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'We have to acknowledge there's an issue': Local cops share ideas for a way forward

'We have to acknowledge there's an issue': Local cops share ideas for a way forward

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Cowlitz County Undersheriff Darren Ullmann has a blunt message for his law enforcement brethren.

As painful as it might be, and whether they are valid or not, officers need to take an honest look at complaints about police violence and bias.

“We have to acknowledge there’s an issue,” Ullmann said in an interview last week. “When people have a perception they are wronged, there’s a reason behind that. ... We have to acknowledge at some point along the line, maybe we have something to do with it. Not all law enforcement, but law enforcement in general.”

If agencies don’t address public concerns, controversial incidents at other departments will drive public and political reaction here and across the state and nation, Ullmann said: “A citizen’s initiative is going to come up, like it has before, or the Legislature is going to create mandates that affect all law enforcement when we had nothing to do with it.”

Ullmann was one of a few local law enforcement officers willing to discuss his thoughts and feelings about the national outage and concern over the May 25 death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police. He and deputy Cory Robinson (president of the Sheriff’s Deputies and Sergeants guild) and Kalama Police Chief Ralph Herrera shared ideas on what agencies and governments can consider to improve relationships with the public, and what proposals they don’t think are realistic.

“I think the most frustrating part is for younger officers who haven’t been doing the job for a long time. They’re literally riding on that pendulum (of public opinion),” Herrera said, “experiencing that roller-coaster ride of public support and gratitude ... to essentially being lumped into a law enforcement culture that winds up being vilified.”

Reconsidering the workload

If nothing else, officers may be overburdened, because society is asking police to handle too many situations they’re not trained for, or that could be handled better by others, the officers said.

Officers often are asked to respond to mental health crises, civil disputes, substance abuse, homelessness issues and non-criminal matters. Because it’s expensive to pay specialists for those issues, law enforcement “has become the catch-all” for many conflicts, Ullmann said.

“The profession as a whole has been asked to do a tremendous amount,” Herrera said.

Deputies “are not counselors,” Ullmann said. “(Often) we show up (to a mental health call), no one’s being hurt or breaking laws, and there’s nothing we can do, so we leave. It’s gotten better, (and) we have more of a working relationship with emergency mental health (services), but it’s not enough. ... We should be going in, if requested, to assist, but we should not be the primary response. If a person is in crisis, that has to be dealt with by a professional.”

While deputies do receive crisis intervention training, “they’re the experts,” Robinson said of the local crisis response team. “They go to school for six years and get master degrees.”

And nuisance issues like noisy neighbors, in an ideal world, shouldn’t be the domain of police and deputies either, Ullmann said. Without having to handle civil disputes over property lines or people having a non-violent mental health crisis, “we (could) focus on proactive policing,” Ullmann said. “It can really change how things are happening.”

Policing the police

But police do need to be held accountable, and part of that involves “making it a part of our DNA” to intervene when officers witness illegal or out-of-line behavior from their peers, Herrera said.

“If you truly care about having your partner’s back, there are occasions where you can step in and save them from themselves,” Herrera said. “These are human beings doing these jobs under tremendous stress. … I’d be hard-pressed to see a law enforcement leader that disagrees that if your’re an officer, witnessing something you can clearly identify as out bounds, (that) you shouldn’t intervene.”

Ullmann said the stresses of the job, include witnessing the dark side of human nature, can cause an an “us-versus-them” mentality to develop among officers.

The negativity from stressful calls and public vitriol “wears on people after a while,” he said. “You can only keep that pent up so long. So when you’re attacked by media (and) politicians ... you get these officers sticking to each-other. … It unfortunately creates an us-versus-them mentality, and that’s what our problem is. We work for this community, and we live in this community.”

“(Look at) what happened in Minnesota,” Ullmann added. “Nobody stopped (officer Derek Chauvin) from what he was doing (to George Floyd). Why not? Probably for fear of being ridiculed, or for ‘not taking care of your buddy.’ We have to change that mindset. If somebody’s doing something wrong, they have to be called on it and stopped. We have it in our policy. … if you witness an act by a fellow deputy, you have to stop that act.”

Public outreach needed

Robinson emphasized that agencies benefit from more public outreach, especially in explaining tactics when force is necessary, and to explain how policing has changed over the years.

“Many times we don’t really offer that information up publicly, so people are left to make that decision on their own,” he said. “ ‘Here’s why we do things, there’s the alternatives we thought about and why they don’t work.’ Then people can see the effort we put in. I don’t think people see that process that goes on … so perhaps they don’t think it’s going on, and it creates the perception that we’re not being self aware.”

Perhaps the most critical part of that outreach is explaining how, when, and why police and deputies use force.

What officers did to George Floyd was “inexcusable,” Herrera said. Floyd died after an officer kneeled on his neck for nearly eight minutes (prosecutors in that case said Thursday their initial timeline of 8 minutes, 46 seconds was off by a minute), and the officer has been charged with murder.

“Never in my career, not a single trainer ... or any supervisor I’ve ever associated with throughout my 23 years has ever taught or trained me to think that the tactics, techniques and decisions made there are OK,” Herrera said.

Ullmann was “shocked” by what he saw in the video, and called Chavuin’s ignorance of appropriate use of force “appalling.” And each of the three, including Robinson, said they regret that the decisions made by the Minneapolis officers have smeared law enforcement nationally.

But the occasional use of force “is an inherent part of what we do,” Herrera said, as long as it’s done appropriately and “in response to an offenders’ resistance.”

Only 38 calls for service handled by sheriff’s deputies in 2019 involved a documented use of force, Chief Criminal Deputy Troy Brightbill said, and no complaints of excessive force were received. It’s the other thousands of routine calls that Ullmann said get missed in the conversation.

“Defunding” police?

Protesters and police reform advocates have called for reducing or even outright eliminating police budgets and spending the money on other ways of intervening with mental health, drug-related and other societal issues. The three lawmen are, unsurprisingly, wary of the idea if it doesn’t come with a plan.

“If we’re not responding to those calls, can you divert some money? Possibly,” Ullmann said. “But I’d be hesitant until we had a chance to explore all these options. ... You need to develop a smarter way of doing business, and that’s going to cost money.”

Making big cuts without plans “would cripple the sheriff’s office” and lead to more stressed-out deputies, he said, especially since most costs are personnel related. And training is often the first thing to go when departments cut budgets, Herrera said.

“If you subscribe to the idea that we’ve got work to do, we should be delivering more training,” Herrera said. “We don’t accomplish that slashing budgets. ... (But) every jurisdiction is different. That conversation can be different at Kalama compared to NYPD or LAPD.”

“In any business, if you want good people, wages should be good,” Robinson said. “If you lower wages, then people with the skills you want will find jobs (elsewhere.) … Then you just create a situation where you don’t have the quality of the people you want, and they don’t get the training or equipment they need to do things correctly.”

More reforms inevitable

Protesters and politicians have called for a range of reforms following Floyd’s death: Among them are a ban on chokeholds and “no knock” warrants and expanded use of officer body cameras.

The local lawmen were receptive to some of those ideas, but they cautioned against broad-brush reforms that don’t take in differences among police agencies.

The local officers drew a distinction between chokeholds, which in common parlance refer to blocking a person’s airway, and “vascular neck restraints,” in which blood flow and oxygen to the brain is restrained but the airway is left open. Deputies are trained to use neck restraints, Ullmann said, and he acknowledged that like many tactics, “if somebody made a mistake and did it wrong, yes, somebody can die.”

Either way, Robinson said he’s never used the techniques.

In 14 years of law enforcement, Robinson said he’s also never seen a no-knock warrant used locally. Ullmann concurred for his nearly 20-year career and said it would be “a very, very rare circumstance” that officers here could even get authorization to use one.

None of the three objected to using body cameras themselves, but cost, especially for maintaining and redacting the video, is the main issue.

“Do I see it in the future? I do,” Ullmann said. “I think it’s going to be one of those unfunded mandates. ... Do I want to wear a camera all day long, not necessarily, but I have nothing to hide. Watch the film, I don’t care. I did my job. But not everybody has that mindset.”

And there are practical concerns over when officers can turn cameras off, Robinson pointed out, such as while talking to sex crime victims, people anonymously reporting a crime, or even when an officer needs to use the restroom.

Some calls for reform are already underway in Washington State. 2018 ballot initiative I-940 requires independent investigations into uses of deadly force, mandatory de-escalation, implicit bias and mental health training for officers, more community involvement and oversight and a policy that officers have a duty to render first aid. It also replaced the standard of “malice” with a “good faith” standard when it comes to criminally charging officers for unlawful uses of deadly force.

That’s why Ullmann said he’s wary of broad strokes reform efforts: “What happens in New York City, Chicago, or Seattle is very different than what happens in Cowlitz County ... I want to get ahead of it and create our own way through this process.”

If communities are going to continue relying on law enforcement, Ullmann said, the job needs to change — for everyone’s sake.

“We have guys that burn out on patrol way sooner than they should. A lot of that comes from that constant, constant negativity. We deal with negativity; that’s what our job has become. … If we can look at the culture of policing, maybe we can fix that and find another way of doing business that isn’t such a drain.”

Herrera, who is white and Hispanic, said he experienced his own share of racism and prejudice growing up in Central Florida. He saw his own father endure it moving through his law enforcement career.

But Herrera said he hasn’t experienced racism from his law enforcement coworkers, even though that hasn’t made him immune to it outside of work. In Florida, he once had an interaction with an officer from another agency who didn’t realize Herrera was an off-duty cop.

“I hadn’t identified myself as law enforcement, and I was treated disrespectfully, dismissed and cast aside. Once ... I identified who I was, that tone changed. The interaction changed immediately. … I look at those experiences growing up, inside and outside of the profession, as examples of what I don’t ever want to see in my officers.”

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