Parsing The Rulebook To A Police Officer's Use Of Force
More than a week now from the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., it's worth asking: Ideally, what should happen with a police officer stops someone in the street? To find out about police best practices, Robert Siegel speaks with Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia's police commissioner.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Well, while investigators sort out what happened in Ferguson, we're going to ask ideally what should happen anywhere when a police officer stops someone in the street. What do police chiefs regard as best practices? Charles Ramsey is the police commissioner of Philadelphia and president of the Police Executive Research Forum or PERF. And he joins us now from Philadelphia. Welcome to the program.
CHARLES RAMSEY: Thank you.
SIEGEL: In a recent report by PERF on minimizing the use of force, the San Diego police chief said that the issue of the police-use of forces is what keeps police chiefs awake at night. Is that right?
RAMSEY: Well, it's certainly one of the things that keeps you up at night because there's always a concern that all it takes is one incident to not go well and then you have a problem on your hands.
SIEGEL: Let's talk about how to make things go well. Two young men walking down the middle of the street - not unique to Ferguson, Missouri, nor is a police officer getting some lip from them. He says something impolite back to the cop. What does the police officer do?
RAMSEY: Well, you know, listen, we have - I've had a lot of impolite things said to me and I think every police officer has. There's a certain amount of things that you just have to be able to deal with. And certainly no one wants to be spoken to in a disrespectful way. However, it does on occasion happen. That in and of itself is not something that you can arrest an individual for.
SIEGEL: Well, assuming that there's now the potential for some kind of conflict, how do you avoid what might be a case of angry words exchanged escalating into a shooting incident?
RAMSEY: Well, but you do it through de-escalation. I mean, a lot of situations start off at a very high level for whatever reason - you know, stress, bad day, whatever it may be that really causes the exchange to start off in a negative tone. But someone has to take control of it and do everything they can to try to de-escalate the situation. Very few contacts between police and the public result in a shooting. There are situations where it may result in an arrest. There are situations where it results in actually absolutely nothing happening. But you've got to have the ability to be able to try your best to try to de-escalate a situation if you find it getting out of hand.
SIEGEL: Are there clear rules for police officers following best practices of when you can shoot - when you should shoot at somebody?
RAMSEY: Absolutely. It's all part of legal guidelines, actually. If you feel that your life is being immediately threatened or the life of another, you can resort to deadly force - now, as a last resort. And certainly there's nothing more important than sanctity of life. But there are circumstances, unfortunately, when an officer would have to resort to deadly force.
SIEGEL: If an officer senses that something's getting out of control, should he call for help? Is he instructed to call for another officer?
RAMSEY: If you are able to call for an assist, then call for an assist. Because again, if you have more than one person present at a scene, oftentimes it makes it easier to gain control of a situation and minimize the amount of force that has to be used. Sometimes you don't see it coming. Sometimes you don't see a situation escalating. And it doesn't take long for these things to happen. It can happen very very quickly.
SIEGEL: Are officers told that when you do shoot, you are shooting to kill, to stop the suspect from advancing, to disable? What is the point of shooting at that moment?
RAMSEY: Well, you want to stop the threat. You want to neutralize the threat.
SIEGEL: But killing obviously neutralizes the threat, but is there...
RAMSEY: Well, but, I mean, not everyone who is shot by a police officer dies.
RAMSEY: I mean, but you want to - you want to neutralize the threat. But, you know, this notion like on TV where you can shoot a gun out of somebody's hand or whatever - I mean, you have to also be concerned about the background. I mean, if you fire a bullet, it's going to continue until it stops. And if you miss an individual - if it penetrates and goes through, then there's somebody else down the street that you didn't intend to shoot that could be struck. So there's a lot of things that happen. And remember, these things happen in a matter of seconds. I mean, this isn't - we replay it over and over again. We think about it and talk about it for months at a time. But it is - it starts and it's finished within five or six seconds in most instances. That's the reality of it. And so you don't have a lot of time to really think about all this stuff. You have to really rely on your training.
SIEGEL: In the Police Executive Research Forum report that I mentioned - the report on minimizing the use of force, the San Diego police chief said something else that was very interesting. He said that everybody on their police force naturally wants to be a narcotics detective or a homicide detective, whereas those aren't your problem areas. The officers on the street are the most difficult. And so he says whenever people get promoted now, he has them, quote, "volunteer to get back in uniform and be back on the streets so that they remain in touch with what most police officers facing the most problematic situations face." Does that make sense to you?
RAMSEY: It makes total sense to me. And I share his philosophy. This job is about helping people. It's about interacting on a positive level with people. For an example, here in Philadelphia since I've been here - in 2008 is when I took over this department. All of the recruits that graduate from our police academy start off on foot patrol in areas of our city that have a high concentration of crime being committed in public space. Now it does a couple things. One, it does have an impact on crime. Temple University did a study here that showed a 22 percent decline in crime in the areas where we establish foot patrol. But more important than that, it teaches them at a very early age that there are more decent law-abiding citizens living in that challenged neighborhood than there are criminals or people causing problems. You don't get that when you're driving 30 miles an hour in a Crown Vic down a street. You do get it when you're walking down a street and you have a chance to interact with everyday people on a positive note.
SIEGEL: So you're saying the experience of doing foot patrol makes for a better police officer?
RAMSEY: I think so. I think so. I mean, I think that it's something that we lost over time as we got more and more motorized. But I think that is something we need to recapture. That's just my personal philosophy. And I don't mean just walking down a major business corridor checking on businesses. Not that that's not important and you do need that. But let's get out there in the neighborhoods. Let's meet Ms. Smith, Ms. Jones. Let's find out what the issues are. You know firsthand - who are the people out here causing problems? Who are the people that can support and help you? Build those relationships. I mean, you can't lose when you have that kind of situation.
SIEGEL: I know you have a city police force to run. But to the extent that you've paid any attention at all to what's going on in Missouri, is there anything about it that's got you scratching your head and being surprised by the way the police have handled it, the way people have reacted to the police - whichever?
RAMSEY: Well, I mean, you know, I think everyone has been kind of watching it. If you watch TV, in fact, you don't have much choice since that seems to be the only thing on many of the cable news channels today. But certainly everyone is kind of, you know, looking at it and learning from it actually in terms of the crowd control and the like. The people on the ground are the ones that really have the best feel for this. And I think though that on both sides the de-escalation has to take place to get things back down so that cooler heads prevail. Our job as police is to help protect the constitutional rights of people to exercise their First Amendment rights.
SIEGEL: Ferguson seems to be a rollercoaster - that is, it's out of control. It's under control. People are happy. It's out of control. Then it's under control again. Then all hell breaks loose again.
RAMSEY: But that's the way these things go. But that's the way these things can go. I mean, it's not pretty. And when you have intense media coverage like we have now, it is not easy to handle these kinds of things. And hopefully they get through it. But the next few days are going to be very challenging.
SIEGEL: Commissioner Ramsey, thank you very much for talking with us today.
RAMSEY: Thank you.
SIEGEL: That's Commissioner Charles Ramsey, police commissioner of Philadelphia, who incidentally is also president of the Police Executive Research Forum. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.