Don’t Get Shot – Community Education to Reduce Officer-Involved Shootings

Too many Americans are being shot by police officers. In the spirit of addressing a complex problem, here’s a suggestion.

Schools should invite police officers to talk with students about how to stay safe in an interaction with police. Young people need to hear this, and they need to hear it from an officer’s point of view.

The basics:

  • Follow an officer’s orders. It’s the law.
  • Keep your hands visible to the officer. This applies wherever we are – in a car, on the street, in our own home, and anywhere else.
  • If you have a weapon, keep your hands away from it.
  • Don’t run.
  • Don’t panic.
  • Don’t threaten the officer(s).
  • Get flat on the ground if there’s gunfire, with your hands away from your body.
  • Show respect, and expect to be respected.
  • Don’t give officers any reason to think you pose a danger.

The classroom sessions should examine some real-world incidents. Students should hear exactly what happened in a shooting that was reviewed and found to be defensible.

  • Go step by step through the sequence of events, show how quickly the incident unfolded, state what the officer knew and saw and heard, and explain what made the officer decide to shoot.
  • Describe how officers are trained. Review the involved officer’s training and experience level.
  • List the evidence the agency or other investigators used later when reviewing what happened.
  • Talk about what policies or practices the agency reviewed after the incident – and any changes that were made to reduce the chances of another shooting.
  • If any involved officers were disciplined or terminated or sent for more training, talk about that.

It’s important that people understand that most officer-involved shootings are found to be defensible. This is not because the system is stacked against community residents – it’s because of the law and the role of police officers. Officers have a legitimate need to defend themselves against weapons and aggression, and they have a duty to protect community residents. (Laying out the research on actual incidents is for another post.)

Shootings occur because of what the officer knew or observed in the seconds in which they happen. Their response is rooted in training, experience, second-to-second observations, peer culture, gut response, and other intangibles.

The classroom time also should cover what’s different about shootings or other use of force incidents that are not justifiable. We should understand and learn from them, too. Students should understand what those agencies that have officer culture issues are doing to improve.

We have too many shootings in our cities and neighborhoods. It’s heartbreaking. But we can’t over-simplify. The specific circumstances matter in each incident. Each officer is unique. Each person who has been shot is unique. Watching the news videos hurts every time we see a move someone shouldn’t have made, a reaction an officer made in response to something that heightened the perceived risk in that moment.

We can’t see into every incident before it happens, and we can’t turn back the clock. But we can see patterns, so let’s address those patterns.

Let’s tell young people how to lessen, not heighten, the perceived risk that officers respond to. Let’s reduce the fear, legitimate or exaggerated, that young people may have of police officers. Let’s reduce the fear, legitimate or exaggerated, that police officers may have of people of color who are or may be armed.

These goals require understanding and addressing bias on both sides.

  • Young people need to understand the daily risks inherent in patrol work and how an officer responds in a volatile incident.
  • Public safety agencies need to drop some of their defensiveness and work harder on building and maintaining community trust, whether they see any mistrust as fair or unfair. Shootings and inappropriate use of force make community relations even more polarized. Agency leaders can notice officers who have bad attitudes and don’t relate well with the communities they are sworn to protect. They can hire and support officers who have a good and realistic attitude. They can provide effective supervision and training that helps officers understand implicit bias and how to work with, around, and beyond it. Officers who can’t patrol fairly and justly should get into a different line of work. Agencies have a duty to remove people from patrol who don’t belong there.

Whatever we can do to end wrongful shootings, we should do. Community education can be a part.

Public safety agencies can reach out to school districts, or vice versa. Work out a plan so police officers will visit classrooms once or twice per school year. Start in middle school or early high school. If some school resource officers are doing this already, I’d like to hear about it and the results.

Building rapport and mutual understanding is a way to help save lives. It also could bring additional benefits. More young people of color might choose to work in public safety. That would be a good trend in many communities where the current officer staffing doesn’t reflect the makeup of the community.

We can also acknowledge that wrongful shootings involve suspects and officers of all skin colors and racial and ethnic backgrounds. Racial bias is not the only issue on the table. Good policing will always require the highest principles, the best ethics, and the best people.

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