El Cajon shooting: US takes new look at police culture

Shootings in El Cajon, Calif., Tulsa, Okla., and Charlotte, N.C., capture the struggle of trying to change a deeply ingrained culture of policing to one that merges public interest and police concerns, law enforcement experts say. 

Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP
A man points at police as he and others protest the shooting of a black man in El Cajon, east of San Diego, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 27.

Recent cases of officer-involved shootings of black men capture the struggle in trying to change a deeply ingrained culture of policing in the United States, police executives and law enforcement analysts say.

Three days after a police officer fatally shot Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla., earlier this month, the local police department publicly released footage of the shooting and invited the Department of Justice to investigate the incident. Within a week, officer Betty Shelby was charged with first-degree manslaughter.

In Charlotte, N.C., a similar shooting took place on Sept. 20. The local police chief held off on releasing dashcam footage of the incident, saying that “transparency is in the eye of the beholder.” He relented four days later. By then riots had erupted across the city, forcing the governor to declare a state of emergency and call in the National Guard.

Each case provides some insight into the nation’s progress toward two things, analysts say: bridging the gap between police and their communities, and developing a culture of policing that merges the public’s and police interests.

Those needs were underscored further on Tuesday, when police in El Cajon, Calif., fatally shot a black man in an incident that has parallels with the scenario in Tulsa. One officer fired his gun at the man after he failed to comply with instructions while a second released his stun gun, according to the local police chief.

On the one hand, Tulsa shows that efforts to change the way police departments respond to officer-involved shootings are paying off, law enforcement veterans say.

But, they note, the events in Charlotte – and the fact that such shootings continue to take place – suggest that major challenges remain in transforming a culture that has long rewarded officers for employing force against crime and criminals, and closed ranks in times of trouble.

“We still have to build those bridges, establish those relationships, and develop and create policy that is supportive of public safety but also [considers] the needs of police,” says Cedric Alexander, director of public safety for Dekalb County in Georgia and a member of President Obama’s task force on 21st-century policing. “That’s where we are today and it’s going to be an uphill battle.”

'Two different worlds'

Modern policing in the US developed in the mid-19th century largely as a response to “disorder” – a concept rooted deeply in elitism and classism, writes Gary Potter, associate dean for the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. Commercial elites, he notes, supported the creation of an “organized, centralized body of men ... legally authorized to use force to maintain order” in factories and among the workforce.

By the 1950s, calls to reform the early model of law enforcement had led to the notion of police professionalism: the idea that police departments should focus on crime suppression and do so objectively and without the influence of political forces. Police were considered the “thin blue line” between order and anarchy.

As such, they developed tactics, such as random patrols and stop-and-frisk procedures, that have been widely criticized as racist and repressive. Such practices also became central to public understanding of policing today, some say.

“Historically, police and community have kind of been seen as living in two different worlds,” says Dr. Alexander.

Today, the divide manifests itself in part through a gap in understanding between public and police, especially when it comes to use of force.

Graham v. Connor, a 1989 Supreme Court decision, remains the basis for use-of-force standards today, says Jim Bueermann, former chief of the Redlands, Calif., police department and president of the Washington-based Police Foundation. The discretion that court ruling offers police is not widely understood by the public, he adds. 

“People just do not understand the implications of Graham v. Connor and how that then plugged into policing culture, policy, and training systems,” he says.

That disconnect emerged again this week in El Cajon, a city east of San Diego. On Tuesday, police confronted a black man after reports that he was acting erratically. Police fired when the man suddenly pulled something from his pocket and took “what appeared to be a shooting stance,” according to police chief Jeff Davis. The object was not a gun, but the chief declined to say what it was. 

“Now is the time for calm,” he told reporters. “Now is the time for the investigation to shed light on this event. ... Now is the time for the community to work with us.”

On Tuesday evening, dozens of people gathered near the site of the shooting protesting police brutality. El Cajon police have not yet released footage of the shooting.

Evolution of policing

In response to the backlash to police professionalism, community policing began to emerge in the 1970s and '80s. Community policing prioritized public input and involvement, and focused on tailoring solutions to local needs. Some agencies embraced the idea, instituting reforms that centered on relationship building. The popularization of the Broken Windows theory of policing spearheaded by then New York Police chief William Bratton in the 1990s hinged on the importance of disorder – such as broken windows and vandalism – in creating an atmosphere that generates and sustains more serious crime. 

That tension has increasingly come to a head in the years since the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. Now, police leaders and others say, the time has come to decide which direction police culture and practice should take – and to learn from the mistakes and successes of past models.

“All of these things are part of the evolution not only of policing but also of our society,” says Mr. Bueermann.

Change, however, does not come easy, some say. For one thing, society today has come to demand more from police officers than just maintaining order or preventing crime.

“We expect our cops to identify someone who is having a mental crisis and direct them to the right services,” Perry Tarrant, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE). “We expect them to determine who has an underlying substance abuse problem.”

“We’re trying to transition law enforcement into something that has a proclivity to examine unintended consequences and the long-term effects of not only police contact but arrests,” he says.

Seattle police, for example, established the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which trains officers to redirect low-level offenders away from the criminal justice system. Instead, individuals caught for petty drug offenses and prostitution, among others, are referred to case-management programs and community-based services. LEAD has launched in cities in New Mexico, New York, West Virginia, and Ohio, and is under way in 16 other cities and counties.

But ingraining that sort of mind-set into every police chief, sheriff, and officer in the nation’s 18,000 police agencies would require time, commitment, and a great deal of money.

“It’s not inexpensive to do this,” says Bueermann. And until recently, he adds, “there’s not been political will.”

'We're at a crossroads'

Nor does everyone agree on what direction change should take. For instance, some, including Bueermann, praised the Los Angeles Police Department when Chief Charlie Beck last year instituted an award for officers who exercise restraint in situations where deadly force could have been used – but wasn’t.

“Changing the reward systems or expanding it so that not shooting somebody is as valued as using force to resolve a situation – I think Chief Beck is to be applauded for doing that,” Bueerman says.

But some have criticized the award, saying police training already focuses on de-escalating deadly force encounters. Encouraging officers to overthink a situation could endanger their lives further, writes Glenn French, a retired sergeant with the police department in Sterling Heights, Mich., for the law enforcement website PoliceOne.com.

The union that represents rank-and-file officers called the award “a terrible idea.”

And many agencies that have made steps towards what some would call progress have also needed an outside nudge to introduce reforms. The Seattle, Tulsa, and Los Angeles police departments have all faced reviews from the Justice Department in the past few years.

That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, says Mr. Tarrant, who also serves as assistant chief for the Seattle Police Department. “It absolutely forces an objective, outside look into an organization. And then on top of that, it forces change in an environment where change has been stagnant,” he says.

Still, he and others say, it speaks to the enormity of the challenge ahead.

“We’re talking about a complete paradigm shift,” he says. “We’re at a crossroads.”

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