Continuing from last week’s post on the deferential legal standards that allow police officers to use force without fear of any form of accountability, this second part focuses on the need to train police officers to be members of a community. To facilitate trust amongst the citizens living in the neighborhoods they patrol, officers can unilaterally diminish the frequency with which they must resort to force. As such, the police departments should foster this idea in the way they train current and future police officers.
II. Insufficient Training
One of the faults assigned by the Department of Justice to the Albuquerque Police Department’s (APD) alarming number of killings by police was APD’s insufficient training. For example, a testifying training officer in a civil suit where the court found an officer’s particular use of force unreasonable, called the officer’s actions “exemplary,” and would serve as an example used to train future officers in the police academy of appropriate uses of force. We cannot allow such misguided training to continue. The increasing militarization of police is also emblematic of an increasingly hostile attitude police departments are developing towards the citizens they are sworn to protect.
An element of proper police training should focus on fostering a force that is focused on “constitutional policing.” Surely most police forces provide at the very least a basic tutorial on the appropriate use of force based on the situation the officer is facing. However, constitutional policing would be centered on teaching officers the law that allows them to use such force. This would allow officers to consider the rights of the citizens they encounter in relation to the tools of lethal and non-lethal force available to them.
A separate yet indispensable aspect of constitutional policing is making sure a force is community-oriented. Such policing must be founded on trust between the community and the force that serves it. Police forces should be building relationships with the communities they serve. This would abolish that “Us vs. Them” mentality. Examples of such community oriented, constitutional policing can be seen across the country. For instance, officers from the southeast division of the Los Angeles police department help coach youth football and track teams comprised of kids living in the communities they patrol. While building trust between police officers and citizens is much more complicated and difficult than simply coaching a little league football team, these types of efforts are vital in starting a relationship founded on trust which will inevitably take time.
The importance of accountability mechanisms within police departments cannot be understated. Given how difficult it is for an injured citizen to seek recourse through the courts, the most practical means to stemming the improper use of force by officers is through deterrence. Every instance of force should be reported to the officer’s superiors. Further, these instances must be placed on the record and reviewed using internal oversight mechanisms. These measures already exist in police department protocols. However, the chain of command is broken. The DOJ reported that APD had an oversight process, but it was hardly utilized rendering it meaningless. To help ensure the department is diligent in this oversight process, each and every review of a police’s use of force should be fully reported and published for the public to see.
As for the punishment of police officers who violate a citizen’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures, whether it be through sanctions or taking away their badge, police officers should be held to a higher standard based on the tremendous responsibility we as a society impart on them in order to protect us. Further, these options do not have to be drastic but rather gradual in their severity. By identifying officers who need to undergo further training, departments can avoid any need to first resort to punitive measures while simultaneously altering the culture within police forces into one that seeks to be community-centered and much more than simply a law enforcer.
Society arms police officers each day to go out with legal license to use force - when appropriate - in order to protect themselves, but also to serve the community. This is a great responsibility that must be accompanied with adequate oversight and accountability. We should hold our police forces to greater scrutiny commensurate with the responsibility they are bestowed. As such, police departments must provide officers with the best training that focuses on the community and not simply on prevention. In cases where - despite such training and oversight - an officer continues to use force impermissibly, the courts should be a viable option to the injured party.
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner