BURLINGTON, Vt. — Policing policy took on new urgency as the nation’s progressive mayors gathered in the Queen City on Friday following race-related riots last week in Charlottesville, Virginia.
While hosing a forum titled “21st Century Policing,” Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger welcomed mayors from several mid-size U.S. cities, as well as municipal policy experts. The group discussed wide range of topics, from the opiate epidemic and “cities under Trump” to energy use and community policing policy.
The session on police issues was moderated by former Mountain View, California, Mayor Mike Kasperzak. It also featured Toledo, Ohio, Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson, Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), and Burlington Police Department Chief Brandon del Pozo.
In the wake of last week’s race-related violence in Charlottesville, the session, the session focused on getting policing right and defusing community fears of police.
“In Toledo, to keep our community safe, 21st century policing is a group effort. The police have to trust the community and the community has to trust the police,” Hicks-Hudson said.
Chuck Wexler, a former member of the Boston Police Department and assistant to the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that the PERF organization has worked 41 years with many cities, including Burlington, in developing best practices to reduce police force and evaluate crime reduction.
“Of course the last thing any mayor wants to hear at 2 o’clock in the morning is a call from the police chief saying ‘we have a (fatal) shooting,'” Wexler said.
Wexler said PERF provides police agencies with guiding principles for reducing the use of force. The guidelines were were defined following the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri.
“The government actually doesn’t keep track of these police incidents,” Wexler said, “but the Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize doing this,” he said.
He stressed that the principle of the “sanctity of life” should be at the heart of everything a police agency does.
“In 2016, the Post found a total of 963 total fatal officer-involved shootings,” Wexler said. “Only 5 percent of those shootings involved unarmed subjects. Eighteen percent of fatal shooting subjects were armed with a knife, and in 7 percent of the cases the subject was using a vehicle as a weapon.”
Wexler noted that PERF never blames the police officer involved in a fatal shooting, but it does look at the training the officer received.
“Policy makes a difference. We brought hundreds of police chiefs together and asked them about police training,” he said. “Police training hasn’t changed much in 25 years … so we questioned that training.
“We want officers to think. … In the case of someone stealing a car, that’s not the kind of situation where you want to take a human life, it doesn’t make sense,” he noted. “Yet for years we have done this.”
Wexler informed attendees that the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor is on the side of police, but that agencies should be held to a higher standard.
Graham v. Connor determined that “objective reasonableness” should apply anytime a civilian claims law enforcement officials used excessive force. “This is why officers are not prosecuted in fatal shootings,” Wexler said, “but training, policy and tactics will help police rise above ‘objective reasonableness.'”
Wexler praised Burlington for its “sanctity of life” policy and training, noting that the city trains police officers how to respond to volatile situations in which subjects are behaving erratically or dangerously.
Chief del Pozo said policing is difficult on a day-to-day basis because of human factors.
“Cops see things that people who aren’t cops don’t see, and they understand things about human nature that others never see — it separates them involuntarily from everyone around them,” he said.
Del Pozo presented national police data to put the story of police shootings around the U.S. in perspective.
“Only 17 black Americans were killed in 2016; that’s a 50 percent decrease from 2015,” he said. “ … In 2015 there was one in a million chance of a black American having a fatal encounter with the police, and it rose to one in 2 million in 2016.
“Statistically, it means a police officer will be involved in a fatal shooting of an unarmed black once every 22,000 years,” he added.
Despite the statistics, del Pozo said that law enforcement agencies have inherited policies — such as shooting a knife-attacker within 20-feet — that are ingrained in police culture.
“So we have a clear need for deep systemic change in policing to get rid of, or reduce, unacceptable citizen tragedies on the margins,” he concluded. “… It’s incumbent upon mayors and police chiefs to lead the nation to a better place.”
Del Pozo concluded by saying that he wrote a personal letter to the parents of Jordan Edwards, who was fatally shot by police in Texas in April.
“It broke my heart. He wasn’t doing anything wrong,” del Pozo said. “I don’t know why I inserted myself, but one Jordan Edwards shooting is one too many.”
Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.