The video is violent and disturbing.
A drunk man sits handcuffed on a police station bench. As he argues with a couple of cops, one of them suddenly says, “You don’t spit on an officer” and slams his head into a concrete wall a couple of times.
Thomas Gillan of PSU Crisis Management showed that footage to a group of deputies and law enforcement officers at the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday morning. Then he asked what they noticed.
Besides the obvious police brutality.
The Charleston deputies have good eyes for detail. One of the officers on the tape, they noted, subtly gestured to surveillance cameras, warning his colleagues they were being recorded. They also noticed another officer showed up to get in on the beating.
And, they point out, the drunk man didn’t actually spit on anyone.
Today, another group of local law enforcement officers will go through the same all-day class focused on how to police — and how not to.
Chief Deputy Eric Watson says he’ll have a half-dozen new deputies in the class today, and he hopes to make it a regular part of continuing education for all his officers.
That’s a great sign for improving local police and community relations. And it couldn’t come at a better time.
It’s all customer service
Relationships between the police and community have deteriorated steadily since cellphone and dashboard cameras began recording incidents of brutality and unwarranted killings for the world to see.
Among them, the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer.
Although such incidents are rare, they should be nonexistent. Every time a tragedy occurs, or a bad cop shoots someone for no good reason, it hurts law enforcement everywhere.
“Something some knucklehead in California does is going to have an effect on us,” one deputy noted.
He’s absolutely right.
So the sheriff’s office has brought in the nonprofit Dedication to Community — led by Quentin Williams, an attorney and former FBI agent and federal prosecutor — to train deputies, supervisors and jail staff to avoid implicit bias, increase cultural awareness and improve de-escalation practices among its ranks.
When Williams’ program is paired with Gillan’s presentation from PSU, Charleston County Administrator Jennifer Miller says it helps law enforcement agencies tackle their biggest problem.
“It is important to understand public safety and their role in public service to our community,” Miller says. “We can all learn to better relate to each other and to those we work with and serve.”
Gillan talked to officers Tuesday about the importance of community policing, building relationships with residents. Fear, he said, comes into play in tense law enforcement situations, and the key is to remain calm.
Learning to properly de-escalate a situation reduces excessive force cases that destroy trust.
That is not only good police practice, it ensures everyone goes home at the end of the day.
It’s not easy to be a police officer.
Some studies suggest nearly two-thirds of officers suffer from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, and their divorce rate is 20 percentage points higher than it is among civilians. But, as Watson says, there’s no room for error.
Williams told the group stories of bias that extended into his time as an FBI agent — how he was once handcuffed and detained for hours as a robbery suspect, even though he had his badge on him.
A few months back, a state trooper stopped Williams on I-95 in South Carolina. The trooper made excuses about a minor traffic infraction, but Williams realized it was a thinly disguised drug check.
If not for his law enforcement background, or if he’d reacted differently, that minor stop could have turned into something much worse. It would’ve been better, Williams noted, if the officer hadn’t tried to obfuscate.
“Transparency builds trust,” he said.
And that was one of the more important lessons of the day. Officers not only need to recognize cultural differences, they must understand why some people react the way they do.
In one North Carolina class, Williams offered similar stories of biased policing. Afterward, he said, a 22-year veteran officer, who wasn’t in the class willingly, told him that “I’ve had it all wrong.”
“That’s why I do this,” Williams says.
And that, the Sheriff’s Office recognizes, is why it’s so important for police to get this training.
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com.