Can training solve over-aggressive policing?

April 29, 2021 7:00 am

Police officers in Windsor’s small, now-maligned department will receive training next month on best practices and de-escalation techniques during encounters with citizens, the executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police told me this week. 

Dana Schrad said her organization helped set up the two-day training session, following the release of video into an unnecessarily volatile stop of an Army lieutenant in the town. 

That’s how it should be. Too many things are going wrong in traffic or pedestrian stops that police initiate, in Virginia and elsewhere. People end up dead even though they pose no immediate threat to police or other bystanders. 

It’s debatable, however, whether training alone will be the panacea many Americans hope for. Academics who study police-community relations told me factors such as implicit bias; the “warrior” mentality too many officers bring to their jobs; and the willingness to shoot at non-compliant suspects won’t change easily.

People of color continue to be the recipients of disparate treatment, Daniel K. Pryce, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University, told me by email. 

“There is empirical evidence to support this theory of racial bias, as Black and Latino community members are more likely than are White community members to be stopped unlawfully while driving; stereotyped as violent and dangerous; and arrested, sometimes on trumped-up charges,” said Pryce, who this month co-wrote a paper on how trauma affects African-American attitudes toward the police.

The fact that police kill people during an arrest, or when they flee a traffic or street stop — even if the reason for the encounter could be something minor like passing counterfeit money, expired plates or selling loose cigarettes — means other motorists and pedestrians will be fearful in future incidents. That anxiety is a recipe for disaster, because people might overreact to an officer’s commands.

There has been a litany of questionable decision-making by police in recent months. Cellphone video and police body cameras have lent credence to complaints that officers often go overboard and despise a lack of subservience by citizens. 

The incidents include:

• The aforementioned stop of Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario in Windsor in December. Not until the release of body-cam video did town officials fire one of the two officers at the scene, who was aggressive that evening and pepper-sprayed Nazario. The Army officer is Black and Latino.

The reported firing of a Virginia State Police trooper this year who had played to the camera in a now-viral video during a 2019 stop. He had threatened a Black motorist in Fairfax County, saying “you are going to get your a—whooped,” before yanking him from the car. The motorist, Derrick Thompson, later settled a federal lawsuit for $20,000 with no admission of wrongdoing by the state, according to Thompson’s attorney.

The shooting death last week of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, N.C., about 40 miles south of Chesapeake. Brown was in his car. Sheriff’s deputies were trying to serve drug-related search and arrest warrants. An attorney for Brown’s family said deputies “executed” Brown, who was African-American. A local top prosecutor said footage showed Brown hitting deputies with his car while backing up and driving forward, before he was shot. The FBI has opened a civil rights investigation into the slaying.

• The ghastly treatment of an elderly woman suffering from dementia in Colorado, who was a shoplifting suspect. The princely sum? $13.88. Video recorded inside a police station shows several officers laughing at body camera footage of the arrest last year of Karen Garner, 73, who weighed just 80 pounds. Police officers broke her arm and dislocated her shoulder, according to a lawsuit filed against the city and the officers. Garner, who’s White, also suffers from sensory aphasia, making her unable to understand spoken or written speech. “The Loveland Police treated her like an animal,” Garner’s family said in a statement.

I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush. Many police officers do their jobs well under dangerous circumstances, for less-than-stellar pay. They’re second-guessed by the public and people like me. They want to get home safely to their family each day. (Full disclosure: My late father was a police officer in D.C. for 18 years.)

But statutes and the courts give law-enforcement officers huge latitude. Police are rarely charged when they kill someone while on duty, and it’s rarer still that they’re found guilty. 

The Washington Post says on-duty officers have fatally shot more than 5,000 people, about 400 of them unarmed, since 2015. According to one database, which started tracking cases in 2005, only a small number of killings led to murder or manslaughter charges against officers.

Chernoh M. Wurie is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University and served 10 years with the Prince William County Police Department. He says more training isn’t the issue, but different training. 

As much as 70 percent of instruction in a police academy is devoted to use of force and defensive tactics, he said. More time should be devoted to community service, problem solving and the like, so that it’s 50 percent defensive tactics, 50 percent community engagement. 

“That mentality of being gung ho, how many bad guys you arrest … how many drugs you get off the street … is becoming mundane,” Wurie told me. Training to de-escalate situations, instead of going for weapons, should be a goal. Hand-fighting can cause injuries to officers, but would be less lethal for possible suspects, he added.

Will it work? My days covering the Detroit Police Department taught me a maxim that officers swore by: “Better to be judged by 12 than carried by six.”

Changing that mindset won’t be easy, but it has to start. Too many incidents are killing citizens, and videos are proving the point. 

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]