondent Martin Kaste spoke with a number of officers who spoke of the risk of police becoming passive. They may be videotaped and scrutinized at any time, all their actions could be called into question - things they did in a split second and maybe it would be better for them to drive past that apparent crime scene than to get involved. How do you deal with that risk?

RAHR: Well, I think it - you avoid that risk by the culture that is set in the police department where the officer works. And this is a part of policing that we don't talk about often enough and that is the internal culture of the police department itself. There's a cultural anthropologist named Simon Sinek. And Simon Sinek said the most important influence on the behavior of an officer on the street is going to be the internal culture of that police department. And so you need to focus on building a strong culture internally, where the leaders in the police department demonstrate respect and they set the tone for what they expect of their officers. Their behavior needs to model the kind of behavior they want to see on the street. So if you have a police department with a very strong, healthy culture and the officers know that if they are doing their best on the street and they're wading into a difficult situation, they know that their leaders will support them, even if things don't go well, if the officers are following policies and procedures. If an officer works for an agency where they believe the leaders are going to throw them under the bus if they make a mistake, then you're absolutely right. The officers are going to drive past and not dive into that because they don't want to take the chance of being unfairly criticized and punished.

INSKEEP: Sue Rahr of Washington state talks of respect within a department. Scott Thomson of New Jersey talks of respect for a community. Both officials say police have to build that respect years before the moment when an officer confronts a volatile situation on the street. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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