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Experts debate how to restore trust in police

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Trust in local police agencies could be restored by shifting the “warrior” mentality long embedded in law-enforcement training to one of community “guardianship,” a policing expert told lawmakers here Tuesday.

“This is not a kinder, gentler way of doing the job. It’s just the opposite,” said Susan Lee Rahr, former sheriff of King County, Washington, and a member of President Barack Obama’s policing task force.

“We’ve actually increased our firearms training. We increased our defensive-tactics training, because we want to create strong, effective police officers who have the confidence that they don’t have to behave in an intimidating manner.

“When we were too focused on the boot camp method of training, it detracted from our ability to train officers to be critical thinkers.”

House Judiciary Committee members questioned Rahr and other experts Tuesday about policing standards and training to reduce officer misconduct, improve accountability and ease tensions between law enforcement and minority communities.

Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, said transforming the police profession won’t address the “underclass subculture” that often leads to black-on-black crime.

“It starts by asking why we need so much assertive policing in the American ghetto. Are police officers perfect? Not by any stretch of the imagination,” said Clarke, who is black.

“The discussion must start with addressing the behavior of people who have no respect for authority, who fight with and try to disarm the police, who flee the police, and who engage in other flawed lifestyle choices. Bashing the police is the low-hanging fruit.”

Clarke said continuing to blame police would lead to law enforcement pulling back in high-crime areas, and “black people will be the losers in all this, as violent crime rates skyrocket over time.”

U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., the committee’s top-ranked Democrat, said the unrest that boiled over in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, in part grew out of a culture of law enforcement that has disconnected from the community.

“There is no substitute for concrete performance standards for state and local law enforcement agencies that receive billions of dollars every year in federal funding,” said Conyers of Detroit, who is working on a bill regarding accreditation and policing practices.

Committee Chairman and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, said he was surprised that only 5 percent of police agencies pursue accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies. W. Craig Hartley Jr., the commission’s director, said it’s often a matter of cost.

Rahr, executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Commission, said the best thing Congress could do to is provide more funding for officer training.

The hearing came a day after President Barack Obama said he would end federal transfers of some combat-style gear to local law enforcement, including grenade launchers and bayonets. The move followed an outcry over the use of riot gear and armored vehicles by police confronting protesters in Ferguson.

U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, asked Clarke how recent events have affected morale, recruitment and retention within the law enforcement community.

Clarke said he’d spoken to officers from across the country at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial this week and that the “constant bashing and maligning of the profession is starting to take its toll.”

“The most common thing I heard was, you know, ‘Sheriff, I don’t know if I want to continue to take that extra step anymore. I don’t want to be the next Darren Wilson,’ Clarke said, referring to the Ferguson officer whose shooting of an unarmed black teenager in August set off weeks of protests. “We’re talking about the good-faith actions.”

Matthew Barge, deputy director of the nonprofit Police Assessment Resource Center, said too many local departments lack systems to identify bad habits or “bad apples” early.

“Supervisors often lack training on how to identify potential problems and how to interact with officers requiring intervention,” Barge said.

Former prosecutor Deborah Ramirez, a law professor at Northeastern University, urged the use of cruiser cameras and body cameras to improve police transparency and accountability. She also pushed for an inspector general to independently investigate allegations of police misconduct.

Clarke said he favors use of the technology but warned that it’s not a panacea. It could potentially lead to fewer people wanting to come forward to cooperate with investigators or report crime — especially in minority communities, he said.


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