Tomorrow, May 15th, marks the 53rd anniversary of Peace Officers Memorial Day. Signed into effect by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, the week surrounding the date is also observed as National Police Week according to the organization’s website. Held in Washington D.C., the week’s events are meant to ‘honor those that have paid the ultimate sacrifice’ in the line of duty, and draws between 25,000 and 40,000 attendees, many of which are survivors and current law enforcement officers.
This year, amidst national protests of police brutality and wrongful deaths within local communities, the attendees, survivors, and officers are being forced to reflect on law enforcement’s relationship and perception within the communities they protect, as well as reconsider prevailing tactics and ideologies as emerging technologies and the current social climate make their actions increasingly visible and holds them increasingly accountable.
In an NPR report, they spoke with officers in attendance, and the responses are telling of the tension and disconnect in the air.
“I’ve seen [a] lot of changes, lot of ups and downs,” says Sgt. Steve Staletovich of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. “I’ve gotta tell you – the current situation is about as bad as I’ve seen… social media has made stories that never would have been heard or seen before, national news.”
In the last several months, news headlines have been littered with incidents involving police officers in situations that have ended in civilian casualties, particularly concerning have been the situations where officers have used fatal force and tactics, against unarmed and seemingly non threatening individuals – many of them black men. The deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, MI, and the resulting non-indictment of the officers involved sparked massive protests around the nation. Along with the protests, came the birth of the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackMalesMatter – further increasing the visibility of the public’s reaction to the perceived injustices. The following April, the deaths of Eric Harris in Tulsa Oklahoma, Walter L. Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland added fuel to the fire of protesters and to those who had already begun to question the relationship of the police and the community.
Recalling the days before social media, Seattle Police Detective Cloyd Steiger recounts to NPR the way things used to be – “Our whole job was to go and shake gangbangers or dope dealers and stuff, to kind of clean up the area,” he says. “We just drove around basically shaking people, taking guns and dope off the street.”
Compared to today, Steiger says “If you’re driving down the street, and there’s a guy you think is dealing drugs or prowling cars or something, and if you stop him and things kinda go bad a little bit, like you have a use of force situation, then it’s micromanaged. Everybody looks at everything you said, everything you did,” he says. “But if you just choose to just drive on by, no one ever second-guesses you.”
Contributing to public outrage and the disconnect between what’s expected of law enforcement, and what’s seen as the reality is that today’s public is much more informed about the law. The advancement of the internet has put protocols of the law into almost every living room and cell phone in America, and citizens aren’t shy about using their knowledge to back down officers that may or may not just be doing their job.
“They may know how far a police officer can go,” says Mark Best, a police trainer in Washington state. “They do the research on the Internet. Where it used to be you had to go down to the law library, now you just click a mouse button and people know their rights – which they should.”
Detective Steiger is concerned that a more knowledgeable and emboldened public has started to butt heads with the training of police officers, which has come to include a technique called “command presence” – Â which involves using a forceful tone and body language to take charge of a scene, reports NPR. Meant to maintain order and assert control of the situation, the tactic can come off as abrasive and disrespectful. “There’s nothing wrong with, you know, saying, ‘Hey, why are you stopping me? But I’m talking about the in-your-face, ‘you can’t touch me,’ trying to walk away and stuff that leads to physical confrontations that wouldn’t have led to a physical confrontation before.”
Although the divide still seems wide, the views of the officers versus those of the public are telling of the things that need to be reconciled. As technology continues to advance, eyes are increasingly everywhere and fewer and fewer things can escape the public consciousness. At the forefront of the necessary reconciliation stands an open and honest discussion about what’s expected from both sides participating in the relationship.