The Way Forward: My Story of Policing In America Part 3

This last installment of my story of policing in America is still based on my experience but is more forward-looking and is my attempt to bring about a conversation. This is the third and final installment in my series on policing in America, and, as some will notice, it’s taken additional time to get out of the gates. The delay stemmed from a desire to ensure the proposed solutions I’m presenting are novel, feasible, and useful.

At present, negative emotions surrounding this topic remain very high, with both “sides” becoming further entrenched in their beliefs and views, making it much harder for each to see the merit in the other’s argument. Thus, I desire to acknowledge the arguments’ values on both sides and present what I see as possibly the foundational issue preventing meaningful change from taking place.

Before we start, I think it’s important to state that I find the “Defund the Police” rhetoric unhelpful. To be fair to the rational thinkers using this phrase, it certainly does not mean “eliminate the police” as some pundits would have us believe (yes, there are some extremist views that advocate for this, but they are a fringe minority). Instead, it’s an attempt to take some of the funds dedicated to policing and funnel them into programs designed to mitigate criminal behavior before it reaches the level requiring police intervention.

From community oversight boards to independent third-party investigations into police misconduct and a serious investment in various community programs, I believe there’s merit to many of the arguments the “Defund the Police” advocates are making. However, their approach does little to advance their cause. In my opinion, however, we should not be looking to “defund the police”; instead, we should be looking at how to adequately and appropriately fund them and build many of the programs suggested by those who would see police funding funneled elsewhere.

“I’d like you to ask yourself if you believe these are logical standards for the people we entrust with our safety and, occasionally, our lives…?”

We need to do this with an eye towards radically changing police culture in a way that will accomplish the broader goal of ensuring mutual trust between the good citizens of a given community and the police agencies who are supposed to be there to protect them.

While that sounds great on paper, there is one major, foundational hurdle standing in the way of this happening: police unions and the power they wield over jurisdictional governments they serve.

I’ll be honest: this is not a comfortable position for me to take. I’m generally pro-union, but the level of insulation afforded to police officers by a majority (there are exceptions) of the police unions in the country is, in my opinion, the cinderblock wall standing in the way of real reform.

To make this case, it’s essential to set a foundation of understanding around the commonplace standards that exist in police agencies throughout the country. As we progress through this list, I’d like you to ask yourself if you believe these are logical standards for the people we entrust with our safety and, occasionally, our lives before we move on to some ideas as to how we can move past the issues I’m about to raise.

  • Firearms Training: Upon completion of the academy and, in some cases, field training, the average officer is only required to qualify with their firearm once per quarter. Typically, this training happens on a closed range, with little to no stress involved. There are one-off training sessions that may occur each year around “active shooters” or other high-stress scenarios. However, they are not regular and are generally not pass/fail courses; instead, many are simply attendance/participation-based, meaning there are no consequences for performing poorly or for not attending at all.
  • Physical Fitness: In most agencies, physical fitness standards are either very low or non-existent. While many officers hold themselves to high physical fitness standards, a significant number of them do not, meaning you have overweight, out of shape, officers who are quickly overpowered and intimidated by fitter, more physically able suspects. When this occurs, out of shape, officers will feel the need to use deadly force as they are physically not equipped to manage the rigors associated with a combative or fleeing suspect.
  • Martial Training: After the academy, martial training of any type is rare. As with the sporadic, high-stress firearms training, there may be occasional training sessions around specific techniques and tactics, but they are also participation-based and not something for which officers are held accountable. Some officers practice martial arts regularly, but they are the exception, not the rule. As someone who’s practiced the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (a martial art with, arguably, the greatest practical application for police officers) for the better part of the past 14 years, I see far too few officers on the mats.
  • Mental Health: By anyone’s standard, a police officer’s job is stressful on its face. Mix in a myriad of stressors (to be discussed further later in the article), and you have a cauldron of issues that can’t help but cause varying levels of psychological distress. With that in mind, mental health should be regularly checked for all officers and even more heavily scrutinized for officers dealing with heightened stressors (divorce, death, shooting incidents, etc.). Unfortunately, mental health is treated as a “personal issue.” Besides paying lip service to its value, I know of no agencies that create mental health standards and baselines for their officers.
  • De-Escalation and Crisis Management: During their academy training, prospective officers spend, at best, a couple of days scattered throughout their policing education learning about de-escalation and crisis management. Once the academy’s over, there are sporadic, boring video lessons that will occasionally touch on these topics generally viewed during pre-shift briefings. Beyond that, there is little formal training diving into these critical areas of the job. Considering how high the daily potential for encountering people in crisis is, one would think this would be a focal point of the police profession. Instead, it’s barely an afterthought for most agencies.
  • Drug & Alcohol Testing: While on training and probation, officers can be drug tested (but rarely are…I never was) whenever the department would like. Once probation ends, so does the testing. Unless an officer gets caught using drugs or is charged with a drug/alcohol-related crime, there is no testing, and they can use whatever they’d like with impunity. Recreational drug use, such as cocaine, isn’t prevalent, but it does happen. More common is the use of performance-enhancing drugs that can have adverse effects on the hormonal, emotional, and mental states. While it’s not hard to find massive, inhumanly muscled officers within the ranks of most mid-to-large sized agencies, you’d be hard-pressed to find many who’ve been tested for illegal, performance-enhancing drugs.

I could go on about other areas of deficiency but what I’ve highlighted here are, in my view, some of the most significant areas of need. In every one of these cases, police unions have successfully limited agencies’ ability to enforce higher standards upon their officers. Over time, these deficient areas compound to create an environment that does little to benefit any of the parties involved.

I would venture to guess that most readers would agree that these areas deserve attention regardless of your political perspective. Not only do they deserve to be addressed to help improve the overall experience the public has with the police, but they deserve to be addressed to improve the lives of the men and women who honorably serve their communities as police officers.

This, however, is where the police unions come in and put a halt to progress. Rather than allowing, recommending, or requiring any of these things, most (again, not all) stiff-arm their respective governing bodies when these topics are broached. While the governing bodies indeed bear significant responsibility here, the reality is that those bodies are transient and, once one group collectively bargains with the police unions, whatever they’ve agreed to become exceedingly difficult to eliminate by subsequent groups.

While collective bargaining is a critical and necessary tool for workers of all stripes — including police officers — limits need to be in place where public safety and confidence are the very reason for the police profession’s existence in the first place.

Efforts around better social programs and some of the steps mentioned earlier need to be part of the overall change. When it comes to collective bargaining for police unions, it is my view that certain things should be off the table. To that end, there are three areas where I firmly believe we need a national policy to intervene and require police agencies to adapt.

Physical:

This is a topic that has been discussed by countless experts and pundits, but it bears repeating. Physical fitness, martial prowess, and tactical preparedness absolutely should not be “nice to haves” when it comes to our police officers. The US military has incorporated minimum physical fitness standards for over a century since we expect those who might have to protect our country to be ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

As someone who served in both the Army and as a police officer, I can definitively say that my day-to-day work as a police officer far exceeded the physical requirements of my non-combat role as a soldier. I can also definitively say that I was in considerably better shape when I was a soldier because the Army required two things: almost daily physical fitness training and regular physical fitness tests. Failing on either front would result in remediation, reprimand, and, if not corrected, dismissal from the Army.

My question is this: why do we expect more from our soldiers, who get paid a fraction of what most police officers make and, typically, have far less of a need for physical fitness than we do our police officers?

Besides significantly upping the physical fitness standards, learning to manage a combative, unarmed suspect should be of paramount importance. Cops who regularly train in Jiu-Jitsu and other forms of close contact martial arts understand the difference between an altercation and a fight for one’s life because they prepare to understand that difference. These officers also tend to be fitter, healthier, and have greater endurance than their peers. This means that, when faced with the prospect of having to fight with a suspect, they’ll not only have the confidence and ability to control the fight but will have the stamina to outlast that person. That stamina is critical as it could very well make the difference between an officer merely arresting someone versus feeling the need to use deadly force to end an altercation.

Besides the obvious physical benefits of having both fit and capable police officers, the mental aspects that come with fitness and martial training cannot be overstated. Having the confidence to face physical adversity will, in most cases, lead to fewer physical altercations. People who train regularly generally are the last people looking to start fights as they know what they’re capable of and typically don’t feel the need to “prove it” to strangers.

Mental Health & Crisis Management Training:

For various reasons, the negative stigma around “seeing a shrink” persists in large segments of Western society. This is especially true within professions where people are supposed to be “tough.” It’s somewhat understandable (but not forgivable) that this stigma still largely exists within the ranks of law enforcement agencies today.

Law enforcement officers, especially those working in large municipalities, deal with people in crisis daily. A common refrain amongst cops is that we continuously have to encounter and assist people on the worst days of their lives. In one week, it was common for me to have to respond to multiple calls of domestic violence, child abuse, burglary, theft, and assault. I also pulled people over (thereby ruining their day), wrote traffic citations, and had to work with a homeless population that was typically under the influence and frequently agitated. I pulled people out of their homes at gunpoint, placed them in handcuffs, booked them into jail, fought with them, and transported them to county lockup.

In other words, even though what I was doing was necessary, it was tough, and it was not “nice” work. Not only was it challenging, but it was also occasionally tragic as I regularly had to be the person who had to tell someone a beloved family member was dead. I had to rip frantic lovers apart because of physical violence. And I had to remove children from their homes because their parents were abusive, negligent, or, frequently, both.

Necessary? Yes. Tragic, terrible, and heart-wrenching? Also, yes.

On one occasion, I had to investigate a report from a school where a young boy (eight or nine years old, as I recall) was frequently showing up to school hungry, covered in flea bites, and filthy. After speaking with him, we determined there was ample cause to investigate his home and, what we found there was both infuriating and heartbreaking. He was forced to sleep on the floor, in a pile of filthy clothes covered in dog feces, urine, and fleas while his mom’s two small dogs occupied the couch, and she and her boyfriend took the lone bedroom.

We removed this boy from the home and arrested the mother, but I was left without any way to process what I’d just seen. I didn’t know how to deal with the fact that I had just seen a child literally treated as less than a dog and as only so much trash.

All at once, I wanted to cry and react violently towards the mother for what she’d done. I wanted to save this kid; instead, I handed him to a social worker who took him to a group home filled with other “at-risk” youth. I wanted to do so much more than what I did, but, of course, there was nothing more for me to do. Instead, I swallowed my emotions, did my job, and went home that night without any outlet for these emotions. To this day, what I saw there still bothers me; that’s not ok.

If we want to make our police officers better, regular psychological therapy must be part of the equation for their sakes and ours. Mandatory monthly counseling with possible escalation to more frequent visits when circumstances dictate it necessary shouldn’t be at the officer’s discretion and shouldn’t have to carry a stigma of weakness.

By requiring all officers to participate in counseling, the stigma associated with therapy is overcome because individual officers no longer have to make the call for themselves; they simply have to follow the department’s guidelines. Armed with a list of incidents to which each officer has responded, therapists can highlight areas of concern, discuss coping mechanisms, and help officers navigate the torrent of emotions they face on an almost daily basis.

Further, by requiring officers to attend counseling and training and certify them on techniques and strategies for mental health crisis management, we’d also be equipping our officers to manage people in crisis successfully.

Regularly and frequently training our officers on de-escalation techniques, crisis management strategies, and recognition of mental health problems in the people they encounter would lead to fewer incidents of violence and more positive outcomes for both the police officers and the citizens they serve.

Technology:

While mental health training and evaluation isn’t without controversy, it’s this final suggestion that will likely be met with the most resistance. It’s also the area that could have the greatest, long-term positive impact on policing in America.

Police agencies have embraced technology to a great extent through the use of bodycams, GPS tracking, and audio recorders, but, in my opinion, it’s time to move a step further. Rather than use technology only to understand incidents after the fact, why not leverage available technology to help intervene before an officer reaches a stress-level breaking point.

With biometric measuring devices capable of tracking recovery, stress, heart rate, oxygen saturation, and dozens of other body systems, it wouldn’t be difficult to begin building predictive algorithms that could help determine when an officer was trending towards a negative outcome. By measuring outcomes and tracking those against biometric trends, we could start to understand, and eventually, mitigate the overwhelming stress levels experienced by our police officers.

I’m aware that this suggestion falls heavily on the controversial side of the spectrum, especially regarding the genuine privacy concerns that are ever-present in our society today, but let’s look at this from another angle: the health and safety of our law enforcement officers.

According to a 2013 study published by the National Institutes of Health they found the average life expectancy of a police officer to be 57, almost 22 years less than the general population.

The stress of continually dealing with people on “the worst day of their life,” decades of shiftwork, countless hours of sitting in a car, driving around the same areas, and absorbing a constant barrage of negativity, as well as dozens of other adverse conditions is killing the men and women of law enforcement decades earlier than their non-law enforcement peers. This stress and the lifestyle choices that accompany an extreme high-stress environment contribute to what amounts to a biological pressure-cooker that can’t simply be willed away or ignored.

American police officers have the highest rate of suicide of any profession in the US, suffer from PTSD at a rate just slightly less than combat veterans (around 15% for LEO vs. about 17% for combat veterans), and are significantly more likely than the general population to struggle with obesity, sleeplessness, heart disease, and cancer. Not surprisingly, police officers experience higher rates of depression, more anger, and burnout due to occupational stress at rates that are much higher than the general American populace.

The bottom line is this: happier, healthier people perform better, period. For our police to effectively serve their communities and decrease the number of avoidable, negative interactions with citizens, we need our nation’s law enforcement officers to experience a better quality of life.

Today, we have the technology to change and monitor our police officers’ health and help them where it would otherwise be considered a sign of weakness for them to help themselves. By mandating health tracking devices monitored by independent third parties unaffiliated with police agencies or municipalities, we can find ways to dramatically increase our nation’s police officers’ mental and physical health and wellness. Doing so has the potential to deliver profound, positive impacts on both those who serve in law enforcement and the communities they serve.

To be abundantly clear, technology is not a panacea. As I mentioned previously, a serious discussion around privacy and execution would need to be had but, to ignore biometric tracking as one of the solutions to the problems we face would, in my opinion, be ludicrous.

For us to achieve better outcomes with America’s law enforcement and ensure that men and women who wear the badge honorably are capable of performing their duties to the best of their abilities, we need change. We need to find ways to get the police unions’ entrenched power structures out of the way. We need to recognize that there is no upside in continuing to allow our law enforcement officers to languish in an environment that manufactures physical and mental health problems.

Community programs, better use of funds, improved oversight, increased transparency, and many other initiatives need to be part of the equation. However, they can’t solve the problem if we can’t improve our police officers’ lives. Taking this one step further, I would argue that implementing these programs without addressing the concerns I’ve discussed would increase the pressure-cooker environment, thereby worsening the problem.

We want and need our law enforcement officers to be the best of us. We deserve to have police officers who serve their communities and work towards non-violent, positive outcomes. We demand that our cops “do the right thing” in every encounter they have with the public. To achieve all of this, we need to take care of our officers so they can take care of us.

Note: In the future, I’ll explore the biometric tracking idea and provide deeper insights into how this might work. For now, I wanted to generate thought and begin a dialogue.

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Chris Messina

Chris Messina

Bringing the unique perspective of a neurodivergent brain to the topics of Ecosystem Strategy, Mental Health, First Responder Wellness, and Philosophy.