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How police can cool down confrontations before they turn deadly

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Protesters continue to take to the streets around the country following the fatal police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and Cleveland, as well as the death of Eric Garner in New York City.

    Earlier this week on “NewsHour,” we had a discussion with a panel of young protesters. Tonight, we hear from a panel of law enforcement experts.

    I spoke earlier this week with three people who have thought a lot about the subjects of policing, violence and race. Dean Esserman is the chief of police in New Haven, Connecticut. David Klinger is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri. He’s also a former Los Angeles police officer. And Ronald Hampton, a former 23-year community relations officer in Washington, D.C.

    We welcome you all to the “NewsHour.”

    Chief Esserman, let me begin with you. Let’s talk first about how police officers evaluate a threat. How — how — is there a universal training that officers learn on how to do that?

  • DEAN ESSERMAN, Police Chief, New Haven, Connecticut:

    We’re trained in similar ways, different priorities.

    But police officers are trained to go and to serve and to protect. And, sometimes that means using force, and sometimes that means slowing down the tempo and using what we know how to use best, which is a conversation.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Professor Klinger, as someone, as we just said, as a former police officer, how do you strike that balance between a time to — to be prepared to use force it, if necessary, and on the other hand it’s a time to calm things down?

  • DAVID KLINGER, University of Missouri-Saint Louis:

    Well, I think you’re always prepared to use force, and that’s the key, is you have to understand that these things can escalate quickly.

    But, as the chief indicated, our best tactic is to create some time and talk to people. The vast majority of the time, we’re going to be able to talk people into jail. The vast majority of time, when people are upset, we can calm them down, but there’s times and places where we can’t. And if it doesn’t get to that point, the person remains agitated and a threat emerges, either to an officer or to a civilian, then the police have to move for a forceful action.

    Unfortunately, sometimes, the first moment an officer arrives on scene, that’s a moment where there’s a threat, and the officer has to take physical force as the first option, essentially.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Ron Hampton, in your experience, how do officers — how are you trained to think about that?

  • RONALD E. HAMPTON, Former Executive Director, National Black Police Association:

    Well, I think we were trained in a method that the job of being a police officer is to de-escalate escalating situations.

    And so we don’t really make, I don’t think, split-second decisions, because we are sort of impacted by other kinds of things in terms of training and whatnot, but also our knowledge in terms of working in the communities.

    I was fortunate to walk a foot beat and work in the community I lived in, so I knew a lot of things about that community. So I didn’t — I wasn’t afraid. So that — that played into the factor. I could talk to people.

    Being able to talk to people, I think, is the key to being able to de-escalate situations, and knowing something about the community and the people you — the people in the community you work in.

  • DEAN ESSERMAN:

    You know, I think that’s an important point. This isn’t really just a conversation about tactics. It’s a conversation about a philosophy of the type of policing we do.

    And what we have discovered over the years is that strangers aren’t the best way to police. In New Haven, we’re committed to community policing. That means that relationship, we hope, is built long before a crisis.

  • RONALD E. HAMPTON:

    That’s right.

  • DEAN ESSERMAN:

    In New Haven, every police officer upon graduation from the academy walks a beat for a year and starts to build relationships that penetrate that uniform in both directions.

    So the conversation here just can’t be about the tactics we use. It has to be about the relationships we build, relationships of trust, building legitimacy in the eyes of our community.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, David Klinger, is that something that is going to be possible, though, in every community?

  • DAVID KLINGER:

    The capacity is going to be different in terms of the geographic region. We can’t put people on foot beats everywhere.

    But the chief is spot on, as is your other guest, that what you try to do is, you try to build up legitimacy. You try to build up communication. You try to understand that the work between the police and the community is an ongoing process. Unfortunately, however, sometimes, you don’t have that opportunity to know the person that you’re about to enter into an interaction with.

    And in that case, what officers should always try to do is build some type of common human element between the officer and the individual, something as simple as a traffic stop, to introduce yourself as a police officer, explain to the person why they have been stopped, and create a dialogue, so that the person that you stop understands.

    Simple things like that can often lead to this de-escalation that my colleagues were talking about. And so I agree with the other guests about this.

  • DAVID KLINGER:

    It’s also important to understand that, sometimes, the person you’re dealing with, you might not know, but there’s always an opportunity to at least try to build something there.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    There’s always that kind of an opportunity?

  • RONALD E. HAMPTON:

    It is. It is. And that is part of the training, to introduce yourself, to tell them what you’re stopping them for, to talk about what happened, to sort of humanize the whole process of traffic stops, because sometimes your work can create an edge.

    And what you want to do is be able to survive the contact and the citizen also. So in handling those kind of situations, you can bring a sort of human approach to doing it. And that is part of the training. And good police training essentially highlights those kinds of situations and then police officers are out there doing it.

  • DEAN ESSERMAN:

    The uniform and the authority is just not enough.

  • RONALD E. HAMPTON:

    No, it’s not.

  • DEAN ESSERMAN:

    We really have to build a relationship in a community.

    We are not an army in occupation. We’re not a foreign police force. It’s very clear in New Haven that we belong to New Haven, that we are embraced by New Haveners, that we serve New Haveners.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    David Klinger, how much harder is it to do what the three of you are talking about when it is a cross-racial situation? And I want to just throw this question out there. Are police departments diverse enough in this country? And, if they’re not, why aren’t they?

  • DAVID KLINGER:

    Well, in terms of going cross-racially, when I was a young police officer, I got out of the academy in Los Angeles and I worked the South End, 77th Street Precinct in South Central Los Angeles. And I didn’t have an interaction with any white citizens for many, many months, other than maybe a couple of merchants every now and then.

    And what I found is, I had some wise training officers who said, Dave, what they told you in the academy is correct. We need to figure out a couple of things that are going to be a little bit different, but always treat everybody with respect and dignity, unless and until they demonstrate that they’re not going to respond to that.

  • RONALD E. HAMPTON:

    The policing should reflect the makeup of the community, but it has to go way beyond just the numbers. It has to be in terms of policy-making positions.

    It has to be involved in leadership. We need to see ourselves in the leadership roles and sitting at the table when these “public safety” — quote, unquote — decisions are made in terms of, what are we going to do in communities? How are we going to police in communities?

    And, more importantly, are community people involved in the process as we develop strategies for community policing?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Just finally, Chief Esserman, come back to this question of diversity on police forces. Why aren’t they more diverse, in your view?

  • DEAN ESSERMAN:

    Because police departments are not always as welcoming as we hoped they would be.

    We’re the most diverse police department in Connecticut. We’re the most diverse command staff in Connecticut. But I still know many people of color, I know many women who feel uncomfortable taking that first step in joining a police department. I know people who just do not like the police.

    What they fear is the color blue. And the skin color of the person in that uniform doesn’t change that opinion. But a relationship over time does. So we’re proud of our diversity. But we’re also a department that believes in building relationships throughout the community. We want our police officers to treat people with dignity and respect, but we want our officers treated with dignity and respect.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, we thank you, all three. This is a subject, of course, on the minds of many, and it’s a conversation we’re going to continue to have.

    But we thank each one of you, Chief Dean Esserman, Professor David Klinger, Ronald Hampton.

  • DEAN ESSERMAN:

    Thank you.

  • DAVID KLINGER:

    Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We thank you.

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