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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Respect is the Cornerstone of Policing

A few years ago, video was captured of Baltimore police officer Salvatore Rivieri confronting some kids who were skateboarding in an area that was prohibited.  In the video, Officer Rivieri approaches and advises them in a rather stern manner that they cannot ride their skateboards in the area.  One of the kids replies, “Okay, I didn’t hear you” and Rivieri immediately becomes confrontational with him.  He tells the skater that he’s going to put him in "juvie" and call his father.  When the kid responds, “I don’t have a father”, Officer Rivieri threatens to “smack the kid upside his head” and when the boy says, “I didn’t do anything” the officer charges at him, rips his skateboard from his hands and puts the kid in a choke hold to take him to the ground.  The situation escalates even more violently.

I resurrect this story from several years ago because it closely parallels the interaction that McKinney, Texas police Sergeant Eric Casebolt had with the juveniles at the pool. The video begins with two officers sprinting towards what I assume is a disturbance involving other officers. An unidentified officer drops his flashlight during his sprint and the teen who is videotaping catches up to him to return it.  The officer expresses his gratitude to the teen and addresses a group firmly by advising them not to “take off running when the police arrive.”  He displays a command presence while being extremely respectful. As a result, the kids not only cooperate with the officer but provide him with additional information about the incident.

Sergeant Casebolt then enters the video frame in what can only be described as a volatile demeanor and the footage depicts him taking a male to the ground. He screams to all the kids to “get their asses down on the ground” and then confronts two males in the street and tells them to “get the F#$* down”. The males can be seen immediately dropping to the ground in the street and Casebolt screams, “get to the grass” and they comply.

Casebolt has no control over the scene because he’s lost control of himself.  The kids are not following Casebolt’s profanity-ridden commands to disperse and girl gets mouthy with him.  He takes her to the ground forcefully which incites the crowd. Casebolt draws his weapon when a few teens close the gap towards him.

In these two incidents I’ve described, it’s important to point out that laws were violated by the teens.  In the former, skateboarding was prohibited.  In the latter, the teens disobeyed a lawful order to disperse.

I have heard arguments on behalf of the police officer in the latter situation that the girl was mouthy and not following his orders. I recognize that in many cases, the scenario begins with a violation of law and even people being disrespectful, however, the police officer’s demeanor in both of these incidents are what I opine to have escalated the situation.

It’s hard for me to watch these videos because I know what it’s like to be on a chaotic scene where it’s difficult to control people as the “mob mentality” sets in. I know what it’s like to feel vulnerable of my own safety in these situations.

But I also know by learning from the best what it’s like to calm a crowd down by talking to them respectfully. I learned very early on in my career that I didn’t have the stature to prevail physically against someone wishing to cause me harm so I had to develop communication skills to gain compliance. I started to watch and learn from the most successful police officers (no matter what their size) and it became apparent to me that the more you treat others with respect — even those who break the law — the more they will cooperate. Sadly, I have also learned precisely what not to do from those officers who always seem to agitate those with whom they interact.

Giving the benefit of the doubt, I surmise the police officers depicted in these videos are good human beings at heart. But I can say with certainty that they could have handled these situations better and in doing so, neither would have escalated to use of force.

The majority of people respond to being treated with human dignity and respect. Whether it be kids or adults, the manner in which a police officer engages a person has the propensity to alter the outcome.  Certainly there are those individuals who will be non-compliant no matter what, but I have found that most people respond in kind to the way they are treated.

I always describe our police officers as warriors because they are first line of defense in our community. I still feel that way because we need our officers to have a warrior mindset when they engage the violent part of society that holds hostage the law-abiding citizens. A true warrior learns to master his emotions and acts purposefully and for the greater good. There is a time and a place for this mindset where human life is being threatened.

But in the majority of encounters, police officers should have the guardian mindset and not the warrior mindset. Guardians are responsible for the safekeeping of a city and every police action must be built upon trust and respect.  When police lose trust in the community they serve, they can no longer be effective.

Police officers need to embrace the mindset of guardianship and the first step in doing so is to look at all people with whom they interact instead of looking down upon on them.

2 comments:

Tommy Ostrowski said...

Awesome Post, after reading your Blogs I always feel like Truth has been Spoken

RAG said...

Well written. I learned early on when I was a cop that you either control a situation or it controls you and use of force is often a sign of failure. I also heard fallacies like never admitting when you're wrong.

As you said, most of us cannot physically take down a mob or even one or two agitated people. Many times the most powerful weapons are between your ears.

In the academy (40 years ago this month) I was taught "by the book" but the book sometimes needs to be set aside. It was a luxury if my nearest backup was 13 miles away. Sometimes I went twice that (or more) to do a backup. How you talked to people -- indeed, THAT you talked TO someone -- and your own credibility were often your best weapons. Time and again the act of treating people with dignity and compassion -- and even humor -- was a more effective weapon..

I learned you never told a drunk that he or she was "drunk" (everyone thinks they can hold their liquor) and there's no such crime as "drunk driving." And when a person is suicidal or approaching it telling them that "things are going to get better" or some other drivel is more likely to fail as opposed to saying something like, "I've been where you're at. Let's talk. Tell me what's going on."

Off the interstate there was a Lincoln. The driver was sleeping. I ran the plates: stolen car involved in a robbery and homicide in Chicago.

I got backup from a state trooper who stuck his shotgun inside an open window and had it at the driver's neck. I knocked on the window, woke him up and said, "Good morning, sir. Would you please look at the gentleman behind you?" and when he turned the shotgun was in his face. "Now would you step out of the car, slowly please, and put your hands up and on the roof and step back."

When I searched him I found a gun, knife and in the middle of his belt, a handcuff key. I took him to jail with the trooper following a tow truck with the Lincoln which would be searched in more detail after it was impounded.

At the jail I asked him if he was hungry and nuked a hot dog (we always had hot dogs to nuke and cold Pepsi -- lots of 3 a.m. confessions that way). "Man, you guys really had me," he said. "You mean with the shotgun?," I replied. "No, I've been in and out of jail and prison in Chicago since I was 16 but you guys were just too nice. In Chicago a policeman doesn't call you 'sir.' I didn't know how to react."

After a hot dog, a cup of Pepsi and a couple of girl scout cookies he began telling us his life story and then said, "I'll tell you what happened in Chicago if you promise me that you'll be here whenever they come to get me." After he got done waiving extradition the next day we gave him and the Chicago detectives who came for him barbecue for lunch made by the sheriff's wife, a few cookies for the road and escorted them all back to the interstate.

And that story came to mind 30 years later and 400 miles away when I was prosecuting some professional burglar/major Heroin addict from Cleveland who was particularly obstreperous. We were finishing pizza in the jury room before his court appearance when a transport deputy brought him in. I asked him if he wanted a slice or two. In court after lunch his attitude did a virtual one-eighty.

It may be asking too much to expect that simple kindnesses will reform career criminals but at least on a short-term basis more often than not it's made a big difference.