Guest Editorial - How does ensuring ethical practices in uses of force help community relationships?

Ed note: This guest editorial was submitted from a verified law enforcement professional who asked not to be identified. |

The following was written in May 2016 in response to discussion questions for a graduate school class I attended on law enforcement ethics. The professor at the time was Paul Figueroa, a 30-year law enforcement veteran, and Assistant Chief of Police for the Oakland Police Department. He has served as the commander in the Patrol Division, Training Section, Internal Affairs Division, Inspector General's Office, and as Chief of Staff to the Chief of Police.

Chief Figueroa is a nationally recognized expert on procedural justice and police legitimacy. He regularly lectures on the topics of trust, community policing, effective training techniques, and police accountability. Four years later, the answers posed here seem just as relevant today with the murder of George Floyd. 

To be clear, these are my opinions only and are responses to questions asked of the class. As a society, it appears we haven’t learned much since the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. The professor posed to his students the following discussion questions:

How does ensuring ethical practices in uses of force help community relationships?

Not ensuring ethical practices in use of force certainly guarantees harming community relationships. Community-oriented policing only works when the community trusts law enforcement and collaborates together to problem solve and prevent crime. A good example is the success of the High Point Drug Market Intervention Strategy. Without ethical practices in place for use of force, community members and leaders would not have supported this groundbreaking initiative. Incidents of abuse, misconduct, and excessive force serve to erode trust and further validate the historical divide between police and minority neighborhoods.

In my opinion, it isn’t so much a matter of excessive force, defined as “that which is greater than that required to compel compliance from a willing or unwilling subject.” (Brian D. Fitch, Law Enforcement Ethics: Classic and Contemporary Issues P. 235) Rather, it is more a matter of ethical force. Taking legitimate measures is just as important, if not more, as taking legal measures. An officer’s actions may be legal but viewed by the community as lacking legitimate grounds.

Kelly Thomas’ death in 2011 in Fullerton, Calif. highlights not only excessive force being applied, but unethical force. The statements made by officer Ramos while putting on his latex gloves, “Now see my fists? They’re getting ready to fuck you up.” (Fitch P.231), goes to the police subculture cultivated as early as the academy.

“Many officers want to be considered part of the police family and, in some instances, will go to great lengths to obtain such an honor – a distinction that often requires unconditional loyalty, occasionally demonstrated by an officer’s willingness to violate the law or department policy, including the application of coercive force.” (Fitch P. 243) Officer Ramos’ blunt statement and his actions were unprofessional and violated the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) code of ethics.

“As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is to serve the community; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality and justice.” Kelly Thomas died because the officers involved in his death failed to uphold their oath. The authors make good arguments explaining why use of force has become so ingrained in police subcultures across the country. It is part of the training regiment, “officers leaving the academy may be quite adept in their use of weapons” but lacking in other essential skills such as problem solving and critical thinking and the ability to deal with mentally ill individuals. (P. 240-241) This was demonstrated in the death of Kelly Thomas and many like him across the country.

Moreover, many officers are former members of the military and many departments are becoming more militarized. Never before is it more important to eliminate police subcultures, to create national law enforcement standards, and to train officers adequately and regularly, reinforcing the principles of ethics in law enforcement, particularly when it comes to use of force and following department policies.

It is also critical to reform and overhaul police hiring practices, particularly background checks including psychological tests which are outdated. Failure to do so not only results in injury or death, and costly civil litigation, but most importantly, irreparable harm to community relations.

What is the importance of the link between law enforcement training and ethical behaviors?

The connection between ethical behaviors and law enforcement training cannot be overstated. Deviant behaviors and unethical tendencies are a learned behavior starting from the academy. Heavy drinking and alcohol abuse leads to other forms of misconduct. Young officers are under immense pressure to fit in and adhere to police subcultures. If they are exposed to unethical behaviors on a regular basis, they will see this as acceptable and even expected. There is even a divide between police management and front-line officers whereby officers defy department policies and core values because they feel their actions accomplish desired goals despite the fact that the actions themselves may be unethical or illegal (ends justifies the means).

It is not enough to have ethical supervisors and managers when officers emulate their peers. Having ethical police officers is the only way to ensure the whole agency has integrity and is viewed by the community with legitimacy. There are no shortcuts when it comes to being legitimate. According to a report by the IACP Ad Hoc Committee on Police Image and Ethics in 1997, “there has been little change in the state of affairs on ethics” and “law enforcement’s greatest training need was in ethics.” (P. 63)The authors go on to say that most departments spend less than four hours on ethics training, consisting “little more than a lecture or sermon.” (P. 63) How can we expect our officers to behave ethically and morally, discharge their duties with integrity and to the highest standards when little emphasis is placed on ethics training before they graduate from the academy and become sworn?
What are the key concepts in building law enforcement legitimacy?

To answer this question, one must first define the term “legitimacy." Professor Meares (The Legitimacy of Police Among Young African-American Men) in her 2009 speech to Marquette University Law School states. “people will comply because they believe an authority has the right to dictate to them proper behavior. This is the essence of legitimacy.” (P. 658)

This contrasts with laws being followed because people feel the law is just or right. This is morality based compliance versus legitimacy based compliance. In order for law enforcement officers, police agencies, and government institutions, in general, to be legitimate, communities must believe their authority is real and also accept that authority. Professor Meares was referenced in Zoe Mentel’s publication, “Racial Reconciliation, Truth Telling, and Police Legitimacy.” Meares states, “Legitimacy is not necessarily the same as legality; police behavior can be lawful without being legitimate.” She goes on to give a good example of the fourth amendment whereby officers are not required by law when interacting with citizens to be polite, respectful or even treat people with dignity. Police officers may act within the law. However, that does not mean citizens and the community view those actions as legitimate.

As an example, Joe Smith received an important promotion at a Fortune 500 company because his father was chairman of the board. Smith was at the company for a year, fresh out of college. Dave Jones has been with the same company for 20 years, worked hard and earned the respect of his peers and management. He applied for the same position as Smith but didn’t get it. Many corporate insiders and even outsiders view Smith’s ascent as illegitimate but lawful.

The best example of police legitimacy was when the author referenced the High Point Model, after High Point North Carolina. Law enforcement investigated this open-air drug market and built a strong case around 12 individuals. Nine of them were called into the station to face an intervention of sorts of family members, peers and community members who confronted them regarding their illegal activities. Then the same nine individuals met with police officials who gave an ultimatum; cease all criminal activity or face stiff jail time. The strategy worked and the drug market closed business. This underscores the importance of law enforcement working closely with community members to build trust and relationships that result in legitimacy. By building strong relationships with neighborhoods and communities, citizens of those communities view police as legitimate partners, not adversaries.

How does Racial Profiling or Disproportionate levels of contact with specific ethnic groups affects law enforcement legitimacy?

It affects law enforcement enormously and negatively. Police are sworn to serve and protect their communities regardless of skin color, gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, income, education, and so forth. They must uphold the law equally for everyone. Citizens will view police officers and their policies as legitimate only if they believe this to be true. However, study after study cited by researchers has shown that people of color are disproportionately stopped, frisked, searched and arrested than whites. More young, black males are imprisoned than any other social class. I was quite surprised when I read that in 2006, the probability of being stopped by New York police was between 78-80% for black men ages 18-19. For black men ages 18-24 it was between 50-70%. In Los Angeles, researcher Ian Ayres “found that per 10,000 residents per year, the black stop rate is 3,400 stops higher than the white stop rate.” (P. 654 Meares)

Faced with this kind of overwhelming evidence, one can completely understand why a person of color would view police as lacking legitimacy. Professor Meares stated,“One of the challenges is that we want to live in a world where bringing down crime is the same as bringing people to justice; but that’s not always the same thing. We know that lots of arrests may bring down crime, but that can also leave communities worse off than they were before.” (P.4) As the police chief from East Palo Alto put it, mass incarceration should be a last resort tool, not a strategy.

Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it, wrote philosopher Santayana and later famously quoted by Winston Churchill. But what if we can remember the past, such as the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and so many others, and we continue to repeat it? What does that say about our society, our institutions, and our values as Americans?

Race relations in America, arguably has deteriorated to a level not seen since the 1960’s civil rights movement. The same divisive forces of fear, ignorance, and hate are evident today, 60 years later. 

They were never eradicated, only buried beneath the surface and brought back overtly with the election of the current president who feeds on division and chaos. When hope and economic opportunities are revived to long disadvantaged communities of color, when integrity, transparency, and government programs achieve efficacy, and when trust and faith are restored between law enforcement and the communities it serves, then and only then, can this country begin the long road towards redemption.

“Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.” Maya Angelou

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