By Mary Velan
Law enforcement agencies across the country are under significant pressure these days in light of recent shootings and legal investigations that have exposed weaknesses in performances or systemic failures. As scrutiny of law enforcement practices continues to grow, many departments spend a significant amount of time trying to mitigate expensive litigation while simultaneously correcting disparities in training and policing. Therefore, many law enforcement agencies are adopting risk management initiatives to not only prevent future incidents and tragedies but also proactively improve policing outcomes in the community.
At a recent roundtable discussion hosted by EfficientGov and Tribridge, 10 police chiefs, sheriffs, general counsel, deputies and captains came together to discuss a variety of topics under the category of risk management. Throughout the discussion, the participants brought up concerns with new technology and a lack of training on proper engagement techniques.
While systemic changes must be made across the board, participants agreed training on engagement is the biggest issue facing law enforcement currently. As new generations of recruits enter the industry, few have any experience handling fighting without applying excessive force. Furthermore, many existing police officers lack proper engagement techniques – leaving departments vulnerable to costly litigation and increased community conflict.
“I have always believed that law enforcement needs to increase the use of scenario-based training and rely less heavily on book knowledge,” Assistant Chief Jim Previtera, from the Investigative Services Bureau of the St. Petersburg Police Department, told EfficientGov. “We have seen a new generation of police officers, one that has grown up immersed in technologies that provide instant stimulus and response, and which in many ways has hampered development of interpersonal communication skills.”
“We need to place recruits in ‘simulation laboratories’ for lack of a better term, meaning settings that, as closely as possible, mirror real life conditions and compel them to face the situations they will see on the streets in a controlled setting,” Previtera explained.
The simulations would mimic those used by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) that present recruits with a diverse group of role players acting out specific behaviors to compel recruits to demonstrate their learned knowledge, skills and abilities. If recruits participated in scenario-based training, Previtera believes recruits will better show their strengths and weaknesses for training teams to build upon and correct. If a recruit fails to engage properly, or loses their composure during the simulation, then instructors will have the ability and resources to remediate or eliminate a recruit before the problems manifest themselves within a community.
“Use of force training has improved greatly over the years with new tactics and technologies that allow for responses to be tested – mostly in shoot, don’t shoot scenarios,” Previtera told EfficientGov. “But we have to continue to train in realistic control tactics that are refreshed and tested more often than has been the case in the past.”
Furthermore, Previtera argues law enforcement must better educate the public on the concept of physical force and how it is lawfully applied in policing duties.
“We have referenced it as ‘defensive tactics’ for so long that many people believe any type of offensive action by an officer is somehow excessive or overly aggressive,” Previtera explained. “One of our nation’s foremost experts on police use of force, John Desmedt, has long espoused that law enforcement use of force cannot be viewed in strict terms of offense and defense, since control is the objective of the use of force.”
Deputy Chief Clyde Parry of the Coral Springs Police Department’s Operations Division, agrees with Previtera that law enforcement needs to build stronger relationships with the citizens being policed to rebuild lost trust and improve communication.
“Previous attempts at connecting with community members through community oriented-policing have been met with success, but there needs to be a more personal connection between the police and the community,” Parry told EfficientGov. “How many citizens personally know their beat officer in today’s society? Do they know the officer’s name? Direct communication between officers and the citizens would greatly enhance police-community relations.”
One of the most influential technology impacting officers currently are body worn cameras. As more officers wear cameras at all times, police departments, news agencies and members of the community now have access to video footage of what the officer sees and experiences throughout an event without any risk of the content being edited to suit the needs of the department or news source.
“Body cameras have been shown to keep both the police and the citizen on their best behavior,” Parry told EfficientGov. “Rational people do not want to look ridiculous on video footage.”
According to Corporal Todd Turpack from the Clearwater Police Department, police body cameras will play a key role in decreasing lawsuits against law enforcement agencies in the future – so long as officer training keeps up with standards.
“The implementation of body worn cameras most likely will help the citizen and the police minding their P’s and Q’s,” Parry explained. “Like all new technology, training will play a huge part in the successful implementation of this technology.”
But Parry believes other cameras will also prove valuable to modern police departments – including pole cameras, fixed cameras, cameras with license plate reading technology, facial recognition cameras – as a means to show what really occurred instead of people’s perception of what occurred.
There is one caveat to the influx of camera use – the tools may not always capture the entirety of the scene or all the circumstances and emotions involved in the incident. Therefore, camera footage should be used as one component, but not relied on completely.
“We must educate the public that [cameras] are just another piece of the puzzle,” Parry told EfficientGov. “In the street you typically have one camera with a grainy picture. Does this camera have the angle necessary to tell the whole story? Can we access the camera or is it privately owned? Does the camera infringe upon a person’s right to privacy?”
Furthermore, how does a police department properly store the data to satisfy public record laws? What best practices must be developed to ensure identities are protected in sensitive cases? The unanswered questions surrounding camera use in law enforcement will likely bring forth litigation in the short term before court decisions can help law enforcement develop reasonable standards and best practices for future use, according to Parry.
“Despite all the uncertainty surrounding the use of body cameras – such as privacy rights, the costs of implementation, storage concerns for data and public records requests – the proliferation of cameras will continue to dominate our landscape and impact the public’s view of law enforcement,” Parry told EfficientGov. “I could see a time in the near future where if you didn’t have a crime caught on a television-like camera, convictions will be hard to obtain. This will be a negative, unintended consequence of the public’s expectation of camera footage.”
Another obstacle to overcome with the use of body cameras is officer comfort and buy-in. Turpack explained officers need to have the knowledge that their departments support them to the fullest to feel secure wearing body cameras.
“In other words, if an officer uses a cuss word in a certain situation when no other verbiage was getting compliance and a civilian makes a complaint, the officer needs to know he/she will not get disciplined for such action,” Turpack told EfficientGov. “If this was accomplished, I feel officers will be less reluctant on not engaging subjects or doing their job for fear of unwarranted discipline from their supervisors if the civilian does not like the officer’s action.”
But body cameras are not the only technologies transforming the way law enforcement police over communities. Many agencies are using a variety of resources to document and record officers’ actions, as well as analyze community information to better target at-risk residents.
“Many agencies have moved toward electronic reporting of uses of force,” Previtera told EfficientGov. “New software allows more detailed reporting of those situations and provides data not only critical in litigation, but which when interpreted properly, can form the basis for beneficial changes to how we train and education officers.”
According to Parry, another valuable technology is a computer program that helps identify areas of a police department’s jurisdiction that generally have the highest rate of complaints on officers.
“Identifying these areas will help assist law enforcement managers to decide where to place limited, but expensive, resources like fixed cameras that could refute bogus complaints on law enforcement officers as well as change the behaviors of the officers that patrol these areas,” Parry explained.
Turpack is partial to license plate reading technology as a means to reduce crime by affording officers the opportunity to quickly scan license plates and conduct more traffic stops.
“Many times an officer will pull over someone who may be in violation of the law, say for example driving with a suspended license or operating a stolen car,” Turpack told EfficientGov. “I would like to see license plate readers strategically placed in the entrance or exit to a community that is being plagued with burglaries to capture the license plates of vehicles entering the area in hopes of linking a vehicle to a suspect.”
Other computer programs offer early warning systems that identify when officers are at-risk or displaying aggressive policing technologies that could lead to litigation, Parry said.
“These programs might alert management that an officer may be in need of more one-on-one supervision, a transfer to a lower crime area, a change to a different shift or identify potential issues that the officer may be experiencing that could make him/her a risk for potential litigation,” Parry told EfficientGov.
Previtera discussed other technologies that assist in field and tactical operations by improving the safety of police officers and members of the community. These tools can range from software for crime reporting and tracking to GPS technologies that aid in deployment and dispatch of units on the streets.
The St. Petersburg Police Department uses the STARCHASE system to tag vehicles with GPS transmitter that avoids dangerous pursuits that can be harmful to officers and the public. Like any police department, St. Petersburg struggled with a few challenges when first adopting the technologies including cost.
“But agencies also have to be aware of the support and infrastructure that many technologies require in order to be utilized effectively,” Previtera explained. “For instance, a software program to record and map crime patterns is only as good as the data entered into it – the saying goes, ‘garbage in – garbage out.’
Many analytics resources require a dedicated analyst to properly manage reports and ensure the integrity of the end product. Previtera argues these specialized tools and personnel may be necessary for a technology’s potential to be fully realized.