Monday, January 4, 2016

Police Should Be Able to Accept Constructive Criticism

Did last month's mistrial of an officer charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who died of a severed spine while in police custody, reveal a paradox that limits the potential of achieving serious police reform through the legal process?

An article published last week in The Atlantic, titled "Why Police Need Constructive Criticism," points out that the prosecution's focus was on the department's own policies, while the defense stressed that the dangers faced by police on a daily basis cause officers to regularly (and they argued, reasonably) throw out the rulebook as a matter of survival. The article's authors (a professor of law, a professor of criminology, and a police consultant) suggest that the disparity between these two arguments highlights the "necessity for departments and officers to self-critique their practices," but that such critiques tend to be met with indifference or outright hostility:

In many departments, officers have developed a pathological aversion to “second-guessing.” There is a pervasive belief that scrutinizing officer’s use-of-force decisions will lead officers to hesitate, exposing them to dangers that swift action might have averted. The result is a reluctance to engage in an in-depth, critical review of incidents in which an officer injures or kills a civilian and resentment when an outsider calls for such a review. That’s a problem. When an incident ends badly, it should be critically dissected to identify what contributed to that result, as is done when an officer is seriously injured or killed. The primary purpose is not to blame an officer, although poor judgment and failures to follow policy and training must be addressed, but to learn how best to avoid a similar situation in the future.

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