New Gang In Town

In the late summer of 1977, I was working for the Beaumont Enterprise and living with two other journalists in a termite-ridden rent house beneath a street overpass. Only a high row of hedges separated us from the clanging of the railroad switching yard next door. For a generation of journalists who came and went from renting there, the home was known as the Troll House. Parties started when the newspaper went to bed at midnight and ended with the dawn. Freight cars don’t complain about noise or call the police to intervene.

A major career move that September dictated that I leave the Troll House behind for a relocation to Florida, but before I departed, my September issue of Texas Monthly arrived. The cover depicted Houston police as a motorcycle gang. The article inside by Tom Curtis, titled Support Your Local Police (Or Else), was a stunning tale of police brutality – and not just because of the murder of Joe Campos Torres Jr., a prisoner who was thrown in a bayou to drown. The story stuck with me through the years.

Torres’ death is just the most spectacular example of a recent deluge of violent police incidents. After the Torres killing, Mayor Fred Hofheinz, obviously anguished, said: “There is something loose in this city that is an illness.” Criminal lawyer Percy Foreman called Houston “a police state.” Today, he says, the Houston Police Department is worse, and its officers more violent and unchecked, than any comparable police force in the country.

The story out of McKinney this week about a white policeman pulling his service weapon on a group of African-American teenagers in swimsuits did not involve a shooting or throwdown weapons to mask unnecessary police brutality. It did renew questions about whether police in America are more apt to react violently toward African-Americans than whites. The question of police force and race in America is not an easy problem to solve. However, a problem that can be solved is how police are trained – especially since 9/11 — to be an occupying force rather than as our protectors.

The Dallas Morning News today has a profile of the McKinney officer involved in the incident, Cpl. David Eric Casebolt, who taught executive self-defense in his off hours: 

“During his career in Law Enforcement, he has received in-depth training on impact weapon deployment and expandable baton, firearms, electronic control devices (ECDs), ground fighting, Positive Assertive Control Tactics-Dynamic Threat Response (PACT-DTR), handcuffing, joint locks and pressure point compliance, armed and unarmed self-defense.”

His biography also listed his police certifications, and ended with his specific skills: “He has trained in several different disciplines of martial arts, but now exclusively trains in Krav Maga combat arts, Arnis, and ground fighting.”

Police deserve respect for risking their lives in the line of duty. Eleven died in Texas in 2014. It is not easy to determine, though, how many Texas civilians were killed by police and whether it was justified.

In his 1977 Texas Monthly article, Curtis quoted criminal defense lawyer Percy Foreman as blaming police violence on Harris County prosecutors who have “’white-washed every charge against policemen,’ thus encouraging even more police violence by letting police know that they are free from the sanctions of the law.” The Houston Chronicle won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize this year for stories on a grand jury system that favored police and did exactly what Foreman claimed almost four decades ago: “A Houston Chronicle analysis in 2013 showed that Houston police officers shot 121 civilians – 25 percent of them unarmed – between 2008 and 2012 without a single officer being indicted.” A grand jury reform bill passed by the Legislature may bring some balance to the system.

Since the police shooting of Michael Brown set off riots in Ferguson, Missouri, last year, The New York Times has been tracking officer use of firearms. Many involve people who are mentally ill or suicidal. One in particular bothered me when I saw the video last year, and that was the St. Louis police shooting of Kajieme Powell, 25, a mentally ill man with a knife. Some use of force probably was justified, but a video of the incident shows the officers involved shot Powell repeatedly, even after he has fallen to the ground. 

When police started carrying handguns with high-capacity magazines, I was told they needed to because the bad guys were carrying them and officers needed equity in firefights. In the post terrorism world, there seems to have grown a mentality that police are less our protectors than they are our controllers, especially in poorer communities where poverty creates frustrations with the system. The Washington Post reports that since 1997, the Pentagon has transferred $4.3 billion worth of military equipment to local police departments, prompting President Obama last month to halt such transfers. Even he admitted, though, that the equipment was just symbolic of the problem. “I can’t federalize every police force in the country and force them to retrain,”Obama said. 

That is why I have found stories on a new method of police training called Blue Courage so heartening, especially since some are appearing places like Police Chief magazine. Part of the training emphasizes defusing situations rather than making them worse by escalating to “take control” of a situation. The Blue Courage program was developed by a Chicago-area police commander named Michael Nila and has been adopted by the Washington State Police as well as the city of Phoenix, among others.

Traditional police training focuses on developing a highly skilled police officer and putting tools in their hands, but doesn’t focus on an officer’s mindset or heart, Nila said. Whenever he asks his trainees what is created by the approach, he always gets the same answer.

“You created a monster,” he said.

The public has high expectations for police officers, but officers do not have the capacity to meet those expectations. What erodes an officer’s capacity is being tired, dispirited, being unhealthy, chronic stress, education gaps and cynicism, Nila said.

“A police officer who is exhausted doesn’t have the capacity to show compassion or show strength. A cop who is cynical doesn’t have the capacity to do the job,” Nila said. He quoted a New York police officer who said cynicism is akin to police corruption.

Ridding our culture of racism will not be an easy task and may take generations. But changing the culture of policing starts with training officers to believe they are more the guardians of the community than the warriors assigned to subdue the populace. Thirty-eight years have passed since Tom Curtis described the problem on the pages of Texas Monthly. Let’s teach police to use their wits first and their weapons second.