Memo to Police Chiefs: Time for ‘Uncomfortable’ Conversations
Police commanders should respond to officer–involved 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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
Wexler conceded the process won’t be easy.
“Importantly, over time these conversations will get easier, and they will become part of how police agencies operate.”
“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.