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Saturday, September 26, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Howard W. Braham: Steps toward real police reform

By Howard W. Braham

Speaking of police reforms:

A few words of caution and clarity are needed concerning the front-page article by Adam Shanks in The Spokesman-Review about the City Council and mayor’s discussions on police policy changes. These and other issues are captured here as my personal opinions.

1. “A new city law … when a colleague uses excessive force.” I wouldn’t be surprised this is a ‘nonstarter’ for the police guild. I know of virtually no professional field of endeavor in which a colleague would routinely report that another had done something egregious unless unlawful or harmful to oneself. Humans are just not wired that way and whistleblowing is not always effective at capturing bad behavior. Having said that, most circumstances would warrant “telling on” another officer, or even moving them aside so they don’t harm or kill a suspect. (A recent study out of Las Vegas has shown that excessive use of force and injuries are greatly reduced if noninvolved backup officers take a suspect into custody rather than the original arresting officer.)

2. ‘Limits on no-knock warrants.’ I have never been a fan of no-knock warrants. While they can work, when they don’t it’s usually a result of bad police procedures. Case in point is the recent shooting in Louisville, Kentucky. If the officers and supervisors had done a better job at vetting the suspect, they would have known in advance who was living in the house they busted into, who the people were and their affiliations before the warrant was signed.

3. ‘Elimination of loopholes.’ The knee to the neck should be banned outright unless it is by accident for a short moment. Use of this technique to the upper back of an aggressive suspect, however, can be effective, especially for an officer working alone. Chokeholds also should be banned. I’ve never seen one that went well, even if the objective was to get the suspect to pass out – and that can and has led to deaths. Banning the use of dogs is a bad idea. Trained dogs are one of the more effective non-life-threatening tools the police have for locating and extracting suspects or contraband. Taking dogs out of the equation would weaken the department’s ability to de-escalate in certain situations (certainly not all), and save the lives of officers and civilians.

On other matters under discussion, diversity in the workforce is high on the list. Unfortunately, there are potentially two roadblocks: 1) Those of all stripes are not applying to become police officers; 2) Civil service rules make it difficult to “jump” over numerically higher-ranked candidates to “get to” those who would meet the council’s demand for a more diverse police force. Working harder to find and convince the so-called “nontraditional” candidates to apply has generally fallen on deaf ears. I would like to see more officers paired up who have complementary skills for the communities they serve, particularly towards de-escalation. (Frankly, one might suppose it axiomatic that women are likely to be better at de-escalation and thus a more powerful tool than establishing policies requiring male officers not to use excessive force.) But hiring women has been a roadblock to this ideal; and getting the right balance of instinct and hormones is enigmatic.

Additionally, adding more behavioral ride-along professionals with front-line officers is a good idea and should be expanded. This might also be one step toward the concept of “defunding,” but it will come at a price. Last year, I proposed dividing police work into two branches under the same roof, one noncommissioned officers, to deal with the sociological, non-life-threatening initially noncriminal issues (such as the cooperative effort between Spokane police and Frontier Behavioral Health), whereas the other part of the police department would perform the current criminal justice front-line needs of the community (beat cop, detectives) that are the backbone (and spine) of the department. That idea may now have found its calling.

Lastly, I’m also no fan of the paramilitary nature of policing in America. While I understand why some might believe it needs to stay – that is, caused by the frightening increase in armed citizens and extreme views on liberty and justice – we do not live in a ‘police state,’ although some days it looks that way. So, I would prefer to see a little less “storm trooper” and a few more kneeling and fist bumps; as long as we do not eliminate our capacity or resolve to defend what is lawful and true.

Howard W. Braham, PhD, is an at-large member of the Spokane Police Advisory Committee and author of “Policing Lethal Use of Force: Is I-940 a False Promise?”

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