The Public Cost

As the country continues to be embroiled in the polarizing debates surrounding the "Black Lives Matter" movement, our first "HiConcept in Pairing" is presented with the staggering piece, "Pray or Prey," by artist Charlene M. Cooper, contrasted with (or perhaps complimented by) the essay from 39-year-probation veteran, John Kelly.  Both beg the question, is it as simple as black vs. blue, or is it more likely a struggle of black and blue? 

"Pray or Prey?"  Charlene M. Cooper

"Pray or Prey?"

Charlene M. Cooper

"An arresting proposal"

by John K. Desmond, former Director of Probation, Suffolk County

When I first received the request for this essay, I was both amused and intrigued.  The amused component of my reaction to the request was the thinness of the concept. 

“Point, counterpoint” invokes the ideological diatribes to be found in comparing Fox and MSNBC.  I firmly believe that the artist involved in this “point” brings nuance and depth to her efforts, and would be somewhat offended for her work to be compared to the two to five minute “space fillers” that so often appear on American news channels.

And, equally so, it was clear to me that any production on my part should not be ideological, but instead provide the nuance and depth of real world experience.  This, I believe, I possess.  I served in Law Enforcement, in various capacities, for 39 years. 

Initially, I was a Narcotics Probation Officer and, subsequently a Supervising Probation Officer, for a total of 15 years.  I was then employed as a Supervisor of Detention Services for a County Family Court, a soul palpitating experience as you observe the best and the worst of what is done to, and by, children.

Thereafter I became a Principal Probation Officer, similar to commanding a precinct for police, and eventually a Probation Director for a county.  During the course of this career, I also served as a law enforcement union official, Chair of County Parole Re-Entry Committee, Chair of Local Parole Commission, and Chair of the County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, comprising all of the law enforcement agencies in a County, as well as numerous public, private, and not-for-profit agencies and departments.

By my own estimate, I have participated in close to a thousand arrests, either as a lead officer or in support.  This is vital to the discussion because that is where the world becomes incredibly real for all participants. 

An arrest is described best by the original meaning of the word itself. To “arrest” is to halt the progress of someone.  When you are arrested, your plans for the day, or the next few minutes, are totally halted.  You have lost your free will and the ability to be your own master.  You are suddenly under another’s control and in the grip of very powerful social forces and institutions.

It is in the arrest process that the potential for violence among the participants is highest.  The law differentiates violence into two levels:  physical force, and deadly physical force.  Physical force is the force necessary to do anything from restraining an individual to inflicting serious, bodily injury.  Deadly physical force is, as per that first word, the use of enough force of some kind that could result in death. 

The ability to use state-sanctioned Deadly Physical Force is clearly one of the critical issues of our time.  It is also inextricably interwoven into the issue of the omnipresence of firearms in our country.

When a state makes the institutional decision to inflict a Death Sentence on a convicted individual, it does not immediately follow it out.  Instead, there is a normal period of five to ten years in which this one decision is reviewed, directed, and appealed through a court system.  Additionally, there is normally also a political component allowing a governor to intervene in the process.  Numerous professionals are involved at a cost often in the millions of dollars.

Despite all of this, as we have, often learned to our sorrow, innocent individuals are killed by these state sanctioned decisions.

So, if we can’t get it right when we have years of time and competent professionals in a lower stress environment to make a decision, what hope is there in an “arrest” situation?

The answer, thank a Supreme deity, is that there is a great deal to be hopeful about.  Every day the vast majority of arrests and other interactions between the public and law enforcement work out without the inappropriate use of Deadly Physical Force.

The reality is that we are all flawed human beings.  I seriously doubt that there is one person in the world that could be trusted with a firearm every minute of every day of their adult lives.  There are moments of stress, doubt, fear, confusion, or depression that could lead to an unfortunate decision in anyone’s life. 

Instead, we must maximize the institutional safeguards to protect both the public and law officers.

Any attempt to reduce the prevalence of firearms in the country is going to require a vast change in the political process, and is beyond my scope.  However, what can be done is to put firearms in the best possible law enforcement hands.

I believe that there are three overriding elements that contribute to officers making the best decision on the streets.  They are maturity, training/education, and “institutional guts.”  Science assures us that the human brain does not complete development until the 20s.  Yet law enforcement agencies routinely hire teenagers and issue them firearms.  More and more police and sheriff’s officers are now requiring at least two years of college to be eligible to be hired.  This fosters a higher maturity level.

In the branch of law enforcement that I am most familiar with, Probation, a minimum of a four-year college degree is normally required, and often there is a “trainee period” tacked on to that.

I have had the opportunity to compare training classes of law enforcement groups that require only a high school degree with those made up of college graduates and the difference is both stunning and frightening. 

You may be able to pay the lower-educated officers significantly less, but what are you doing to the public’s safety on the streets?  

The next area is training/education.  Here, I am not talking about a college education, but educating a trainee and field officers about what they actually need to know in their daily routine.  Given the sad, lack of mental health services, officers need to know the best methods to handle the mentally ill and what resources they can call in.  The burgeoning autistic population makes it urgent to have similar best practices for them.

The most important is realistic training, not just the firearms course, or a “Hogan’s alley, Shoot-Don’t” scenario, but enough real time hands on experience in real world situations. 

To this day, I remember training I was involved in, a house search of a drug dealer.  My gun was drawn, adrenaline was running, there was noise and confusion and many people moving; all of a sudden, my gun discharged.  I have no recollection of pulling the trigger, nor what I was responding to, but the blank explosive going off, the cessation of movement, the looks of confusion and fear among my peers, and the looks of disgust among my trainers, I carry as one my life’s most prominent scars.  I learned more in that training than numerous hours of films or book study. 

The third component is “institutional guts.”  A law enforcement agency cannot just think of protecting its own.  It’s charged with protecting the entire society.  It begins with hiring the right people.  You want to reach out to all the communities in your jurisdictions, encourage all groups to apply.  Then you want to hire the best people, not those with the right connections.  Then, and probably most important, you have to understand that all of us are fallible.  We make mistakes, including hiring the wrong people.  You have to allow people to make mistakes, but you also need to listen to the supervisors, trainers, and look for flawed patterns of behavior, and quickly terminate when appropriate.  The first rule should be public safety, not institutional safety. 

While I was a Probation Director, my department became the first law enforcement agency in the country to have women be the majority of officers.  I was quickly disabused of any notions that my administrative life would be any easier, as I was as deep in “you did what!” as I ever had been previously.

In closing, it’s a damn stressful business, and I’m glad I’m out!