COP VIEWS: Activists have no place in setting police policy

COP VIEWS is a forum where police officers from around the nation offer their opinions on the issues most important to them. 

In the wake of numerous controversial police incidents around the nation, various groups have put forth all types of proposals to amend police tactics and procedures.  One commonly heard proposal is that the police need to be more interactive with the public, normally referred to as “community policing”.  

It seems that more people than ever before somehow think they need to have input on how officers do their job.  Many may argue that because police departments are taxpayer-funded, citizens should have input.  

However, that would be comparable to saying that everybody should also have input on how Public Defense attorneys and air traffic controllers do their jobs as well.  Just because my taxes are used to fund those occupations doesn’t mean that I have the qualifications, training, or experience to offer meaningful input on the way those occupations perform their duties.  

The same is true with police work.  When occupations start seeking input from people who have no knowledge or experience in that occupation the outcomes are bound to be disastrous.    

This flawed mindset is now being seen in San Francisco, where a group of different entities, including public defenders, are writing the policy that guides the use of body cameras for the San Francisco Police Department.  

One main point of contention is whether to allow officers to review the body camera recordings of an incident prior to writing their police reports.

For anyone who has ever been a police officer, you quickly realize that not being allowed to review a recording of an incident prior to writing a report about it is setting the officer up for legal problems. What better way to accuse an officer of lying?!  Ask the officer to write a report based solely on their memory, and then after they have submitted their report, produce the body camera recordings that will depict an incident similar to, but not exactly, the way the officer recalled.

Why will this happen?  Because police officers are human beings and do not have perfect memory.  No person is capable of perfectly recalling every detail of a conversation, including the exact words that were used, where they were standing, the exact words the other people said, etc.  

Often, a major issue in a court proceeding can be exactly how an officer worded a question during an interview or exactly how a suspect answered it.  What better, more accurate way for the officer to document exactly what was said than to watch the recording and then write exactly what was said?  

Recently, when a judge issued his order (where he ruled in the prosecution’s favor) on a case in which I was involved, he quoted verbatim the critical part of the interview straight from my body camera recording.  If the judge can watch the recording to make his ruling why should an officer not be allowed to watch it prior to writing a report?  

To complicate things even more, we have to factor in the stress that officers often experience during arrest situations or other interactions with the public.  

Stress commonly affects memory, and as a result, an officer who is faced with a stressful situation will not accurately remember everything that he said or did.  For a more detailed look at this phenomenon, see this recently issued report.

The situations described above are things that any officer can easily relate to.  However, if you are not an officer these issues may not be as readily apparent.  But therein lies the problem in seeking input about police work from people who have no experience wearing the badge.  

Law enforcement is a specialized occupation that requires endless amounts of training and experience to be effective.  Development of effective policing techniques and policies should be left to those who have “walked the walk” and not to activists who have never worn the uniform.

-Matthew Ernst is a Deputy Sheriff in Nebraska

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article represent the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views or opinions of Americans in Support of Law Enforcement.