By Ronald C. Ruecker
|Ronald C. Ruecker, Director of Public Safety, City of Sherwood, Oregon|
ur challenges as leaders in the law enforcement community are a reflection of our responsibilities. We must work together to ensure we can adapt, and in fact lead, in a constantly changing environment.
The tactics, techniques, technology, and even our people change with each passing generation. This is also true of the motivations that lead one to join the law enforcement profession. What motivated us when we were starting in this profession no longer motivates our newest recruits. We see evidence of this across the board, and it is particularly visible in the area of recruitment and the hiring of new officers. However, despite different motivations, we do share a common desire: to protect the innocent and apprehend the guilty. We are the guardians, as well as the servants, of the public—and it is a challenge that we all embrace.
With that said, certain topics related to law enforcement pique the interest, and sometimes the criticism, of the communities we serve. Any major newspaper is likely to have a prominent story on the latest officer-involved shooting or other use-of-force incident. And although gun violence has been increasing in most jurisdictions, the public rightfully expects law enforcement officers to make a good decision each and every time we use deadly force. They should expect it, because we expect it, too.
The law sets up a set of parameters around the use of force; these are the standards to which we train in the academy. We must also note, however, that we train to a standard of justification, as opposed to a standard of necessity. We must train this way because no statute could be written to encompass the widely varying circumstances under which the use of deadly physical force is necessary. For this reason, the government establishes standards of justification and then leaves the decision making to officers. In most cases, they do not have much time to deliberate about it, as we all know.
Over a career in this profession, we see time and again the controversy that arises over police use of force. These tragedies are described as “good shootings” when an officer’s use of force was found to be within the legal standard of justification. But you have rarely, if ever, heard of a shooting deemed to be unjustifiable. This is because we have done a good job training our officers to the standard of justification.
Our communities cry out, however, when a statutorily justified use of force is juxtaposed against the community’s expectation of necessity. Pick an example from your area—you all have them. Someone gets shot by the police in a case where even we law enforcement leaders privately wonder if it had to be. Could we have defused the situation otherwise?
From a practical standpoint, neither we nor the prosecutor can make such comments in the emotionally charged aftermath of such an event. And the officer involved will carry the emotional burden forever. As a result of these pressures, we are often restrained from discussing the issues surrounding use of force at the time of an incident.
However, it is important to realize that we are not constrained in this way forever. It is our responsibility to examine ourselves, our training programs, our communications training, and the other factors that commonly contribute to an officer-involved shooting.
This is why, over the coming year, one of the priorities of this association will be to hold use-of-force summit. There is a wealth of experience and data in the field from which we can learn. This is not a topic just for police leaders; we need the full and active participation of prosecutors, victim groups, survivors, and others in some frank discussions about this critical area of policing.
There are other areas that need careful and thoughtful examination. Over the last two decades, we have seen a dramatic change in the type of housing and care for the mentally ill in our communities. People who used to be institutionalized are now living in mainstream society. All too frequently, their encounters with police have resulted in tragedy. We can improve on the degree to which we prepare our officers to deal with the mentally ill. Like use-of-force issues, this is not an issue solely for police; we need whole communities to work together on it. Again, we will work with the mental health community and our criminal justice partners to help develop recommendations for more effective training, policies, available resources, and responses to our encounters with the mentally ill.
Of course, we are all aware of the tragic loss of life resulting from traffic crashes throughout the world. In the United States alone, more than 41,000 people are killed each year on our roadways. Our collective efforts to improve highway safety through enforcement and cooperation with our partners can, and does, translate into saving lives.
In addition, we have become all too familiar with cybercrime and identity crime, which know no borders. We need to share information in ways we never thought of a decade ago. Partnerships such as the one between Bank of America and the IACP can multiply the effects of our individual efforts.
If you are new to the IACP, we welcome you. If not, you already know that this association and its divisions, sections, and committees are working on the cutting edge in just about every subject area pertinent to the law enforcement community. We have a solid track record of challenging ourselves to take a leadership position on even the most controversial topics. We in the association leadership are here to represent you and to serve as your voice. We do so proudly, yet humbly. Together, we will do our very best to represent you and your concerns as members of the IACP.■