Author: Paul Cappitelli
Each year, law enforcement faces new challenges that redefine the profession. The term “business as usual” is never applicable in policing, as the landscape can change in an instant.
In order to stay abreast of trends, police leaders must constantly read and process information from many sources, because one thing is certain – if you don’t read the tea leaves, you can get broadsided.
This article focuses upon five critical issues (in no ranking order) likely to challenge policing in 2019.
1. Active shooter response
If anything, 2018 showed us that law enforcement officers are expected to act without hesitation when responding to an active shooter situation. In many cases, there has been praise for the immediate engagement of the threat without regard for one’s safety, with criticism lobbed when officers did not respond quick enough to stave off injury or loss of life.
While firefighters are cautioned about when and how to run into burning buildings, policy changes are dictating that police officers run into the “burning building” despite the risks. Sadly, we are seeing incidents where officers are injured or killed in this rush to engage an active shooter. Public pressure appears to be dictating police policy while undermining the basic tenets of officer safety in some situations.
The answer to this dilemma lies somewhere between where the profession was pre-Columbine and where we are today. Each active shooter incident should be analyzed and de-briefed with the lessons learned shared widely to mitigate officer mortality. It’s perhaps time to take a step back and reassess existing active shooter protocols to shift the focus back toward officer safety without fear of public scrutiny and castigation. While there is no clear answer, having a dialogue is a good start.
2. Police transparency and public records
The average police officer will probably tell you they are well aware that their department phones, emails, text messages and alike are a matter of public record. But if you ask about their private phones, they will likely say that such devices are not public record.
Unfortunately, there is no hard precedent that will protect any of the information a public servant shares in the course and scope of duty. To the contrary, the courts are migrating toward a position wherein ALL information is a public record regardless of source. The term “reasonable expectation of privacy” is becoming more obsolete. To this end, devices are potentially subject to subpoena if they contain evidence that may be deemed exculpatory in nature. As if this isn’t enough to worry about, add body-worn cameras into the mix and the associated public disclosure requirements, which vary by jurisdiction.
The media and the public’s thirst for additional details about field activities are likely to increase in 2019 and beyond. Smart police leaders are already having discussions within their ranks about the prospect of increased transparency and crafting policies and protocols to reflect same. The curtain has been pulled back, and there is little forgiveness in the court of public opinion.
3. Officer recruitment
As the struggle continues to find new recruits and retain seasoned officers, it may be time for police leaders to admit they are contributing to their own recruitment crisis through their hiring strategies.
Here are some uncomfortable questions for agency heads:
How many good candidates are being disqualified for requirements/parameters the agency feels strongly about? If law enforcement agencies across the country are confident in their respective screening processes, why are there still officers who break the law and commit crimes after they were vetted? How many candidates who are deemed unqualified might have actually made better police officers than the ones selected? Are the police officers’ selection standards criteria moving targets depending upon the needs of the community and their geo-political environment? Are there “gatekeepers” within agencies that may be keeping the better candidates from succeeding as a result of personal bias or preference?
These are the tough questions that need to be answered, and 2019 is a good time to revisit internal screening processes. The first step might be for police leaders to spend time reviewing recently rejected candidates to determine if some applications can be salvaged.
4. Immigration and sanctuary laws
There is no other way to address the issues surrounding immigration and sanctuary laws other than to state the obvious: it’s a big mess. Some states are passing laws to undermine federal law, local municipalities are passing laws to undermine state laws, the federal government is threatening those who violate the federal laws and the states and suing the feds.
The best suggestion at this point is to encourage detailed internal documentation of all situations (arrests, detentions, releases, etc.) wherever applicable. Educating the public about the limitations under applicable laws and court orders is also a good start.
5. Police use of force and de-escalation policies
The 1993 movie “Demolition Man” with Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes is about a futuristic society where the police do not use force and all critical field decisions are made by command personnel via live video feed to police headquarters. Snipes played a hardened criminal who uses extreme lethal force against the police who are powerless to respond. At the time of this film’s release, it seemed like far-fetched fiction. In present day, one could opine that policing is moving in a direction to where the use of physical force by law enforcement will be severely constricted and live video could soon supplant individual decision-making.
The 21st Century Policing Initiative (21CPI) has been in the implementation stages for over three years. Many of the police-community relations elements of 21CPI have been validated and appear to be effective in most respects. However, the elements addressing the use of force have not been as seamless in the transition. Is policing better off today than it was before 21CPI? Is the term “de-escalation” over-used and confusing? Is anyone safer? If so, who? The police? The community?
The elephant in the room with 21CPI is the inconsistency between the past, present and future of police use of force. This consternation begs the following questions:
Is it time to revisit the use of force aspect of 21CPI now that the political winds have shifted? What are the consistently acceptable “rules of engagement?” Are officers hesitating before taking action thus putting themselves and/or the public at risk?
The 21CPI contra-argument suggests that de-escalation was already factored into existing police training and any modifications put officers at greater risk. One thing is certain, if the profession as a whole does not clear up the confusion, state lawmakers will enact legislation to redefine the justification for use of force. It’s already happening in states across the country. It may be time to regroup.
There will no doubt be new and unforeseen challenges in the coming year. For the time being, police leaders should stay focused upon these and other issues that will carry over from 2018. We cannot predict what future crises await this noble profession, but we must ensure we do not allow the mistakes of the past to carry on into the future without intervention.