By now, most of you know that I worked for 20 years as a police officer in Santa Monica, California. I didn't begin my career in law enforcement until after my 33rd birthday. My first 11 years following college graduation was spent in the newspaper field.
As a result, I was an anomaly as police officers usually entered the field as a high school graduate or following serving our country in the military. Even back in 1980, when I started, rookie police officers had not experienced much of life.
In the September 2020 edition of The DOINGS on 74th Street, I wrote a story regarding social injustice, Black lives matter, defund the police and my perspective. I am not going to repeat that story nor am I retracting it, everything in that story is as true today as it was when I wrote it. However, I am going to add a new perspective, which I hadn't thought about until a friend sent me a story, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on May 29, 2021. The story is entitled, “Defund the Police? No, Fund Them Better” and the author is Peggy Noonan.
Ms. Noonan pointed out that Washington is in the midst of trying to overhaul police practices at the same time that violent crime is rising after decades of decline.
She says, “Police departments are in crisis, battered by charges of abuse, targeted for cuts, many struggling under recent bail-reform laws. Officers are demoralized as more than 5,300 New York Police Department uniformed officers retired or put in their papers to leave in 2020.”
She continues by pointing out that the State of California mandates 664 hours of training for new police officers while the Los Angeles Police Department boasts that it provides six months of training to recruits. Most cities across the nation do not come close to meeting the California standards. But yet, she adds, “The San Jose Mercury News quoted a criminal-justice reform advocate noting the state requires more training for cosmetologists than for police.”
There‟s another facet involved with the training of law enforcement recruits. When I attended the Police Academy in 1980, we ate lunch while standing at attention. Drill instructors would walk through the ranks, wait for you to take a bite of food, then rush up in your face and ask you a question. If you tried to answer, they would claim you spit food on them. And, if you didn't try to answer until you finished chewing, they found fault with your silence. In either instance, you were assigned a paper to write that night, due the following morning, about how you could have better handled the situation.
The drill instructors would constantly belittle and demean you. That‟s the way we were trained in order to be able to better control our behavior when dealing with irate citizens on the streets. But, in the 1990s, reformists demanded a softer, more humane approach to the training of law enforcement personnel. When I was in the academy, you didn‟t dare admit you were afraid of something. That was a sign of weakness.
Now, if you are afraid to climb a 20 foot rope as you are fearful of heights, the drill instructor would not belittle you, he would offer encouragement in the role of a mentor. As a result, recruits are not equipped to deal with a hostile public. They expect to be nurtured by the citizenry, not harassed.
In my police academy class, we started with 100 cadets. Only 64 finished. Of the 36 who didn't, the grand majority of them left of their own volition. They just couldn't take it anymore. I can only imagine the graduation rate today is above 90 percent. Today, you just don't have to want it bad enough.
She notes that many people still have stereotypes of a "cop‟ as a big Irish Catholic man or Tom Selleck in "Blue Bloods.‟ But, she says, “This is 2021 and today‟s recruits were born in 2000 or in the 1990s. They came from our modern society, which means chances are good they came from a considerable amount of brokenness. Many were not raised closely, tidily, didn't have generations of a family‟s values guiding them.”
She further identifies them as coming from a culture that put its emphasis on screens and how things look, as opposed to thoughts and how things are.
Believe it or not, but I had never fired a handgun or a shotgun until I was in the Police Academy. Today, probably anyone with an interest in a law enforcement career has not only fired a gun, but has spent countless hours playing video games involving gun violence. When I grew up, there were no video games period, much less ones involving gun violence. Is it any wonder why officers today have a much higher rate of officer involved shootings than past generations?
“And these are the young men and women we send out on the streets to be diplomats, to resolve domestic disputes peacefully,” Ms. Noonan says. “We ask them to have the law at their fingertips and to treat everyone, including drunk, 23-year-olds spoiling for a fight, with respect. At the same time we want them steely-eyed and sure if someone pulls a gun. We ask them to act proportionately. We ask them to control stray dogs while society‟s problems escalate, including a mental health crisis and a drug crisis.”
Ms. Noonan points out just how difficult it is to expect some 22-year-old recruit to handle the multitude of situations he/she encounters and reach a satisfactory conclusion. I agree as every radio call a police officer responds to is not "just like the last call.‟ The variety is so very complex. You go from a family dispute to a burglary; to a death notification; to a person acting peculiar; etc. Each of these calls for service requires different skills.
Another issue is that a police officer makes a decision on the spur of the moment. If it involved conducting a search and seizing evidence of a crime, the lawyers, both the prosecutor and the defense, can argue the search and seizure was either lawful or unlawful. The prosecutor can point to case law, which makes the search and seizure legal. In contrast, the defense attorney can cite just as many other cases that make both the search as well as the seizure illegal. And, the judge hearing the case reviews a multitude of case laws before determining if the search and seizure were lawful. The police officer is asked to do it on the fly. And, remarkably enough, the majority of the time the officer makes the correct decision. Those are the ones you never hear about. You only hear and read about the cases the police bungled.
Ms. Noonan‟s conclusion as well as my own conclusion is we do not need to defund the police or redirect resources. We need to give the police more money so they can add more training. Medical school and law school students receive years of training and they don‟t carry guns and deal with the multitude of difference situations. Is six months of training for men and women born in the 1990s or immediately following the turn of the century sufficient? I don‟t think so, not in the environment they were raised.
Ms. Noonan chose to close her piece with the words of William Bratton, former police commissioner of New York, Los Angeles and Boston. In an interview he was asked what cops are, what their role is and why we should care. His response, “They are an essential element of a successful democracy.”
It is up to us to give them what financial support as well as proper training they need in order to fulfill the expectations of being the “essential element of a successful democracy.”
Editor's note: Bill Brown, a resident of Scottsdale’s Vi at Silverstone, is a retired Santa Monica police officer. He wrote this for a newsletter he publishes for Vi residents.