Today marks the twenty-third anniversary of the LA riots that followed the acquittal of officers charged with beating Rodney King. George Santayana famously noted, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Visiting the past, I wonder whether law enforcement leaders have changed more than tactics. Have we changed hearts and minds?
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Are police leaders changing hearts and minds?
Fueled by a drug and alcohol mix, Rodney King fled from LAPD officers during a long and dangerous chase. George Holliday captured the arrest at the end of the chase. His iconic video was seen by millions after the television station carefully edited out the verbal commands to submit and less-forceful tactics that King fought as he furiously tried to escape the officers.
After a state court jury acquitted the four officers of assaulting Rodney King, Los Angeles burst into violent riots. A federal court would later convict two of the officers of civil rights violations. But not before looters burned and stole over a billion dollars of property. The LAPD was reinforced by the Army National Guard, the 7th Infantry Division, and Marines from 1st Marine Division. Los Angeles during the riots truly resembled a war zone.
In just a few short months comes the fiftieth anniversary of the Watts riots. On August 11, 1965, a California Highway Patrol traffic stop for impaired driving involved a roadside confrontation that morphed into a conflagration. Watts burned for six days. As many as 35,000 rioters hit the streets. Over 3,000 were arrested. Thirty four people, including two law enforcement officers, were killed.
Riots erupted in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray. Gray was arrested on April 12 after running from police for no apparent reason (admittedly, Gray had an extensive criminal history). He suffered a spinal injury while in custody. Gray slipped into a coma and died in a Baltimore hospital on April 19. The riots began six days later.
Baltimore burning begs the question of whether truly "the more things change, the more they stay the same." The National Guard is on the streets today. A curfew has been imposed. This afternoon, for the first time ever, major league baseball teams are playing to an empty park at historic Camden Yards.
What has changed in the fifty years since the Watts riots? What have we learned? Have we made any progress in the struggle for racial and ethnic fairness and in the battle against poverty?
Those are the weighty questions of the day and I’m not sure that the answers are altogether satisfactory. Certainly law enforcement learned and progressed in training and tactics. We’ve seen a culture shift. But do we have the right mindset for policing today?
Do we have the right mindset for policing today?
Police are now far more accountable than at the time of the Watts riots. Details are sketchy and descriptions are laconic in the accounts of my great-grandfather’s arrests and the force that he used to make them. Even when I started in law enforcement over three decades ago, we often documented non-deadly force with sparse notation. Some reports read: "I used the force necessary to overcome the resistance offered." Unpack that for a while.
Since the Rodney King arrest we’ve seen a tectonic shift in expectations of police accountability. A quick burst of pepper spray, a single strike or blow, any TASER® discharge, even application of handcuffs, is routinely documented. Departments following best practices require command scrutiny of all force and investigation of any dubiously-warranted force, no matter how seemingly inconsequential.
Direct consequences of the Rodney King incident included the creation of the Christopher Commission "to conduct a full and fair examination of the structure and operation of the LAPD, including its recruitment and training practices, internal disciplinary system, and citizen complaint system." The LAPD underwent reforms that brought it to a new height of professionalism. Though not perfect, most agree that the LAPD’s relations with the various communities and constituencies it serves are vastly improved. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck noted that Rodney King’s "legacy should not be the struggles and troubles of his personal life but the immensely positive change his existence brought on this city and it’s police department."
Following Ferguson, public officials are calling for widespread use of body worn cameras to promote police accountability. Hillary Clinton promises that if she is elected President body worn cameras on police officers will "be the norm everywhere." The video recording of the arrest of Rodney King catapulted King to erstwhile civil rights hero. Even so, remember that two juries saw the same video and reached two different outcomes in the charges against the officers involved in King’s arrest.
Body worn cameras are well on their way to becoming a permanent fixture in policing. Right now, there are just as many—if not more—questions about body worn cameras than answers. They must become much more than just accountability tools and evidence capture devices.
Body worn camera recordings should be mentoring and training tools, watched by trainers and supervisors much like NFL and NBA game film is reviewed with players and coaches in the locker room.
It is easy to observe shifts in policy, smarter tactics, more robust accountability tools, new technologies, improved training methods and adoption of early-warning intervention and disciplinary systems. Far more difficult to discern is the mindset of police officers today. I believe that public safety professionals must be more openly engaged in the dialogue about how we think about policing and how we view those who we’re tasked to protect.
Captain Charles "Chip" Huth, a watch commander with the Kansas City (Mo.) Police Department recently spoke about the importance of mindset in policing in a TEDx talk. Chip is a friend and a truly exceptional police professional. He explains that mindset drives our actions, and our actions determine our results. Charles A. Hall described that process: "We sow our thoughts, and we reap our actions; we sow our actions, and we reap our habits; we sow our habits, and we reap our characters; we sow our characters, and we reap our destiny." Our destiny ought to be peacekeeping at its best.
Police leaders need humility in order to recognize that we need to adapt.
(Captain Chip Huth)
Captain Huth understands that police leaders urgently need humility in order to recognize that we need to adapt. His message to community leaders, citizens and police professionals is urgent. Invest ten minutes absorbing this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_29TS6jjsA&sns=em
Who is talking about mindset in your law enforcement circles? How can we move this discussion to a broader audience? What would you say to new recruits about the proper mindset for a police officer?