By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.
Soldiers wear helmets. Does that mean that police officers should not? So do carpenters and motorcycle riders. The purpose is the protect the head from injury. In case no one noticed, police officers on the front lines of this season of protest have been the target of bricks, bottles of frozen liquid, and a variety of home-made missiles. Should firefighters run bareheaded into unsafe structures to avoid looking intimidating?
Soldiers carry rifles. Does that mean that police officers should not? Before the news was full of protests, it was full of stories about mass casualty shootings at schools, workplaces, and public places. Given the relative short-range effectiveness of handguns, shouldn’t the police have at least the level of weapons wielded by those who would destroy dozens of lives using rifles? Weren’t there rifles seized from lawbreakers in the violent outbreaks of the last year? Very few select law enforcement units carry fully automatic weapons. What makes a rifle look scary doesn’t make it a machine gun.
Soldiers ride into hostile territory protected inside armored vehicles. Does that mean that police officers should be deprived of vehicles that are able to enter into areas where active gunfire is occurring or likely to occur in order to be deployed and, more importantly, to rescue the injured? Issued a challenge to anyone who could prove that any of these civilian law enforcement vehicles was configured with an automatic weapon, there was no one able to collect on the offer. Rescue vehicles are available for entry into high water areas as well as being a barrier for armed attacks against citizens and police officers engaged in their essential duties.
Should police officers stand between protestors and targets of violence with no shields to prevent being disabled by caustic chemicals and objects launched against them? Should they have no protection for their knees, shins, and eyes? Agencies are criticized for the aggressive look of this protective gear if things remain peaceful. They are blamed for the protests that turn violent for provoking civilians with their protective gear. And they are condemned for not standing at the steps of the Capitol wearing their protective gear to prevent the very thing that happened.
Should tear gas be banned for crowd management? Tear gas is not an offensive weapon intended to harm or punish. It is used to protect space and to redirect crowds. In a well prepared and trained crowd management operation, it is used to protect vulnerable areas without injury to lawful protestors. Its effects are temporary and preceded by warnings to those who want to be out of the area when deployed.
When professional agitators and insurgents are a known component of violent action during peaceful protests, should law enforcement be prohibited from using video surveillance of the crowds to hold the true lawbreakers accountable at the same time they are mandated to wear body cameras to hold their own behavior accountable?
No one should question the need for careful review of law enforcement’s response to civil unrest. Long before the call for police reform, this has been standard practice both internally and externally. The purpose of these after-action analyses is to examine the effectiveness and appropriateness of the tools and tactics involved. Mere Monday morning quarterbacking to place blame and impose punishment will not do. An objective examination of every event, whether violent or entirely peaceful, can reduce errors and injury. Whether that can happen in today’s superheated political environment where success is never recognized, and finding fault to lay at the feet of a particular political party or group is the goal, remains to be seen. Whether these data-informed examinations can take place before unnecessary and knee-jerk legislation is passed is unlikely. Whether there are enough people, policymakers, and leaders willing to listen to rational analysis is another unknown.
Taking useful tools from those who need them to accomplish their lawfully mandated mission can only lead to failure.