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NEIGHBORHOOD COPS OR SPECIAL OPS?

POLICING IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM

by Patricia A. Robinson

The 1990s saw the parallel development of two contradictory models in policing: Community-Oriented Policing (COP) and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams. Most departments do not choose one model over the other, but instead try to do both—partly in
response to external pressures. The challenge for trainers is how to train officers to function effectively in both modes. This article
will examine the officer qualities each model values and suggest ways trainers can design training to equip officers for both roles.

Community-Oriented Policing


Community-Oriented Policing grew out of public dissatisfaction with police forces that were perceived as “occupying armies” rather than public servants—and with police concerns about increasing calls for service. The idea behind COP is that if police departments can work with other agencies and community groups to address underlying problems, the quality of life for citizens will improve, and police calls for service will decline.

Policing under the COP model is multi-dimensional and proactive, depending heavily on officers' abilities to took at situations from a “big-picture” perspective and to problem-solve creatively. The COP approach means that officers use a range of skills: social work, negotiation, grass-roots organizing, planning, and others. Citizens get to know officers as human beings, not just “robo-cops” in blue. Officers get to know citizens as well, forging closer relationships between the police department and the community.

To be effective in the COP model, officers need to be open and people-oriented, comfortable with being known as a person. They need to show individual initiative. They must be flexible and versatile, and at ease with the messiness of a multi-disciplinary, inclusive approach to solving problems. Control freaks need not apply!

SWAT Teams

SWAT teams arose out of a different historical context and follow a very different model. Since the first SWAT team appeared in Los Angeles to combat the riots of the 1960s, the concept of specially equipped and trained tactical units to deal with high-risk situations has taken firm hold. Pick up any police equipment catalogue and you will see an astounding array of tactical gear—such as night-vision equipment, flak vests, and thermal imaging equipment—as well as an impressive arsenal of weapons and ordnance.

SWAT teams are, by definition, reactive, and are deployed only for critical situations such as violent public emergencies, riots or multiple-casualty shootings, execution of high-risk search warrants, and hostage situations. Once the situation is resolved, the SWAT team leaves. SWAT team call-ups are defined, one-time encounters that do not involve ongoing relationships with citizens.

SWAT teams depend on highly practiced teamwork, not individual initiative. Team members often wear a distinctive uniform—typically black or camouflage BDU-style clothing. They use special, military-style equipment and weapons (ballistic shields, flash-bangs, and fully automatic rifles, to name a few). The uniforms and gear contribute to enhancing the team image and diminishing the individuality of the officers involved. To the public, they may seem like faceless commando units—an image enhanced by tactical gas masks and balaclavas.

To be effective SWAT team members, officers must be comfortable with this tight discipline and repetitive training. Because of the nature of the SWAT team's activities, officers must be familiar with a variety of weaponry and other technology, and they must accept the separation from ordinary citizens. "Cowboys" likely to go off on a mission of their own do not make good SWAT team members, nor do those officers who are uncomfortable with being perceived as police first, people second.

In many ways, the characteristics and activities that make effective neighborhood officers are the exact opposite of those that make effective SWAT team members. One might think that there could be no crossover. Few departments have the luxury, however, of being able to field a full-time SWAT team. Most SWAT teams are part-time units, made up of officers assigned to patrol and other
areas in the department. Similarly, most departments expect officers to employ the principles of COP, and some have full-time neighborhood officers. In a critical incident, however, those neighborhood officers are expected to function tactically as well.

Outside Forces


In addition to individual officers’ inclinations, various outside forces bear on departments’ use of these two models of policing. These influences are difficult to quantify, but they are clearly present as reality or perception.

Increased Danger.
While the overall crime rate may be declining, the rate of youth violence is still going up. The number of officers killed on duty has not declined significantly—and many of those deaths have been the result of ambushes and sudden assaults. In addition, officers are finding more sophisticated weaponry on the street: pistols with laser sights, submachine guns, and sometimes rifles are replacing the cheap revolvers and semi-autos of the past. The reality of the danger in the streets tends to lead officers to adopt the SWAT mindset. It’s worth noting that in many ways the profile of the "typical" officer killed on duty looks a lot like a neighborhood officer.[1]

Incidents of Police Brutality and Perceived Racial Bias. The news has been full of reports of police brutality, from the Rodney King incident in California to the sexual assault of Abner Louima while in police custody in New York. The widespread media attention given to these incidents has fed public perceptions of police as power-hungry brutes. As public mistrust of police increases, officers'
feelings of isolation and defensiveness increase, further reinforcing the SWAT model.

Related to brutality concerns is the perception that officers enforce the law unequally. Recent articles addressing the perception that minority motorists are stopped for “DWB” (driving while black), or shot and killed more often by officers fuel the belief that police are racist. That there is a disproportionate impact of law enforcement on minority citizens seems evident—one need only look at the incarceration rates for blacks and whites to see that. The reason for that disproportionate impact is hotly debated. Many citizens believe that it’s because the police are racist; most officers would disagree.

Lately, the debate has shifted slightly from the alleged racism of individual officers to the “fortress mentality” fostered in police departments. A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor included this statement: “...some observers say ... police brutality isn't caused so much by the simmering racism of individual cops. Rather the overzealous, militaristic culture of some police departments is partly to blame, too.”  In the same article, Joseph McNamara, former chief of police in San Jose, California, was quoted as saying, “If you're training cops to think they’re in a war—including a drug war—you’re going to get atrocities like these.”[2]

Implications for Trainers

Well, we do train cops to think they’re in a war. Politicians talk about the “war on drugs” and the “war on crime.”  The current issue of a national law enforcement magazine refers to the “war on gangs” and, in another article about the media’s misperception of the street cop’s reality, states “...it's a war out there, and, as in any war, there are no rules.”[3] We refer to police as “modern warriors” and we refer to citizens as “subjects” and “contacts” and “civilians.”  We increasingly equip patrol officers with military-style rifles and carbines. We emphasize officer safety as the first and most important consideration for officers.

And so we should. It is dangerous out there.

But we are not soldiers, and we are not in a war. In a conventional war, the enemy is easily located and identified, and collateral casualties are unfortunate, but expected. We have a much more difficult job: we do not know which of the many citizens we encounter will try to kill us. They will look no different from the rest. We cannot have any innocent lives lost, or we can expect lawsuits and even criminal charges. No wonder the SWAT model holds appeal for officers:  there’s an identified enemy and a defined crisis.

But the more we focus solely on the danger, the more we slide into military jargon to describe what we do (invisible deployment, clearing fields of fire), then inevitably the more we separate ourselves from the people we serve. It becomes that much easier for citizens to stereotype police as racist and brutal, and for police to see the public—not just the criminals—as the enemy. And it becomes that much more difficult to do community-oriented policing.

Yet community-oriented policing seems to work. There will never be enough police to impose order on an unwilling populace:  we need the community as a partner. And in the long run, positive one-on-one relationships with people in the neighborhoods will help keep us safer when we respond to calls.

As trainers, we must actively train officers to have friendly human interactions with the citizens they serve, as well as to recognize and respond to danger. After all, most of the people we encounter on the street don't want to kill us. How do we do this? The following four suggestions (all used to some degree in the author’s agency) are a start:
 
1. Recruit new hires with a range of prior experience, not just law enforcement.

Some of the tasks of policing are technical—shooting, for example. Mostly, however, policing is more art than science, and demands “people” skills such as defusing conflict, making complex decisions, and deflecting hostility. The wider experience an officer has, the more he or she has to draw on. It is no surprise that rookie officers are more likely than veterans to be involved in situations involving
excessive use of force.

2. Put recruit officers in scenarios in which they have to rely on verbal—not physical— skills to resolve the situation.

Give recruits staged “calls,” such as a woman having a psychotic (but non-dangerous) episode, or a despondent man threatening to overdose on prescription medication, and stipulate that they will not need to use force in resolving the situation (although good tactics are a must). Have veteran officers act the roles, and brief them to reward good verbal skills with cooperation. Veteran officers
have the experience to make the reactions realistic, while controlling the scenario to provide good training. Each successful rep gives the officer another experience to draw from on the street.

3. Have recruit officers practice common activities, such as non-high-risk traffic stops, to reinforce both safe practices and friendly, courteous interactions with citizens.

Again, using officers as actors, give recruits as many reps as time allows. Vary the encounters and make a few of them offbeat: a driver reaching under the seat not to grab a gun, but to capture an escaped gerbil. Such a scenario may require the officer to use sound tactics and considerable caution to handle the stop, but may also require some explanation and calming of the “citizen” afterwards.

4. Emphasize throughout training (academy and in-service) that we are sworn to uphold the Constitution, including its protections against undue government intrusion.

Too often the protections in the Bill of Rights are viewed as annoying obstacles to efficient law enforcement. For example, in our zeal to get drugs off the street, do we continually try to get citizens to “consent” to searches of their cars by countering a refusal with, “If you don't have anything to hide, why don't you want us to search?”  Most officers would not see this as coercive, but most citizens
probably would. We cops tend to forget the impact of the uniform. We need to re-emphasize that our role is not just to enforce the law, but also to protect the rights of individuals.

These broader skills and attitudes may be more difficult to teach than shooting and fighting, but they are no less critical to an officer’s survival. The coming years will place increasing demands on police agencies: community expectations are higher and the level of danger is greater. We need officers who are versatile and capable of functioning in more than one mode. As trainers we need to
balance our training to reflect both models of policing.

This article appears in the March/April 2000 issue of the ASLET Trainer, the official journal of the American Society for Law Enforcement Training.



[1] In the Line of Fire: Violence Against Law Enforcement.  United States Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Institute of Justice, October, 1997,
page 12.  Descriptors include “friendly to everyone, well-liked by community and department, tends to perceive self as more public relations than law enforcement,
service-oriented, tends to look for ‘good’ in others.”  Other descriptors, however, indicate that poor tactics, such as not waiting for backup, also play a role in officer deaths.
[2] Christian Science Monitor, June 23, 1999, page 3.
[3] Police, Vol. 23, No. 7, July, 1999, pp. 51-52

 

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