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How Police Training Has Evolved


In recent years, as cellphone and other cameras have become ubiquitous, Americans from all backgrounds have become aware of complaints of excessive force by police, particularly against people of color. And some departments have paid out millions of dollars in settlements to people because of such complaints. Even law enforcement officials have criticized former Officer Derek Chauvin's actions in the death of George Floyd as unacceptable, and he now faces third-degree murder and manslaughter charges.

But why do such incidents keep happening? We've asked two people who are deeply involved in these issues. One is former St. Louis, Mo., Police Chief Daniel Isom. He was a member of the Ferguson Commission formed in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in 2014. And also with us is Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which focuses on critical issues in policing. Wexler says, for him, the Floyd case is reminiscent of what happened in Los Angeles in 1991.

CHUCK WEXLER: You know, this actually goes back to the Rodney King incident. And, you know, there a similar kind of video, lasted quite a while, where they - Rodney King was being beaten by Los Angeles police officers. And one of the takeaways from that incident was the sergeant at the scene took no action to intervene. There may be occasions where one officer, for whatever reasons, gets out of control. But there's a responsibility and a duty to intervene for another officer to immediately tap him on the shoulder, pull them back, whatever you have to do. So, you know, that's taught in many academies. There's 18,000 police departments. It's always hard to get consistency. But that is a responsibility, and that wasn't - that didn't happen. And that's just another failure.

MARTIN: And, Chief Isom, I'm going to ask you this. Why do you think these incidents keep happening?

DANIEL ISOM: One of the things I might mention is that there has been reports of this officer having many abuse complaints in the past. And there is also a structural problem within our law enforcement agencies. And this is particularly relevant to me, being a chief of police of a large agency, is that chiefs don't really have the mechanisms to hold officers accountable for repeat violations of abuse. And so it's very difficult to become an officer, but it's also very difficult to get rid of officers who are exhibiting behaviors that we don't want officers to have. And so I think, really, there is a structural problem within the oversight mechanisms and the mechanisms for holding officers accountable that really need to be looked at.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Chief Isom, is there any other thought you have about what would make a difference? I mean, I just don't think there is any way to argue that - how traumatic this is, not just for the individuals who are harmed by it but everyone who sees it and the country on the whole. And is there anything that you think would make a difference?

ISOM: Structurally, we need more independent oversight in many different ways of criminal justice activity. Maybe there should be an ombudsman who is independent of the police department and criminal justice system, where people can go to provide their complaint, and there can be independent investigations of things like use of force. I do think that, in terms of police chiefs and executives, they should have more authority and power in dictating whether a person keeps their job or loses their job. And I know that there are a lot of complexities to that, and there are union rights.

And we certainly want people to have their rights. But at the end of the day, the leaders of organizations need to make a determination of whether or not a person is fit to be a police officer. And I think that should be in the hands of leadership. And so I do think there are a number of structural problems that we could address that would minimize these incidents. And then when they do happen, like in this case, we need to take decisive action, both from a administrative standpoint of dismissing the officers and of filing the appropriate charges on the criminal level.

MARTIN: Chuck Wexler, is there anything else you wanted to add?

WEXLER: No, I think that sums it up. You know, you need leadership during these times. And you also need, you know, the oversight to make these things happen. But I think, you know, speaking out - I mean, I think you've got - you need police officers standing up here too. And I think I hope that will happen. You've got leadership at the highest levels, police chief saying it. But you know what? If I'm a working police officer, this just made my job that much harder across the country. And that's what's so bad about this incident. As many people will - the takeaway will be, geez, nothing's changed. Why can't they get that right?

And the reality is this was bad. And this person - this individual and the other officers are being held accountable. But policing has made significant changes. And we just hope that, you know, the actions and holding people accountable will send a message that this can't be tolerated. But it doesn't reflect, you know, that good working cop who, when you're in a crisis and you need, does the right thing.

MARTIN: That was Chuck Wexler. He is the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, and former St. Louis, Mo., Police Chief Daniel Isom, now executive director of the Regional Justice Information Service in St. Louis. Thank you both so much for joining us.

ISOM: Thank you.

WEXLER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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