How has America got policing so wrong? 25 US police chiefs toured Scotland. What they saw left them visibly changed
This article promises more than it delivers. The lesson learnt from Scotland seems to be more emphasis on de-escalation techniques. But such techniques are already a big part of police training. Still, seeing examples of de-escalation working was probably beneficial.
What the article glides over is that America is an armed society whereas Scotland is largely a disarmed society. So the risk of an officer being shot is very different -- leading to much more caution in the USA. An American cop can often not afford to give a villain a break
It is a late Saturday afternoon in Washington, DC, and Chuck Wexler, one of America’s leading police reform strategists, is at his office desk, a cotton scarf bunched around his neck ready for quick deployment as a face mask, a sign of these strange times.
The streets of America’s major cities have been awash with Black Lives Matter protesters for a fortnight. Incredibly, news has just broken that another unarmed black man has been shot in Atlanta and the city’s police chief will soon be forced to resign.
A former right-hand man to Boston’s police commissioner, Wexler has led the country’s foremost crime strategy think tank, the Police Executive Research Forum, for 26 years. He is one of the architects of the city’s Community Disorders Unit, known nationally for successfully prosecuting and preventing racially motivated crime, and is the man America’s top police chiefs call for advice when facing complex or volatile situations in their jurisdictions.
Wexler says that his experience working with police in England, Scotland and Ireland, where police are not routinely armed, was instrumental in his thinking — and continues to help him push for change in the attitudes of the US police hierarchy.
“It was something of an epiphany for me, around the time that the Ferguson (police shooting in St Louis) incident happened in 2014 … I was at a police recruit graduation ceremony in Scotland and I asked a young constable how he’d handle someone with a knife and not having a gun. There was a knife epidemic in Scotland at the time. He said, ‘No problem … I have my baton, my spray … first, I would step back.’ I thought how is it that when police handle it one way, someone dies, and in another place where they handle it differently they live.
“We knew from our studies that 40 per cent of the fatal officer-involved shootings in the US involved persons with knives, rocks, bricks — not guns. I went back to DC excited, full of ideas of how we could train our officers differently, emulate the UK models and see if we could reduce the 400 or so deaths that The Washington Post had identified could be prevented each year. Perhaps I was being naive, but nobody paid any attention. Then I had another idea: I thought I’ll show them first-hand.”
Wexler ended up inviting 25 of the top police chiefs in the US to come to Scotland with him to try to show them how officers in other countries were doing things differently. He insisted they pay their own way and made clear “there were no hotels or fancy food and they’d sleep in police barracks”. He says he watched attitudes visibly change during the trip, learning also that exposing the leadership group to each other led them see that they were already doing significant work individually in their jurisdictions but simply didn’t know it.
For example, he says, SWAT teams from Houston, Texas, already were working on “slow down” protocols, using time and distance to de-escalate. In New York, $21m had been deployed to retrain officers: “If I told them about Scotland, they were dismissive, but when we could show them other big US forces were responding and changing, they thought: ‘Well, we can learn from them.’ ”
Also accompanying Wexler to Scotland was American philanthropist Howard Buffett, son of respected investor Warren Buffett. Howard Buffett immediately took an interest in police de-escalation practices and, with the support of his foundation, PERF turned its guiding principles into a police training program called ICAT: Integrating Communications, Assessment and Tactics.
“Chuck Wexler pushes the limits so others can see the benefits of change,” Buffett told Inquirer.
Wexler has since led several major projects including a new strategy to encourage police to deal with the opiate epidemic in the US as a health rather than law enforcement issue.
PERF has campaigned to encourage all US police forces to adopt body cameras and has written new guidelines for police handling of sexual assault allegations along with a slew of recommendations and strategies aimed at fostering police-community trust. Last year, PERF developed a new protocol to help train officers to identify and defuse the toxic epidemic of “suicide by cop” situations in which people, often mentally ill and affected by drugs or alcohol, create violent stand-offs that lead to their death at the hands of the law.
Recent calls to ‘‘de-fund’’ the police, he says, are a reaction to the anger many citizens feel about the use of excessive force. PERF supports and has long advocated efforts aimed at reorganising resources, perhaps creating different networks of first-responder teams to triage emergencies. In some cases, this has meant turning to mental health and drug and alcohol crisis teams first rather than police. But, Wexler says, police reform needs investment to accomplish real change.
In Camden, New Jersey, where 40 per cent of residents fall below the poverty line, officials with the help of PERF and its leadership disbanded its police department and replaced it with one under county control, guided by progressive policing techniques and leadership. This has resulted in a reduction in violent crime, and police were photographed marching alongside protesters in the wake of Floyd’s death.
Wexler says one of his team’s most difficult jobs is the constant review of body cam and citizen phone footage of violent incidents involving police. But the team uses the videos as teaching lessons in its ICAT program.
“The most awful part is to see someone’s home, to see their child there on the second floor, who has not taken their medication and is standing there with a knife and the officer is trained to issue orders and then, if necessary, use deadly force,” he says.
“Once again, I’m reminded of while I was in Scotland, when a constable asked me why a US officer had said that the most important duty he had was to ‘get his officers home safe at night’. She said to me: ‘Why do they say that? We would never say that. For us it is about getting everyone home safe at night. It’s a human right.’ ”
Floyd’s death, says Wexler, is a watershed moment and he wants to ensure that the momentum for change in US policing is not lost in the wake of the chaos and suffering created by the COVID-19 crisis.