The Citizen’s Police Academy, Part 1

Last week, I attended the first class of the Citizen’s Police Academy. It is a 10-week course put on by the Harris County Precinct 5 Constable. For the duration of the course, I will occasionally share my thoughts and experiences as I progress through the course.

The first class was largely introductory. We were introduced to the equipment used by police officers, such as tasers, their service belt, and their shop–what most people would call a police car. We were given a crash course in some police lingo, as well as an overview of the similarities and differences between constables, police, and sheriff.

The course is a part of the constable’s public relations department. In recent years, law enforcement officers have been increasing criticized for brutality, racism, and other violations of individual rights. The officer leading the course acknowledged that some of these criticisms have a degree of validity. But he stressed the fact that the media often reports only a small part of the facts, and both liberals and conservatives often inflame an issue by reporting the facts that support their particular political agenda. He is correct.

More fundamentally, the officer stressed that context matters. He didn’t state it that way, but that is what he meant. Law enforcement must make decisions quickly, and often they are life and death decisions. A short video clip seldom captures the entire context, yet such clips can easily make it appear that officers acted in haste.

It is said that hindsight is 20-20. When we can step back from the emotions of a particular situation and analyze all of the facts, we can make the most rational decision. But police officers are seldom offered that luxury. They are called because someone is threatening others or a crime has been committed. When they arrive on the scene, they don’t know who is friend and who is foe. They must make that determination very quickly, often with contradictory testimony. And sometimes the situation quickly becomes a threat to their lives.

As an example, we were shown a video of two officers approaching a house. The video was filmed by a bodycam on one of the officers. After they knocked on the door, the mother and her son soon emerged. As the mother walked by the officers, she said that her son was paranoid-schizophrenic and was off his medications. He walked out of the house holding a screwdriver, which the officers ordered him to drop. He was within a few feet of the officers, and as he stepped closer to them, they responded by firing shots that killed him.

It would be easy to criticize the officers after the fact. But if someone was approaching you with a screwdriver, how would you react? Again, context matters.

If that person was a contractor doing repairs on your home, you might expect him to be holding a screwdriver and would probably not consider him a threat. But if that person had broken into your home, you would have a different perspective.

It is not rational to judge the decisions people have made days, weeks, or years after all of the facts are known. We should only judge their decisions based on the facts that they could or should have known at the time that they made the decision.

Justice is the virtue of judging others by rational principles and treating them accordingly. No citizen wants to be unfairly accused of a crime or to be a victim of irrational biases. And that includes law enforcement officers. Before we rush to judgment about the actions of the police, we should first get all of the facts. Justice demands it.

2 comments to The Citizen’s Police Academy, Part 1

  • Steve D

    However in the case you describe, it was a screwdriver not a knife or other weapon, you made no mention that the son was acting in a threatening manner, the officers outnumbered and outgunned the son, and they knew he was sick. Because of his schizophrenia he was probably confused by the order to drop the screwdriver. A person carrying a screwdriver around his property is not unusual.

    Could they have retreated to give the man more time to follow their orders? Or one of them shot to take him down rather than kill him while the other officer backed the first officer up in case that didn’t work? It seems to me that there were other options for two trained police officers. (that’s another issue, the officers should be well trained which is part of the context…)

    This is maybe not the greatest example the police could have used to make their point.

    • Brian Phillips

      As I point out in the post, it is easy to analyze after the fact. Context matters, and the officers had to act within the context of knowledge that they had at that moment. At the time, officers received little (if any) training in dealing with individuals with mental problems. That has since changed.