Every profession has some people who don’t have the right skills or temperament for the job. Every profession has people who make mistakes because their employers don’t provide the direction they need. It’s true for teachers and lawyers and auto mechanics and journalists. And police officers.
The difference is that cops carry guns. Their stressful jobs can include making split-second life-or-death decisions. Inevitably, they’ll sometimes make the wrong call, but even when they demonstrate that they aren’t fit to be cops, their colleagues and bosses sometimes rally around them and defend them.
Used to be, the public tolerated this, or at least kept quiet. But the world is changing. Everyone carries around a high-tech video camera that can record police encounters. Social media give everyone a voice, and we have better numbers to document the wide discrepancies between how police deal with whites and African Americans. Studies show that even the most liberal among us have unrecognized racial bias.
As a result, smart police have started to realize that they can’t protect us from the bad guys unless all the good guys in our community trust and support them.
Fortunately, under the leadership of Chief Luther Reynolds, the Charleston Police Department is among the vanguard of agencies nationwide working to earn that trust, by embracing a fairer, less biased approach to policing.
The preliminary results from a study commissioned by the city found that African Americans are pulled over more frequently than whites, the use of force against blacks is proportionally higher, the policy for handling complaints lacks clarity and complaints are sometimes insufficiently documented or investigated. These results offer a keyhole view into what needs to change.
For starters, officers need to rely more on objective facts, rather than hunches, when making traffic stops; they need better training in de-escalating confrontations and reducing use-of-force arrests; and they need clearer, written policies for when use of force is warranted and how complaints are handled and arrests are documented.
Significantly, the study noted a lack of transparency in use-of-force reports and recommended that each officer who used force in making an arrest be required to write a separate account of what happened and why. That openness would build trust between the police and the citizens they serve.
The firm hired to assess the department, CNA, is an Arlington, Virginia, research organization that has audited everything from submarine programs to cybersecurity protocols. Its audits have led to successful reform in other communities, so there is hope that will happen in Charleston too.
The bigger job will fall to Chief Reynolds. He has to instill in his command staff, 400-plus officers and the department’s civilian workforce a desire to make the many changes recommended, including some that may be uncomfortable. He also will need to rally support from members of the public who may not see the urgency for reforms.
The good news is that the makeup of the police department already more closely resembles the community it serves compared to departments in some other cities. That should help create internal momentum for the kind of changes that need to be seen from outside the department.
Changing police culture can be difficult, but it is necessary. We believe Chief Reynolds and his department are up to the task.