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Rod Watson: Either we change policing, or we could be next

"Thanks to Deputy Richard, the streets were safer that evening." – Erie County Sheriff’s Chief John Greenan


Technically, Greenan was right. Since Deputy Lee Richard was in a parking lot – not on the streets – when he slammed 57-year-old Bobbie Mael to the pavement, leaving her face a bloody mess of cuts and bruises, the streets themselves were safer, at least temporarily.

But how does a middle-aged woman end up on the pavement, with bruises all over and complaints of a concussion, just for exercising her right not to take a field sobriety test and seeing no need to exit her car after pulling into the lot because she felt sick?

Because of lousy policing.

That problem seems to be endemic to the Sheriff’s Office, if suicides and assaults in its jails are any indication.

But it’s hardly confined to that one agency. And it’s more than just poor training. It’s also the "us versus them" culture we’ve allowed police to establish, said former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, author of "Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing" and "To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police."

Woman refuses sobriety test, deputy gives her 'face-plant' to pavement

Stamper traces the problem to Richard Nixon’s war on drugs (many also consider alcohol a drug), which led to a militarization of departments and a "we’re the police, and you’re not" attitude.

Under that scenario, "a 57-year-old woman defying the authority of a police officer is the enemy," Stamper said, providing as good an explanation as any for how a routine traffic stop could turn into this.

We also have no national standards for use of force, de-escalation training and other key components of police work, he said, calling such standards "vital" for holding officers accountable and ensuring that problem cops get dealt with.

Unprompted and knowing little about the local incident, Stamper said, "My strong suspicion is that the officer is a repeat offender."

That’s exactly what Mael’s lawyer is trying to find out in seeking Richard’s personnel file. Mael is suing Richard and the sheriff over the 2012 Christmas day incident, after being found guilty of DWI and those handy catch-all charges: obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest.

In parts of the deposition obtained by The Buffalo News, Richard did not contend that Mael mouthed off or threatened him before he pulled her from the car and face-planted her into the pavement to "control the individual." Her offense merely was refusing his commands, which makes it all the more baffling why a skilled cop couldn’t have found another solution, even when dealing with a drinker.

But such a refusal, Stamper said, is the type of challenge that can set off a cop who’s become "hooked emotionally" and can’t control his reactions. He recalls a speaker who once talked about the need for training that lets officers know they can handle a "real American." The speaker then defined that term as "somebody who questions your authority," noting that the country was founded by people who questioned authority.

Instead, too many cops lose it as soon as somebody asks, "Where does it say that I have to get out of my car?" Caught up in the us-versus-them mentality, they feel that not only has their authority been challenged, but so has their very identity, and they react accordingly, Stamper said.

He advocates "experiential" training that puts cops in simulated situations so they can see changes in their blood pressure, pulse rate and other physiological measures and, armed with that knowledge, adjust their behavior accordingly.

He also would "put the community in the driver’s seat" by having residents sit in on the hiring process, training sessions, etc. so that police and citizens work in "as close to a seamless style as we can."

But little of what he calls for is done in police departments now. Instead, many opt for accreditation programs that Stamper said focus more on meeting internal, bureaucratic standards than on how police actually interact with citizens. The Sheriff’s Office, for instance, is accredited – for all the good it has done.

It would take a wave of public outrage to prompt the changes Stamper envisions. The problem is that none of us expect to be in a physical confrontation with police. We think that only happens to street thugs and other miscreants who deserve whatever they get. And that false sense of security means it may take hundreds – or thousands – of Bobbie Maels before there is a public groundswell for the type of reform that is needed.

Which leaves only one question: Which of us will be next?


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