PANEL DISCUSSIONS

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Conversations on Law Enforcement

When Police Shoot: a dialogue on the use of force


On the evening of December 3, the National Law Enforcement Museum and the Memorial Foundation, Builders of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, jointly hosted a panel discussion titled When Police Shoot: A Dialogue on the Use of Force. The program was the first in a new series, Conversations on Law Enforcement, developed by the National Law Enforcement Museum and sponsored by Target® along with the popular Witness to History program. The series brings together law enforcement professionals, academics, and community members to discuss contemporary issues in law enforcement.

Craig Floyd, Chairman & CEO of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, welcomed the audience to the program at the Naval Heritage Center along with co-host, Harry Johnson, President of the Memorial Foundation. Floyd set the tone for the program calling for an “open-minded conversation that will lead to a stronger public safety partnership between law enforcement officers and the citizens they serve.”

In the sure hands of moderator Jeff Johnson, former BET television host, the program briskly moved through key aspects of the current national discussion on the use of force. The discussion touched on training, recruitment, bias and the perception of bias in policing, the use of body cameras, and the role of community. 

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Police training was the natural starting point for the conversation and former Cincinnati (OH) Chief of Police Tom Streicher noted that the focus of proper use of force training was to teach decision making, which must “be woven through the very fabric of all training.” Streicher emphasized that a police officer has “power and authority that no else in the United States has,” and while “that is a frightening thought…we all know we need in this nation to protect the rights and liberties of everyone.” For police officers to best protect the community they need to be trained in decision-making skills that are used from the moment of approach to that moment when something goes awry.

“[Police shootings] will continue to be a complicated situation“, according to Panelist Dr. Cedric Alexander, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, “until as a nation we start talking about race. Because at the backdrop of all of this, we are talking about race…we look at policing in this country and you put it in a historical context, what we are talking about tonight has been going on since the beginning of policing.”

Panelist Tom Watson, Chief Minister of Watson Memorial Training Ministry in New Orleans, LA, has worked with law enforcement trying to establish stronger ties in his community. On a personal level, he understood that “every day cops go out and wonder if they will survive getting home. As an African American male, I feel that way sometimes. Often I feel haunted.”

When Police Shoot: A Dialogue on the Use of Force

All three panelists agreed that strong ties between law enforcement and the community were an important part of the solution. Chief Streicher drew on his experience in Cincinnati following the police shooting of Timothy Thomas, “we found in the aftermath…that the relationships that we had in our community which we thought were very good and very powerful… we came to realize that they were superficial relationships. We didn’t have true relationships with the people in our community.”

Dr. Alexander stressed the dual nature of that responsibility—that communities need to reach out to their law enforcement agencies as well. Real solutions will require a change in the philosophy of policing and a restructuring of that relationship. On the most basic level, Alexander pointed out there is “a community called policing and then there is this community in which they serve. What you have here is a fraternity, an organization called policing were people take care of each other. They go out and confront dangerous things every day. It builds a relationship, a camaraderie like no other…but we also have a community over here. If they don’t feel connected to you…You know who I always thought my biggest backup would be when I got in trouble? Not when I got on the radio and called for help, but if a citizen saw me getting my butt kicked that they would come over and help.”

The final comments from the panelists focused on continuing dialogue and lots of hard work. Pastor Watson called for action-oriented solutions in individual communities and to concentrate on one issue—building trust.

“Don’t stop,” was Chief Streicher's comment, “We have started something here that is a dynamic conversation. Who would have ever thought that the Foundation that built the Martin Luther King Memorial and the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial would come together on an issue as dicey and challenging as race in America? Especially where race affects policing in communities? This is something that has long needed to be done.”

The cautious optimism of the crowd was echoed and strengthened in Dr. Alexander’s final remarks, “I am optimistic that we as a nation are going to find solutions too much of what we talked about tonight.”