A walk in cops’ shoes breeds em­pa­thy

Grand ju­rors re­think po­lice af­ter ‘lethal force sem­i­nar’

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Rec­tor

When mem­bers of a re­cent Bal­ti­more grand jury put them­selves in the shoes of cops to bet­ter un­der­stand the com­plex­i­ties of po­lice work in one of the na­tion’s most vi­o­lent cities, they came away think­ing the of­fi­cers de­serve sym­pa­thy — and bet­ter pay.

The ju­rors at­tended a “lethal force sem­i­nar” where they were given fake firearms and placed in “re­al­is­tic sim­u­la­tors” that mim­icked sce­nar­ios po­lice of­fi­cers con­front, in­clud­ing a per­son try­ing to com­mit “sui­cide by cop” and a call for an ag­gra­vated do­mes­tic as­sault.

“As mem­bers of the grand jury, our per­cep­tions of po­lice of­fi­cers have changed af­ter this visit,” the grand jury wrote in a re­port out­lin­ing their ex­pe­ri­ence serv­ing the ju­di­ciary from Jan­uary through May. “Many of us were born and raised in this ur­ban Bal­ti­more en­vi­ron­ment and have al­ways held a neg­a­tive opin­ion of po­lice of­fi­cers.

“So­ci­ety has beaten these men and women down,” the re­port con­tin­ued. “We no longer consider them ‘Of­fi­cer Friendly,’ and now, we can un­der­stand why.”

Grand ju­ries are panels of res­i­dents who de­cide whether se­ri­ous crim­i­nal cases meet le­gal stan­dards for full prose­cu­tion in court.

“For those of us who par­tic­i­pated, we agreed that we were ac­tu­ally ner­vous about us­ing our firearm. Each time, we con­tem­plated whether we should use our gun or not, but we surely did not want to be harmed our­selves,” the ju­rors wrote. “We re­al­ized at that mo­ment that we did not do as well as we would have liked. That ex­pe­ri­ence made us consider that in many

cases, po­lice of­fi­cers re­ally do not have much time to think, es­pe­cially in lifethreat­en­ing ac­tive sit­u­a­tions where a hostage may be in dan­ger.”

The grand jury’s re­ac­tion to their sim­u­la­tor ex­pe­ri­ence comes amid the na­tional de­bate about po­lice ac­count­abil­ity and as ac­tivists call for civil­ians to be placed on the lo­cal boards that re­view po­lice con­duct.

Many law en­force­ment of­fi­cials have sug­gested that every­day ci­ti­zens ought to get a taste for the re­al­ity po­lice face, just as the ju­rors did. And some want to.

Dur­ing a call-in town hall meet­ing in which Mayor Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake and Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Kevin Davis heard from res­i­dents and neigh­bor­hood lead­ers on is­sues of po­lice re­form, the mayor said res­i­dents have told her they “would like Bal­ti­more po­lice to train the pub­lic on what some of the stresses of be­ing an of­fi­cer are.”

Lt. Gene Ryan, pres­i­dent of the lo­cal Fra­ter­nal Or­der of Po­lice union, said the grand jury’s ex­pe­ri­ence sup­ports the union’s stance about polic­ing.

“You gotta walk in our shoes to see what a po­lice of­fi­cer does,” he said.

But Ryan said he still wouldn’t sup­port civil­ians serv­ing on the trial boards that re­view al­leged of­fi­cer mis­con­duct, even if they went through such train­ing.

Such boards in Bal­ti­more are made up en­tirely of law en­force­ment of­fi­cials and of­fi­cers, and po­lice union of­fi­cials ar­gue that only in­di­vid­u­als with polic­ing ex­pe­ri­ence un­der­stand an of­fi­cer’s job well enough to pass judg­ment.

Ac­tivists call­ing for civil­ian par­tic­i­pa­tion on the boards say it is the only way to en­sure ac­count­abil­ity in an area where of­fi­cers shield one an­other.

This week, state Sen. Cather­ine Pugh, the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee for mayor, said she wants the Gen­eral As­sem­bly to strengthen a law tak­ing ef­fect Satur­day that al­lows civil­ians to serve on such panels if po­lice unions agree.

Pugh said she plans to push for leg­is­la­tion that would al­low civil­ian par­tic­i­pa­tion re­gard­less of po­lice union agree­ment. “I know the FOP will not be happy with that,” Pugh told an au­di­ence at United Evan­gel­i­cal Church in Can­ton on Tues­day. “But un­til we al­low par­tic­i­pa­tion by in­di­vid­u­als who live in our com­mu­ni­ties, we will not get the co­or­di­na­tion that we need.”

Sit­u­a­tions in which an of­fi­cer has to de­cide whether to use his or her firearm have come into sharp fo­cus in re­cent years, in Bal­ti­more and elsewhere.

Ac­tivists across the coun­try ar­gue that of­fi­cers are too quick to shoot, par­tic­u­larly when the per­son they are con­fronting is black, and aren’t held ac­count­able when they make mis­takes or abuse their power. Po­lice of­fi­cials and their sup­port­ers say of­fi­cers of­ten have to make life-or-death de­ci­sions quickly and should be hon­ored for putting their lives on the line for pub­lic safety.

The grand ju­rors noted the dif­fi­cult chal­lenges of­fi­cers face on a daily ba­sis.

“Po­lice of­fi­cers are of­ten faced with sit­u­a­tions that re­quire split-sec­ond de­ci­sion mak­ing, and as we are all aware, any de­ci­sion could cost a life, erupt civil un­rest, dam­age ca­reers and/or im­pel jail time,” the jury wrote.

Af­ter as­sess­ing their “own de­ci­sion mak­ing” in the sim­u­la­tors, the jury mem­bers “shared our per­sonal be­liefs about po­lice of­fi­cers and their roles in our com­mu­nity” with of­fi­cers on the Bal­ti­more po­lice force.

“They shared with us as well: the good, the bad and the ugly,” the grand jury re­port said. “This ap­proach was hon­or­able, con­sid­er­ing the on­go­ing is­sues in­volv­ing po­lice trans­parency through­out the na­tion.”

After­ward, the ju­rors came away with the be­lief that po­lice of­fi­cers in Bal­ti­more are “over­whelmed, over­worked and un­der­paid,” the re­port said.

It found that since the un­rest last year af­ter the death of Fred­die Gray, of­fi­cers are con­fronting staff short­ages and long hours, as well as re­stric­tions on time off. They also de­ter­mined that the crimes of­fi­cers face on Bal­ti­more’s streets “are more heinous than ever be­fore, as crim­i­nals are be­com­ing more vi­cious and fear­less.”

“On a typ­i­cal day, it is pos­si­ble they may see dead bodies sprawled on the ground, go into a home in­volv­ing child abuse or sex­ual mo­lesta­tion and af­ter their 12-hour shift, they re­turn to their own homes and try to have nor­malcy,” the re­port says. “They should be ar­gu­ing: The ju­rors wrote that of­fi­cers are “tired and afraid for their own safety and se­cu­rity,” and need “real sup­port from the top that will some­day trickle down into the com­mu­ni­ties and change the mind­sets of each one of us civil­ians.”

The grand jury called for more rou­tine and manda­tory men­tal health screen­ings for of­fi­cers and an end to 12-hour shifts and “in­flex­i­ble leave us­age,” which it called “abu­sive work prac­tices” that “cre­ate high stress com­pounded with an al­ready stress­ful en­vi­ron­ment and could cause even mi­nor is­sues to be­come ex­plo­sive.”

It also called for in­creased pay “and im­proved work­ing con­di­tions” for all po­lice and cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers, “ag­gres­sive cam­paign­ing” to hire more po­lice and cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers, and “statewide recog­ni­tion and sin­cere ap­pre­ci­a­tion to­ward our of­fi­cers who daily risk their lives.”

It called on elected of­fi­cials to par­tic­i­pate in the same lethal force sem­i­nar the ju­rors at­tended.

“We as con­stituents would like to know how, dur­ing a sim­u­la­tion sce­nario, you would re­act and re­spond,” the jury wrote.

Po­lice of­fi­cers are “tired and afraid for their own safety and se­cu­rity.”

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