Terence Crutcher had been trying to get help with his car, broken down on a highway, when Officer Betty Jo Shelby shot him (as another officer tased him). She claimed that Crutcher was behaving suspiciously and failed to follow orders. While police didn’t find a gun on him or in the car, they did find a vial of PCP, and as of last week we know that toxicology reports say Crutcher had the drug in his system. Shelby’s attorney is claiming that the presence of PCP is the first bit of evidence that will prove that Shelby’s actions were justified.
The entire case is once again raising questions about drug laws, police training, and the relationship between cops and minority communities.Raeford Davis, who works with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a nonprofit group of judges and law enforcement agents, has been an outspoken advocate against the war on drugs and over-policing across the country. Davis served as a cop in South Carolina until 2006, and he was kind enough to talk to GQabout the epidemic. The following interview took place over two separate conversations and has been edited.
GQ: We’re in the middle of a huge national discussion right now about the relationship between police and minority communities. You’ve said elsewhere that, in your experience, cops aren’t individually racist, but they are actors in a racist system. Can you explain what that means?
Raeford Davis: That’s part of the disconnect, and that’s why you see law enforcement officers get so upset when they’re called out as just a bunch of racists. In North Charleston we had black leadership in my department, and Charlotte has a black chief. These guys would not tolerate overt racism. They work very hard to maintain a good rapport with the black community and they would get really upset when you did things to mess it up. However, they kind of operate under the same illusions. They put their murder and robbery rates over a map of the city and that’s mostly in poor and minority neighborhoods, and they say, “That’s why we’re there, it has nothing to do with race.” But we know that from the outset drug enforcement was just a covert continuation of Jim Crow-type oppression laws. The laws apply to everyone in theory, but we know they were used to target minority communities. Those efforts have a destabilizing effect on the community, and destabilized communities have more crime, then you have more police presence and activity, and that further destabilizes the community. No additional racism from individual officers is necessary.
Can you describe your training a bit?
In South Carolina they have a central police academy that everyone goes to. Training was eight weeks when I attended, and it has now been extended to 12 weeks. That short time frame by its nature ensures training will be very basic and focused on worst-case scenarios. The overarching theme when interacting with "subjects" is always maintain control no matter what. A great deal of your time is then spent training in physical control methods, use of force: how to shoot, how to strike, how to take a person down, and how to handcuff them in order to maintain that control.
And what about firearm training? Was there much concern about accidental discharge?
I was terrified that I would accidentally shoot myself or someone else. That weighed on my mind a lot. There’s a lot of emphasis on safety and procedure, and we spent time with a “firearms training simulator.” [Ed. note:Here is an example.] You interact with a video screen in shoot/don't shoot scenarios where the instructor can control the outcome the based on your responses. He can even fire ping pong balls at you to replicate being shot at. The simulators are great but they’re training just to shoot or not. I had to ask the instructor when it would be okay to not arrest someone or even press the situation because you think it might go bad for you or you were concerned about harming the person. My instructor said yes, and told me about a time when he pulled over a group of guys on a road and he was by himself and had no back-up. But I had to ask about that—it wasn’t actually covered.
When you first became a police officer, what sort of training did you get for de-escalating a potentially violent encounter?
Very little. My academy manual was approximately 1,500 pages long. Of that, maybe 10-20 pages cover effective communication and verbal de-escalation techniques. It wasn’t really until you got out with your field training officer that they would say, “Look you’ve got to talk to people and settle things without getting worked up.” In a lot of ways, when you got on the street you were unlearning a lot of thee worst case scenario training that you learned at the academy.
Were there any mechanisms in place to weed out people who weren’t suited for the job?
Most people wash out based on academic issues and obvious physical issues, like a bad knee, that would prevent them from performing their duties than anything else. As far as spotting over-aggressive or mentally unstable red flags, no, I didn’t see where that would come up and it certainly didn’t with my group. How people washed out from the academy beyond that would be off-campus problems, like getting a DUI or, as happened to one guy, getting into a road rage incident and flashing his badge and gun at people. But it’s the barrel that’s bad, regardless of the apples.
So, what are some of the things you learned about how to behave in those worst case scenarios?
We have this “use of force” continuum. It changes depending on the agency, but there’s a basic format. You can increase your level of response based on the reaction of the individual. You start off with your mere presence, then you have verbal commands, and if that doesn’t work you can put your hands on someone. If they pull back, then you can maybe use a pressure point technique. If they take a swing at you, then you can escalate to a baton. The main takeaway I got from my training concerning individuals armed with a knife or similar weapon was the "21 foot rule." Basically if you confront anyone with a knife and they get within 21 feet, you can shoot them.
Which means that if an officer wanted to, they could in theory escalate a routine traffic stop into a physical confrontation?
The number one concern is: are you lawfully present? Even if that’s an expired license plate on a car, you can say, “Yes, I’m lawfully present,” and from there you can work that use of force continuum up. And some officers manipulate it. While on its face the legal training appears to be a litany of what police can't do in order to respect subject rights, the result is officers know more about hundreds of confusing laws that you don’t know about, and it gives them the ability to reverse-engineer them to justify the virtually unlimited force and violence you see today. They can almost guarantee a suspect’s non-compliance. That’s what you see in a lot of these resisting arrest charges, an officer can subtly manipulate by doing something like giving people conflicting demands: “Put your hands up, don’t move,” for example. No matter what they do after that, you can say they didn’t comply. Or they might panic, and then it’s resisting.
In this case then you’ve described how something like a routine traffic stop could escalate to a physical confrontation. But what incentive would an officer have to manipulate the situation like that?
A lot of it is unconscious because you’re doing what you’re trained to do, but you’re doing it poorly. We also base law enforcement activity on arrests, which is the opposite of what we should be doing. Success should be measured by the absence of crime, not number of arrests. If you manipulate people into getting an arrest, you look like you solved a problem." [More]
*Pic from youtube.com
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