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Police training aims to create more engaged, sensitive officers

Flashing lights on top of police patrol car.

Flashing lights on top of police patrol car. Credit: iStock

I’ve had some thoughtful conversations in recent weeks with law enforcement types about the long-running tension between police and minority communities across the nation.

Much of what they had to say revolves around a central, if well-worn, argument: Most cops are good and, given a choice, would prefer to never have to draw their weapon, much less shoot anyone.

Yet, when a few of them make egregious mistakes, such as the Balch Springs, Texas, police officer who shot into a car full of teenagers last month and killed 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, they all pay a steep price. The public backlash is fast and furious.

“There are dozens or hundreds of documented bad outcomes where the preferred thing would’ve been - had the officer done this or that - we’d have a better outcome,” said Dallas Deputy police Chief Jeffrey Cotner, the soon-to-be retired commander of the department’s training division. “And when we fail, there’s possibly a loss of life.”

Since Ferguson, Missouri, those “failures” have been front and center in an intense national debate about police training and accountability - two issues I discussed at length with Cotner, who is white, and Norman, Okla., police Chief Keith Humphrey, who is black.

“We have about 20,000 law enforcement agencies and a million officers (nationwide) and 99 percent are amazing,” said Humphrey. “You have less than 1 percent causing 99 percent of the problems, and we have to deal with the fallout.”

Cotner put it this way: “If we were a business and someone said you have a failure rate of (less than 1 percent), they’d say, ’Wow, that’s exceptional.’ But our .000-whatever is a loss of life.”

When tragedy strikes, as we’ve seen in recent fatal shootings of unarmed black residents from Balch Springs to Baton Rouge, La., to Tulsa, Okla., to North Charleston, S.C., it causes a ripple effect.

No department wants to be the next Ferguson, demonized and picked apart from top to bottom.

“Police chiefs are taking note of what’s going on,” said Humphrey. “We’re all going back and reviewing policies and procedures, especially training.”

That’s true in Norman. And it’s true in Dallas, where the Dallas Police Department is fine-tuning its training and investing in less-lethal weapons.

But the key to overhauling any police department starts with training.

“It takes time to quit these bad habits,” Cotner said. “We have tremendous opportunities to improve training, reset our moral and ethical compasses and have balanced human beings wearing our uniforms.”

I took Cotner up on his offer to visit the Dallas police training academy to get a glimpse of how his department goes about its business. When Cotner signed on in 1982, new DPD cadets went through 17 weeks of training; now, it’s 36 weeks.

These days, officers endure a range of lessons - from cultural diversity awareness to ethical decision-making to de-escalation techniques - aimed at making officers more sensitive to and engaged with the communities they serve.

“That’s a foundational piece,” said Cotner. “We’re working on officers seeing ’options.’ That’s what communities of color want. That’s what everyone wants.”

In one of his classes, called “excellence in policing,” Cotner asked a room of 26 cadets how the public perceives police officers. “Egotistical,” one said. “Racist,” said another. “Aggressive . lazy . hypocrite,” others chimed in.

And then Cotner asked these soon-to-be cops - most of whom were young enough to be my son or daughter - why they chose to wear a badge.

“Service,” one said.

“Role model,” shouted another. “I want to give back to the community.”

This is the idealistic face of policing that the public loses sight of when an officer abuses his power or is accused of misconduct.

“We have to bridge those perceptions,” Cotner said. “No officer wakes up in the morning and says, ’I want to go out and kill somebody today.’”

But when a mistake is made, departments must own up to it if they want to win public trust.

“If I’m going out here making hurtful comments or saying, ’He should’ve shot that guy,’ or not apologizing when we make a mistake or do something wrong, we contribute to the problem,” said Humphrey. “When you see something wrong, you have to address that.”

Cotner asked the cadets in his class if anyone in their family ever had a bad experience with police. At least three minorities raised their hands.

“My grandmother, when she was younger, was beaten by police in Mississippi,” said Justin Milton, an African-American.

When some school officials “told her to sit on the other side of the gym at a basketball game” and she refused, Milton said, the cops took his grandmother outside and roughed her up.

Milton’s story illustrated two points worth remembering, Cotner told his class: It reflects the history of mistrust between police and minorities. And it shows the tense situations that cops are called to settle every day.

“That,” Cotner said, “is a challenge for all of us to overcome.”

Humphrey agrees. As long as “you know you’ve got the right things in place,” he said, “most people out there, including the minority community, can accept that. But when you start making excuses (for misconduct), that’s where the problem starts.”

That’s a lesson worth remembering.

James Ragland is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News.