scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Police seek ways to save lives, including their own

Police officers stood before a portrait of their slain colleague Darren Goforth in Houston on Saturday.Marie D. De Jesus/Houston Chronicle via AP

A year after Ferguson, the country is arguing over slogans — Black Lives Matter v. Cops’ Lives Matter v. All Lives Matter.

This angry debate over rhetoric misses the real, post-Ferguson issue for law enforcement: how police can better do their jobs to protect and serve, restore trust, and save more lives, including their own.

That’s not just my view. It’s the view of several hundred police professionals who have been meeting and talking since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Eric Garner’s death in New York, and many other incidents involving police use of lethal force.

“What we have learned from police chiefs across the country in the last year is that good practices in policing protect everyone’s lives — community members’ and officers’ lives alike. This is not an either/or question,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank that convened meetings in Chicago and Washington.


The findings and recommendations — put together in a just-released report — add up to a call for police to dramatically rethink training, attitude, and culture. Officers, for example, spend many hours learning how to shoot a gun, “but we spend much less time discussing the importance of de-escalation tactics and crisis intervention strategies,” the report notes. The informal tradition of having supervisors tell officers “your most important job is to get home safely to your family” should also be reconsidered, since some controversial police shootings “seem to reflect training that has officers think solely about their own safety.”

In the summary, Wexler notes that some conclusions may be difficult for law enforcement officials to accept. That’s especially true given today’s sense that police are under attack — an opinion shared by a majority of the public. Asked whether there is “a war on police today,” 58 percent of those surveyed by Rasmussen Reports answered “yes.”

No surprise there, given the spate of headlines about police officers murdered in Texas and Illinois. What has been labeled as the “cold-blooded assassination” of Deputy Darren Goforth, 47, in Harris County, Texas, is terrible to contemplate, as are other cases of officers gunned down in the line of duty.


But that should not stop the soul-searching that began in Ferguson and continues following the release of another video that shows two officers in Texas shooting and killing a man who appears to have his hands up. The man, Gilbert Flores, was killed after two deputies responded to a domestic disturbance call. A police spokesman said the deputies “tried to use nonlethal weapons,” but ultimately shot him.

Those are situations that cry out for “de-escalation” and a new thinking in policing that Wexler believes would reduce the number of deaths and injuries to cops and the civilians with whom they interact. De-escalation, he explains, means looking for opportunities to slow down a tense situation. If you are an officer responding to a call about a mentally ill person on the street — who is perhaps brandishing a knife — you don’t rush toward the person, because that might put you in a position of having to use deadly force. Instead, you keep your distance and start asking him questions, and try to make a connection. You ask for additional resources. You call for a crisis intervention specialist to come to the scene.

The new thinking in policing is that time is an ally, not a disadvantage, especially in situations that involve the mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, or homeless.


As Daytona Beach Police Chief Michael Chitwood states in the report, “What we did 20 years ago is not good enough. Society has changed, and our job has changed. People are calling us because of poverty, inequity, and all these other issues. And our young men and young women have to be able to deal with that. It’s our job as leaders . . . to come up with a way to accomplish that mission.”

It will take more than slogans to perform that very difficult task in today’s complicated world.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.


Dante Ramos: Judging police in the court of YouTube

Meredith Warren: Equip police for the threat of terrorism in our streets

Michael A. Cohen: US gun culture has police arming to keep up

Police violence and the shifting definition of ‘objective reasonableness’

The bias fighters