Opinions and Legal Insights

Memo to Police Chiefs: Time for ‘Uncomfortable’ Conversations

Police commanders should respond to officerinvolved shootings anywhere in the country with an all-hands meeting analyzing what went wrong and figuring out how their agencies could prevent the same thing happening on their watch, says the executive director of one of the country’s most influential police think tanks.

“Monday-morning quarterbacking needs to become part of the DNA of policing,” wrote Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) in an open letter to members published last weekend.

Wexler said that while “reengineering” law enforcement policy and training was important, police leaders also needed to confront the “elephant in the room.”

“That elephant is a police culture that can be overly sensitive to criticizing other officers and reluctant to engage in tough conversations,” he wrote. “Reshaping that culture could help us get out of the morass we find ourselves in.

“But culture is something that almost no one is talking about or working on.”

Wexler called on police chiefs and sheriffs across the country to order their command staffs to assemble, then “close the door and turn on the video of the Jacob Blake shooting from Kenosha, Wisconsin, [and] start a conversation.”

Every participant should be asked how the agency’s cops would have handled a similar situation.

“At first, there will likely be silence,” Wexler wrote. “There will be some folded arms, and people will nervously look at the ceiling.

“Embrace the silence. Wait until someone speaks.

“Eventually, a hand will go up and someone, maybe the informal leader of the group, will say something like, ‘We weren’t there, so we don’t know enough about what happened.’

“Someone else may chime in, ‘We shouldn’t Monday-morning quarterback what other cops do.’

“That’s when the chief should step up and respond that ‘whether you call it Monday-morning quarterbacking or something else, we are having this conversation – not to find fault or assess blame, but to learn from this incident and make sure our agency does better.’”

Wexler pointed out that the model is used by other professions.

After a plane crash or train derailment, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) immediately dispatches a team of subject matter experts to the site, who analyze the incident and make recommendations to prevent similar occurrences in the future. Similar procedures are followed by the medical profession.

Wexler compared it to post-game analysis by professional and college football players.

“But in the police culture, ‘studying the film’ has been always been frowned upon,” he wrote. “The culture tends to shut down conversations at the very moment those conversations need to be taking place. This can be especially true when the discussions involve issues of race.”

But Wexler said the recurring instances of police violence meant that police could no longer afford to sidestep analysis of their own practices.

“The situation has become exhausting,” he wrote. “It is taking its toll on communities, especially among African Americans and other people of color who are left wondering why these incidents keep happening.

“And it is wearing down police officers, because what happens in one city impacts cops everywhere.”

He warned that if police leaders don’t get ahead of the reform dynamic, others will do it for them, citing the growing traction of calls for ‘defunding police.’

According to Wexler, the “post-game” analysis needs to extend to every part of a police department.

Police executives need to send the video to their research and development team and ask if current department policies provide appropriate direction on how to handle this type of situation,” he wrote.

“The video needs to go to department trainers, asking them how officers are currently being taught and whether that training needs to be updated. First-line supervisors need to discuss what role they play in these types of encounters.”

The video should be shared among working cops to get their thoughts about how they might have handled the situation, he added.

But the hardest challenge of all is for police executives to spearhead “honest and frank discussions with their communities, especially about issues of bias and racial justice.”

Police chiefs and sheriffs need to be prepared to explain to residents how their agencies are learning from these incidents and working to improve.”

And then, he added, “we need to follow the same process with the next questionable police encounter. And the one after that.”

A similar process is at the heart of the so-called “Sentinel Event” initiative, launched by the Department of Justice in 2017 to bring together stakeholders in local jurisdictions to identify the mistakes and missteps that lead to wrongful convictions and other tragedies in the justice system.

Wexler said the process should not be about blaming individual police officers, “but about having conversations to understand what happened in past incidents so we can prevent the next one.”

The analysis should include looking at incidents that were handled well, such as an Aug. 16 incident in Cedar Park, Tx., during which three officers were ambushed by a man experiencing a mental health crisis. The incident ended peacefully.

“This type of critical analysis and learning from others applies to the full range of encounters that the police have,” Wexler wrote.

“Most agencies don’t do this right now. Many don’t even talk about their own officerinvolved shootings, much less incidents that happen hundreds of miles away.”

Wexler conceded the process won’t be easy.

“Regardless of how straightforward or complex the situation may be, police leaders and police agencies need to get comfortable with having these uncomfortable conversations,” he wrote.

“Importantly, over time these conversations will get easier, and they will become part of how police agencies operate.”

With approximately 1,000 officerinvolved shootings each year, many of them captured on video, “there is plenty of material for agencies to work with and many lessons to be learned,” Wexler wrote.

“Failing to discuss these incidents within our agencies – and failing to learn from them – is part of the reason they keep happening with such frequency. And they are going to keep happening unless police leaders acknowledge that it is the culture of policing that is shutting down the important conversations that should be taking place.”

To read the full letter, please click here.