PULLMAN – Two academics, a police captain from Tacoma and a former jailer from Spokane led a spirited talk Tuesday about the perceptions of how the public wants to be policed and how the police actually go about it.
Washington State University hosted the panel to discuss recent deadly confrontations across the nation between citizens and police; how most of those shot have been people of color; and how videos of those shootings have brought instant scrutiny of how the incidents took place.
The panel, hosted by WSU’s Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service, said most police departments across the country continue to operate under a “warrior” versus “guardian” role that includes immediately defending officer actions while disparaging those who were shot.
Lorenzo Boyd, who heads the criminal justice program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, said officers too often approach their job with the attitude that they must do whatever they have to do to get home that night to their families.
He used statistics showing that the number of officers killed in the line of duty in 2015 had dropped to a level not seen since Ronald Reagan was president.
“Many people have said, ‘There is a war on police.’ That’s just not accurate,” he said. “It’s safer to be a cop now than virtually any time in recent history.”
Yet, black people are killed by police five times more often than other races and they make up half of all arrests, even though black people make up only 14 percent of the nation’s population.
“Officers are trained to cultivate that warrior mindset,” Boyd said. Officers perform “their warrior roles more than their guardian roles. It’s us versus them.”
Phillip Tyler, the head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP and a former Spokane County jailer, said police can’t hide behind a “thin blue line” because the police need the public’s trust.
“I’m not anti-police. I’m anti-bad police,” Tyler said. “Until we see those good officers standing up and admitting what they see is wrong, nothing will change in the culture.”
C.P. Taylor, a captain with the Tacoma Police Department, agreed. He said his department recently threw out hundreds of pages of policy dating back more than 125 years.
While he praised those who choose to run toward trouble rather than away, Taylor said officers must first be nice even in confrontational situations.
“The public inherently wants to be helped … not fought with,” he said.
Tacoma police six years ago began instituting what Taylor called value-based policing, which is founded on the concept that “we are the public and the public is us.”
“Do you want to do something good for someone or not? It’s about having integrity. It’s about being courteous,” he said.
Boyd said residents of Los Angeles complained for years about treatment from local police. Then Rodney King was beaten by police in 1991, an incident captured on video by a bystander.
When the officers who’d beaten King were acquitted, the population rioted. While he didn’t condone those actions, Boyd said he understood the frustration.
“Riots are the language of the voiceless,” he said.
All the panel members said the change must come from the communities voting and pushing for police agencies to change how they interact with citizens.
“There is a cost to change,” said Taylor, the police captain. “But if it’s worth it, start the fight and never end it.”
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