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Diary from the Citizen Police Academy: Ethics, Weapons and More

Here are some combined notes from the last two sessions of the San Leandro Citizens Police Academy.

Apologies! I’m playing catch-up here, so combining some notes from the last two police academy classes.

But first, a quick story: I ran into someone yesterday who had gone through the first Citizen Police Academy class (or the first one in a long time, anyway) a few years ago. She said before taking the course, she had never talked to a police officer and hadn’t particularly wanted to. She said the course completely changed, for the better, the way she thinks about our local police force and the job of a police officer.

I hadn’t had much contact with police in my life before becoming a reporter, and even then, most of my experience with police has been with Guatemalan police, which is a whole different story (actually, I have some really funny stories that I’ll share sometime with anyone who’s interested). 

The police – reporter relationship is an interesting one. Obviously, reporters depend on police for a lot of information. But at the same time, since they’re in a position of great power, we have our eyes on them.

There’s a guy who works for the Oakland Tribune who’s famed for getting crime/police stories out before anyone else because he has a tight relationship with the police. I remember having a heated discussion about him once in journalism school, and debating how close is too close to get to your sources.

It’s tough for journalists to manage source relationships, but that’s why they pay us the big bucks (yeah right).

In any case, if you’re going to cover a government agency, you should know how it works. So I’m very thankful to be taking the Citizen Police Academy and getting incredibly valuable lessons in how and why cops do what they do.

Our third session of the academy was dedicated to emergency preparedness and police ethics. Since the latter is obviously juicier than the former, I’ll keep the former short.

Kathy Ornelas, the city’s community relations manager and jack of many other trades (did you know she was a police officer for six years?), talked about the city’s role in emergency situations, and preparing for disasters.

One of Ornelas’s many hats at the city is that of emergency services coordinator. The new Senior Community Center on East 14th Street doubles as the city’s emergency operations center, in case of need. That’s where the city would base any sort of emergency response, not where residents should go in case of an emergency.

AM 1610 is San Leandro’s emergency radio station, where residents should tune in for information if there’s an emergency at the local level. In case you haven’t heard it, the city tests its alert system every first Wednesday of the month at noon.

Ornelas emphasized the need for families to have an emergency plan in place, and supplies at the ready — a week’s worth of supplies, not just 72 hours, as used to be standard advice.

The Alameda County Fire Department has an interesting program called “Map Your Neighborhood,” where neighborhood groups are asked to get together and plan a community response to a disaster, mapping out key people and places, like local shelters.  You can find out more on the fire department’s website (click on the link above).

 

Ethics

Mike Sobek, from the police department’s special investigations unit, gave the talk on police ethics. Sobek does a lot of work around the state on police labor issues. He was appointed by former governor Schwarzenegger to the Commission on Police Officer Standards and Training, which helps set standards for selection and training of California police officers.

Sobek talked about the kinds of things the San Leandro Police Department looks for in new recruits, including honesty, an unwavering belief system, impulse and anger control, and ability to accept responsibility for mistakes. He said the department could afford to be very picky in choosing new officers because it’s so small.

Sobek said things have changed a lot in terms of police handling of civilians’ personal information. When he started as an officer 28 years ago, young cops would look up information on film stars and the like, just for fun.

Now, officers have to document their reason for accessing someone’s personal information.

Officers are prohibited from taking any gratuities from the people they serve, so no free coffee at the gas station or donut shop.

One thing Sobek said provoked a long discussion: while officers are screened for a history of substance abuse when they’re brought on board, the department does no routine drug testing after that.

Some in the citizens academy thought the department should absolutely be drug-testing officers, especially following an officer-involved shooting. Sobek said supervisors can test anyone they suspect of being under the influence, but rarely do so. He said supervisors work so closely with officers every day that they would know if someone was using drugs or alcohol on the job.

What do you think?

 

Day 4

The highlights of last week’s class at the citizens police academy were show and tell weaponry, and an interesting discussion on Miranda rights.

Contrary to what many people believe from watching cop shows on television, police officers don’t have to read a person his or her Miranda rights until after that person is arrested, and until just before questioning.

So you could be detained by the police, say put in handcuffs, but not yet arrested, and if you say something incriminating, that evidence could potentially be used in court against you.

Officers can even take you to jail before admonishing you of your right to remain silent if that officer doesn’t question you. It’s only before questioning that a suspect must be admonished.

Also, if a suspect comes in for questioning voluntarily, the officer doesn’t have to read that person his or her Miranda rights. (More info at the link above.)

During the second half of last week’s session, several officers explained the department’s policy on the use of force against suspects. The department can use tasers, high-powered pepper spray and a couple of other scary looking “less-lethal” weapons if a suspect is actively resisting an officer or displaying assaultive behavior.

If an officer thinks his or her life is in danger, or a suspect’s actions could cause great bodily harm, that officer is trained to shoot to kill.

I asked, probably naively, whether an officer ever aims his or her gun at a suspect’s leg or some other part of the body not likely to kill the person. The answer was no, because if you aim for anything other than the chest, you’re more likely to miss and a stray bullet could kill someone else. Plus, that missed hit could be the end of the officer’s life.

With so many police-involved shootings in the Bay Area lately, the use of force by officers is a delicate subject. If the shooting isn’t caught on someone’s cell phone, it’s extremely hard for the public to make an informed judgment about whether or not the shooting was justified. Even then, it’s always impossible to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

That’s all I’m going to say about that. Every case is, of course, different. I do think that the police providing more information about these cases, rather than less, and about why officers make the decisions they do, would help prevent people from jumping to conclusions. 

Marga Lacabe April 13, 2011 at 07:23 PM
Interesting article. What did Sobek mean by "an unwavering belief system"? With respect to Miranda, the rule is that the police has to read you your Miranda rights after they take you into custody (which may not involve handcuffs) but before they interrogate you (and that means, before they ask you any questions). If you volunteer information, before or after you've been read your Miranda rights, that's your problem. One thing that we should ALL keep in mind in case we are arrested is that the 5th amendment right to counsel is much stronger than the 5th amendment right to silence. Even if you tell the police you don't want to talk when you're first arrested, you may still unwittingly consent to an interrogation later on. But once you tell them you want a lawyer, they cannot ask you any more questions period (well, they can, but the information can't be used against you). So the first thing you must do when arrested is say "I want to talk to a lawyer". Finally, you make the comment: "If the shooting isn’t caught on someone’s cell phone, it’s extremely hard for the public to make an informed judgment about whether or not the shooting was justified. Even then, it’s always impossible to put yourself in someone else’s shoes." But isn't this true about /all/ criminal cases, regardless of who were the perpetrators? If you're not there, you don't really know what happened. The best thing you can and should do is look at all the evidence objectively.
Leah Hall April 13, 2011 at 07:56 PM
For those of us who work in the construction sector and have responsibility for human safety in the structures we help create, one thing we all know is that we learn from other's mistakes and natural disasters. This fact is no more readily apparent, perhaps, than in the wake of the disasters in New Orleans and Haiti. I was surprised and fascinated to see a couple of recent reports on PBS's program, Frontline. In these investigative reports, Frontline looks at the breakdown of the New Orlean's Police Department in one and at the accidental release of Haiti's most dangerous criminals and nearly futile attempts by good police to recapture them (to an overcrowded and partially collapsed prison facility) in the other. In the case of both television programs, it turns out that the violations of civil rights that happened in the aftermath of each disaster were not likely the result of momentary lapses in judgement on the part of the police and politicians but of deeper systemic violations which merely became apparent in a time of great need of each city's inhabitants.
Leah Hall April 13, 2011 at 07:56 PM
I would expect that police departments, politicians and local civil rights advocates all over the world are taking a close look at these two cases in order to learn and identify areas of reform. The website for Frontline posts that a 158 page report on the New Orleans Police Department has been issued on March 17th and that it identifies "a host of deep systemic problems, including a pattern of discriminatory policing, the routine use of "unnecessary and unreasonable" force, and a chonic failure to discipline officers involved in misconduct. http://www.propublica.org/nola/story/feds-find-systemic-violations-of-civil-rights-by-new-orleans-police-departm
Thomas Clarke April 14, 2011 at 05:18 AM
The lack of drug testing, including alcohol testing, ought to be the first flag raised to the issue of law enforcement ethics. The second flag is the relative immunity from prosecution for most citations, including a great many misdemeanors. The third flag is the protection that the union provides which is far in excess of those protections of common citizens. These three flags highlight the deep systemic problems of discriminatory policing, unnecessary and unreasonable force and the chronic failures to discipline officers who are involved in misconduct or criminal behavior. Last but not least is the failure of the local law enforcement agency to provide the police blotter which is a full and complete public record of criminal calls and arrests of criminals. That the Concord Police Department does provide the blotter gives the lie to the responses from the Hayward PD, San Leandro PD and the Alameda County Sheriff's Office. Keeping the facts away from the public shields the police from misconduct investigations. San Leandro is among the most secretive and litigated law enforcement departments in the East Bay. The Chief has not indicated much interest in changing that attitude.
Fran April 14, 2011 at 02:01 PM
Unfortunately, it isn't uncommon not to test. Portland, OR just passed a law requiring on-going drug testing, including steroids, also required after certain "incidents". I see no justification not to randomly test, as these tests are so prevalent in our society. We place a lot of trust in the police, add to that their access to illegal drugs, weapons, and operating a motor vehicle.
Marga Lacabe April 14, 2011 at 04:27 PM
I'm personally not concerned about random drug testing. I couldn't care less if cops smoked some weed during off hours. Plus apparently, steroid use is more likely to cause aggressive behavior and, AFAIK, they are not prohibited from taking steroids in SL (or are they?). If the use of hard-drugs was a known or widespread problem in Police Departments I might think differently, but I don't think we need to find solutions where there are no documented problems, and then we need to find the best solutions not the easiest ones. And look, while I'll be the first to say that we need to keep a very watchful eye over the police - and everyone else we vest with public power -, we also need to have some trust in the institution and their leaders. If we cannot trust police higher ups to notice and test any officer who seems to be under the influence of drugs, then we have much higher problems with our police force and those are the ones that we must address. Now, I have my issues with the SLPD (lack of transparency being the big one) but I don't think we have any evidence of systemic overuse of force. If I'm wrong, I'd hope our local media would investigate these issues and bring them to light. If I'm right, however, then I think it's more important to figure out what the particular causes of the individual overuses of force have been and address those.
Thomas Clarke April 14, 2011 at 05:47 PM
The good news is that the public will never know if there is a chemical dependency problem, domestic violence problem, serious financial problem, steroid problem, or a tradition of intolerance within the police department. The Police Officer's Union will not permit it, and they will be as successful as Major League Baseball has been. On the other hand if you get to know about the cops, you will find that they have all of these problems, and in some cases well beyond the occurrence in the general population. The cops are not tested and so their patterns of abusive behavior continue until they explode, either in family assault, suicide or a pattern of violene in the community. All one needs to do is to look at the cars they drive and their macho posturing when off duty. All that is needed to validate this is to go out in to the community and ask. But that is unlikely to happen given the interest in transparency of the local law enforcement agencies.
Fran April 14, 2011 at 06:21 PM
Just saying it's a tad hypocritical of our society to not test those we put our utmost trust in, and on the other hand the most menial workers and some high school students are subjected to random tests, and there's talk of testing student loan and welfare recipients. Having a random testing policy in place couldn't hurt, you would think they would welcome one. Police are only human, and as such they are not immune to the same problems plaguing all segments of our society.
Leah Hall April 14, 2011 at 08:04 PM
"Covering the Cops: Reporting on One of Journalism's Most Exciting & Stressful Beats" by Tony Rogers. I found this article aimed at aspiring journalists, but thought it might be of interest to those who posted above also. http://journalism.about.com/od/reporting/a/police.htm
Leah Hall April 14, 2011 at 08:46 PM
re: I think it's more important to figure out what the particular causes of the individual overuses of force have been and address those. Just playing devil's advocate here for a moment. That particular strategy may lack in efficacy in terms of best practices for police training, conduct and accountability, for juries overwhelmingly decide for the defense/police officer plaintiff when individual officers are prosecuted in a court of law, if indeed a particular case goes that far. In the case of deadly force, police *forces* find themselves under criticism for this in particular. Tension increases when a police officer of one ethnic group harms or kills a suspect of another one. "Police departments and the local governments that oversee them in some jurisdictions have attempted to mitigate some of these issues through community outreach programs and community policing to make the police more accessible to the concerns of local communities, by working to increase hiring diversity, by updating training of police in their responsibilities to the community and under the law, and by increased oversight within the department or by civilian commissions."
Leah Hall April 14, 2011 at 08:47 PM
"In cases in which such measures have been lacking or absent, civil law suits have been brought by the United States Department of Justice against local law enforcement agencies, authorized under the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. This has compelled local departments to make organizational changes, enter into consent decree settlements to adopt such measures, and submit to oversight by the Justice Department." from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Police_department#Conduct_and_accountability
ellen turinsky May 07, 2011 at 05:31 AM
"Police officers" are just like anyone else and are human, as you are. I don't think there's anyone that can say they haven't been affected by some of these same problems somewhere in their life or family. Because police officers may have issues such as abusive behavior, violent tempers, etc., etc., is not caused because they are not being tested. You have to look at the "general population" and ask why do they continue to progress in such behavior? Is it because they are not tested? I don't think so. I also find your sentence "All one needs to do is to look at the cars they drive and their macho posturing when off duty" as EXTREMELY judgmental and generalizing. I have found over the last 10 yrs. a large growth in the demeanor and sensitivity of police officers. I have lived in San Leandro for almost 35 yrs. now and have not had a bad experience with a police officer. Sure, there are the macho posturing ones, but wouldn't you want a macho man or tough guy out there proecting your city, someone not afraid to go in first and deal with a dangerous situation, instead of a wimp who can't look at his own shadow? When I have had to deal with any officers, they have always been respectful, helpful and kind. I think what they drive off duty or how they act off duty is the same as you or I. Do you act the same at home as you do at work? There are many men out there today that are very "Macho" and have a "Macho Posturing." I imagine many of them are not police officers.

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