Guardians, not warriors: How to get better cops

Copyright 2018 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy Apodaca

(published as a commentary/guest column on August 5, 2018 in the San Antonio Express-News)

     More than a quarter of a century has passed since the brutal beating of Rodney King in 1991. The case captured the nation’s focus with the videotaped beating of King by members of the Los Angeles Police Department and the acquittal of the four LAPD officers accused of assaulting the helpless citizen.

     Since that tragedy, there have been many such encounters in the United States. At least 14 of them resulted in deaths at the hands of police officers who were held responsible for using unwarranted force. The public’s respect for police has fallen.

     Being a police officer is a stressful job. Officers deal often with the mentally ill, and encounter unsavory characters: criminals, addicts, bullies.

     I’m not glorifying police officers—far from it. As a lawyer, I soon learned there are good cops and bad cops. Our task is to commend the good ones and do something about the bad ones. Meanwhile, we should treat them with respect, even when they have an “off” day or don’t act professionally.

     My perception of them has changed through the years.

     As a youngster, I was intimidated by them. They stood as authority figures.

     Then came my years as a criminal defense attorney. Police officers testified against my clients. Some were easy to like; others, not so much. Their beliefs in my clients’ guilt often caused them to stretch the truth. They became biased adversaries in what were, after all, adversarial proceedings.

     If they lied, I tried to persuade the judge or jury of that to discredit all their testimony. But the misdeeds of a few taint the whole. I fought hard not to be misguided by the few bad ones.

     As an appellate judge, I sometimes presided at trials. When police officers appeared as witnesses in non-jury cases, my job was to assess their credibility. Even when that job fell to a jury, at times I couldn’t help thinking that a police officer’s testimony wasn’t worthy of belief.

     Now retired from the bench, I’m not surprised by the growing criticism against law enforcement. My interest in exploring the causes of tragic events involving police officers grows each day.

     In 2016, I explained in a commentary that mental illness was the crux of the homeless and had become a policing challenge. I learned recently that the Austin police have been called to address 90,000 mental health cases in the past eight years.

     I also said that police aren’t trained to deal with the mentally ill. Confrontations with mentally ill persons haven’t put police in a favorable light.

     One might conclude that inadequate training explains police officers’ fall from grace in the public’s eyes. Some critics suggest that the problems lie in training, first at the academies and then continuing during their tenure.

     But I’ve always questioned whether unwarranted use of force can be so easily explained. The reasons lie much deeper.

     Recently, the Austin American-Statesman reported that ex-cadets of Austin’s police academy complained that the training of rookies was too aggressive and out of step with national reforms.

     Austin’s police chief took issue with the report. Later, he shifted his position, announcing that the training academy will now view officers as public servants, not enforcers of the law, and that it won’t treat cadets as military recruits.

     Nationally, law enforcement agencies are making changes in training, from warrior to guardian. The warrior mindset was of police as strict enforcers, ready to do battle. Experts now are encouraging police to view themselves as guardians trusted to help the public.

     It’s too early to tell if the mindset will result in better police officers and improve the public’s attitudes toward them.

     What if inadequate training is only a small part of the problems? Shouldn’t we look for other causes? Recruitment, for example. Let’s examine the candidate pools. Maybe we’re not choosing those with the proper mental makeup, and maybe we should tighten the criteria. Psychologists and other behavioral experts should be consulted. I’ve come across many police officers who had no business being guardians.

     In delving into whether recruitment has ever been considered as a root of the problems, I ran across a July 2016 article by Julesyka Lantigua-Williams in The Atlantic. Her piece—"How Much Can Better Training Do to Improve Policing?—was based on her interviews of two former police chiefs. I was heartened to discover that they agreed with my premise that the problems might lie in recruitment.

     One of them, Donald Grady II, contended that the problems faced by law enforcement aren’t explained by improper training. “That’s just a convenient thing to say,” he claimed, adding that he couldn’t point to a single training course he could give cadets that would change their thinking in deciding whether to shoot or not shoot when there’s absolutely no threat.

     “This is not a training issue,” Grady insisted. “This is an issue of who it is that we’ve decided we would allow to police our country. This dates back to the beginning of policing, not to some recent phenomenon.”

     Ronal Serpas, a former police chief, agreed with Seth Stoughton, a law professor, who’s argued the guardian/warrior mindsets. “[T]he police have to be true to (a supportive community)”, Serpas said, “by delivering the service in a way that the community can support. Which means you don’t go in as an occupying force, as a warrior. You go in as a guardian.”

     Grady agreed, arguing that this sort of approach shouldn’t be seen as a new development but as a return to the ethos of American policing. “We’ve gotten distracted over the years,” he said, “and if you talk to most police officers today, and ask them, ‘What do you do for a living?’ they will tell you, ‘I am a law enforcement officer.’

     “That’s a mischaracterization of what they were hired for. Law enforcement was never the mission. (It) is only one small part of what we should be doing in policing. Policing is community building... . It allows us to be most responsive to the people that we have sworn to serve and protect.”

     As with many other problems, the crucial, first step is to recognize there are problems that need fixing.

     By tackling the smaller problems first, we’ll eventually solve the big ones. But to get there, we must take that first step.