Restoring trust of the police

No matter how much training a police officer receives in the mechanics of doing his job, two other factors are critical in determining his ability to serve and protect.

One is his own attitude. An officer whose priority is working with the community rather than confronting individuals within it has a greater chance of success.

A second factor is related. It is the culture of his department – whether it, from the chief on down, instills, encourages and rewards the right attitude among officers.

Cleveland’s police department has had precisely the wrong culture, its chief said last week. Chief Calvin Williams said the city’s police academy produces officers with a military-like “warrior mentality.” Instead, he hopes to change training to produce “guardians” of the public, Williams told reporters.

He and others in the department will have to make changes, as a result of a consent decree arrangement with the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOJ concluded after an investigation of Cleveland’s police department that deep-seated flaws were behind distrust many in the community have for officers.

Cleveland has been in the news for that, because of various tragedies including a policeman’s shooting of a 12-year-old boy who was carrying a pellet gun and a 2012 confrontation in which two unarmed suspects died in a 137-shot hail of officers’ gunfire.

Mistrust such as that in Cleveland is not uncommon throughout the United States, as Americans have come to realize during the past year. Many police departments need to change their cultures – and to get rid of officers or deputies unwilling to alter their own behavior.

Perhaps Cleveland can serve as a model for that. Local law enforcement agencies, no matter how small, should be paying attention to what happens in that city. At the same time they should be conducting objective evaluations of their departments’ cultures and personnel.

There are too many good cops for a few bad apples and a few misguided departments to allow widespread fear and suspicion of law enforcement officers. They can serve and protect only those who believe that is what will happen when a police cruiser pulls up.