The question of excessive police force is being asked all across the country in the wake of the deadly encounter between Ferguson police and the unarmed teenager, Michael Brown.
We’re discussing this issue but not implying excessive force allegations. As the investigation is in progress, we don't know the exact details of what happened last Saturday.
Our guest on “This Week” is Joel Shults, who earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, and a graduate degree Public Services Administration and a bachelors in Criminal Justice from University of Central Missouri. He is also a retired police chief.
ABC 17’s Joey Parker asked Dr. Shults how police avoid excessive force, while balancing authority and public safety.
Here is his answer and conversation:
Dr. Shults: It's not an easy answer, but over the past few years or so there has been a very important dynamics search, neurobiological research that helps us understand performance capacities for police officers as they deal with folks and may provide a key to earlier intervention and more effective intervention that might reduce the instances of use of force.
Joey: and for people talking about this on the news and even us, you coming on as a guest, it's easy for us to discuss it. You have been a police officer, a police chief. You know it's a bit different in a real life application that goes through a police officer’s mind out there. How do they stop at a moment of what most of us would call “terror” out on the streets and stop back and think about reducing force and especially excessive force?
Dr. Shults: The key to that, I think, is an earlier awareness of the signs of dangerous aggression. Not every sign of tension or sign of agitation is something that is necessarily a precursor to violence against the officer, but an officer who may not be aware of those micro-signals might interpret that more broadly as a dangerous situation for him or her when it may be a situation that is open to what I call "neural breaking.” Neurologists and psychologists don't like that term but it's a useful term to me, more so than de-escalation. So early recognition and early intervention to prevent both the citizen who's being contacted and the police officer from their tensions rising to a level where the survival thing kind of kicks in.
Joey: Doctor, Hank Johnson, a Democratic congressman is planning to file legislation. It's called "Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act" and he's talking about getting rid of some of these things that people perceive as tanks and scenes that are in our streets these days that could look like maybe a scene out of Ukraine or Iraq. Do you agree that demilitarizing police is one way to do this?
Dr. Shults: If the question is are we taking away tools that are practical and have a tactical use and application, then I think that's a wrong-headed approach. I think there are ways that we can demilitarize the appearance of some of the tools that are necessary in today's police work. I don't think we want to take away fire trucks that are bigger than are needed in ninety percent of calls. We don't wanna take away their scary gas masks or their oxygen tanks and say "hey you outta do it like they did back in the 1950s. Wear your rain coat and pretty red hat into the fire.” It's protective gear, it's not offensive in terms of its purpose, so I think it's kind of misguided. Police officers that are going into a known high-risk situation where there are potential high caliber weapons being used, you ned that kind of cover. I'm from a rural area and we recently, in the past couple years, we were able to rescue a parole officer who was under fire in a rural area with an armored personnel type vehicle and bring that situation to a good resolution. That simply wouldn't have been possible if we had what people think what is an unnecessary piece of armament. It was a very practical vehicle and put to good use. Life-saving use.
Joey: Dr. Shults, you'll be in Mid-Missouri next week, and the week after, and you have a seminar. Is that available only to law enforcement or is that open to media? Is it open to the public?
Dr. Shults: I'm certainly available to talk with folks, but it will be a closed session for law enforcement only. We need to have, as far as that training, a very frank discussion about some of our attitudes and some of the language that we use in explaining ourselves to the media. We used to be able to say “well it’s just a rotten apple” when there was an abuse or corruption case and, that's still true but the public has been led not to believe that. So, we can't use that argument anymore. We used to be able to say “I put my life on the line every day and that outta count for something.” And that’s still true but the public is not buying that anymore either so that has to stop being part of our explanatory or defensive language. We need to be proactive in making sure people understand what we do and the tools we need to do it.
Joey: Dr. Joel Shults, thank you so much for joining us. I hope it's a packed house for you.
Dr. Shults: My pleasure, thank you so much.