© 2024 New England Public Media

FCC public inspection files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact hello@nepm.org or call 413-781-2801.
PBS, NPR and local perspective for western Mass.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Police trainer wants officers to slow down, not worry about 'loss of face'

 The rear of a police cruiser.
Terry Minton
Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/minbuck
The rear of a police cruiser.

Police intervention is on the minds of many Americans — from western Massachusetts, where an officer a year ago fatally shot a Pittsfield man in the midst of a mental health crisis, to Congress, where lawmakers are looking at alternatives to keeping the peace.

People are scrutinizing the variables that could determine the outcome of a brush with law enforcement, including Jim Jordan. He's a retired director of strategic planning for the Boston Police Department. He also teaches police strategy around the country.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: What do you see as the main challenge for police responding to, for example, a call to calm a mentally ill person in crisis?

Jim Jordan, police trainer: When you're managing a crisis with a mentally ill person, I think the first thing is, to go in from the get-go that that's the objective. It's managing a crisis, not responding to an incident, or enforcing the law.

Police may say, "Well, why are we asked to respond to crises for the mentally ill? We're not trained or certified or licensed or anything else." But the situation that we have is that that's who our most rapid responders are. So, going in, it's having that frame of mind.

And I think from that point, I think obviously police have to get to every situation to which they're called as fast as they can, by order of priority. But once on the scene, it's the pause, and just to assess the situation thoroughly, which increasingly police do with the situations involving mental illness.

It's certainly a very different approach than perhaps even a decade or more ago when there would have been more of an impetus to simply rush in and quell whatever the disturbance was in front of them.

In a piece in Commonwealth magazine, you say it would do a world of good if officers just slowed down. Why do you think police respond in this urgent, rapid way? Is there a history behind this response?

Yeah, the history, it certainly goes back to the origins of our modern police model, which evolved during the Progressive Era at the beginning of the 20th century. But it particularly accelerated when the nation adopted the 911 three-digit system in 1968. Once that system was put into place, it was widely successful, and people began to call the police about everything. And it influenced a continuation of a mindset that wanted to get to everything — particularly with the motor vehicle — as fast as possible, by order of priority.

Stemming from that period, the objective became to get in and get out. Your older listeners, people like me, will remember this being the highest expression ... Jack Webb in "Dragnet" saying, "Just the facts, ma'am." You know, we don't want to know about the context. We don't want to know what the problems that exist here. Just tell us the facts of the law enforcement situation and we will, as the professional, respond quickly.

So, when we get to the current period, we're looking at a number of situations in which arriving quickly, but then slowing down and assessing and realizing that once the police are there, the game is over. It may be over in five minutes or five hours, but the presence of the police changes everything.

And when we keep in sight the objective that at all times is to preserve life — the life of the officer, the life of any individuals who are involved peripherally in the event, and the life of the person who is causing the police response in the first place — it changes how one goes about responding. And it would probably make things more effective.

It would change the practice and it might change the perception of some of the public. The Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission was created three years ago. The charge of the group was to build public confidence in police.

Of course, the family of the man killed in Pittsfield a year ago say that there needs to be an end to qualified immunity, and a requirement for independent investigations when police use deadly force. Do you see the POST Commission making changes and instilling confidence by making those changes, and additionally, considering your suggestion of taking time?

Yeah, I don't think we do enough. It has to begin in, as you cite, the statewide POST, which is fundamentally responsible for the standards set for training, to develop a mindset as you form officers through the academy experience. It's not about asserting yourself. Taking command doesn't require being commanding. Taking command is exerting the authority of your badge.

And so, we have to begin to say that it's actually not a loss of face, to, for instance, when you've been the person getting yelled at, sworn at, spit on, threatened for half an hour, you know, it should be perfectly reasonable for you to stand down when the next wave of officers arrives and remove yourself from the situation. Despite all your training and your best efforts, you just sort of "had it."

Having "had it" is not a good situation to address the complexity of someone who's mentally ill or someone who's just an intransigent by nature. It's best just to say, "OK, I've done my bit on the front line. It's time for me to move to the rear."

So you're advocating for a clearer understanding of how the public and police understand power. Are there police in other places internationally who do manage time and power differently than American police do in these situations? And do they have better outcomes?

Well, the Police Executive Research Forum led a group of chiefs a few years ago to Scotland. The Scottish National Police had adopted this approach as their basic operating procedure when dealing with urgencies but not emergencies. And since 85% of what police respond to is non-emergency — a life's not in danger, a crime is not in progress, no one other than perhaps the subject of the call is being threatened, and they’re usually threatening themselves, not anybody else — the Police Executive Research Forum developed some training in which they advocate for arriving on scene, establishing perimeters, making sure the situation is safe and reasonably under control, and then proceeding from there with tactics.

And every situation is somewhat different. Sometimes weapons are involved. More often they're not, [but] even a person who's unarmed could be a danger to himself or others or be a danger to police if hands are laid on [them] prematurely.

This idea of taking time is a newer idea and you're retired, sort of outside the active force now. What do people who are active in law enforcement, like police chiefs, think of this idea of taking more time?

Well, I think if police chiefs were to pause, they would say, "Well, I'm now chief. I must have done something right, because I've now been selected by the people of my town to be their chief peace and safety officer. What did I do? Well, I certainly didn't storm around, you know, charging through situations, asserting — physically — my authority."

So, they could certainly look at the practice day-in, day-out of their officers and see that the ones who are most effective are probably doing it informally.

The challenge is not so much that someone might have a good idea that you got from a training, but rather, a really in-depth period of thinking and working with police leaders saying, how can we change what is a very deeply embedded and fundamental part of identity, which is to show up, take command, assert oneself? How do we do that in a way that relies on authority and not on physical force?

And I think that's eminently doable. Police are the one body of people in the society who are authorized, by us, to take our liberty and to take our lives if they make that judgment based on everything they know in the law.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
Related Content