Last week, our country breathed a sigh of relief as a guilty verdict was handed down against former officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. Soon after, though, news broke of a police shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl in Columbus, Ohio. The day after, Andrew Brown Jr., a 42-year-old Black man was killed in a police shooting in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
Even as someone who spent 22 years as a police officer in the New York Police Department, and who is all too aware of how police treat people of color differently than their White peers, I find it difficult to make sense of these events, along with the recent shootings of Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo and others. That they continue happening, especially in an era when police across the country are already under heightened scrutiny, only underscores the urgency of deeper reforms.
While many questions still surround these tragedies, one thing is crystal-clear: Police departments across the country must do more to reduce fatal encounters, by investing further in de-escalation training and alternative means of subduing people they are trying to arrest.
I know from firsthand experience that few officers received real training in de-escalation in our police academy (New York has the largest police department in the United States). And when departments do require such training, it tends to be reactive, rather than proactive. A report by The Wall Street Journal last year found that many departments in large cities increase de-escalation training for their officers in response to high-profile shootings and uses of force. By then, the relationship between police officers and the communities they have sworn to protect is already strained.
De-escalation is a proven method of reducing violent encounters between police and citizens. The city of Newark, New Jersey, offers a particularly striking example: The city’s department of public safety announced that Newark police didn’t fire a single shot in all of 2020 amid global unrest over police violence, a success that leadership attributes to its robust de-escalation program. Programs like this include learning how to better assess the level of danger at a scene, verbally defuse a situation, and making sure that police departments objectively evaluate whether use of force by an officer is justified. This kind of discipline in turn breeds long-term trust between police and communities. As any seasoned officer will tell you, that is a critical component of upholding public safety in the long term.
Of course, these kinds of tactics can’t be used in every circumstance. Police often face split-second decisions that can make the difference between life and death, leaving them no time to do the patient work of de-escalation. That’s why departments also need to reinforce the message that officers should use their service weapons only as a last resort, and actively encourage and invest in non-lethal alternatives for all officers.
To take one example: Three years ago, I held a demonstration at Brooklyn Borough Hall for the BolaWrap, a hand-held remote that allows officers to quickly fire barbed Kevlar cords toward suspects at speeds of 640 feet per second. These cords can restrain someone without causing them serious injury. Last year, it was reported that nearly 90 departments across the country have taken steps to purchase this product. While some have criticized the BolaWrap, this tool and others like it may reduce the need for firearms, making fatal police encounters like the ones we’ve seen in recent weeks much less likely.
I often say that when we are facing a crisis, whether personal or societal, we need to come up with two kinds of solutions: one to deal with the short-term issue, the other to address the long-term issue. We are yet again confronting a national crisis of police killings, predominantly of people of color.
In the long term, we must do more to address the deep disparities still baked into policing, taking steps such as diversifying every department so they look more like the communities they serve, deploying mental health professionals instead of police for those suffering from mental health crises, and investing in early intervention programs for underserved youth. But the immediate focus must be on stemming further loss of life.
Only by adopting proactive measures to stem these killings can we prevent another Daunte Wright, another Adam Toledo, another Ma’Khia Bryant, another Andrew Brown Jr.