Wednesday, April 29, 2015

We're making changes to enhance community trust and officers' well-being

Whenever unrest between police and residents breaks out in other cities, our local media often ask me to comment about it. I don’t do that because I don’t want to lose my focus on improving trust here in Kansas City.

That said, I certainly am not oblivious to what is happening with police in other places. I actually spent time in Ferguson, Mo., today to talk to residents there and learn about their concerns. Law enforcement is under more scrutiny than ever before. That’s why we’re constantly working to build relationships with other segments of our community, rethinking the way we approach volatile situations and ensuring that our members are well enough mentally and physically to protect and serve with professionalism and integrity.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ve learned about many of the ways the members of the Kansas City Missouri Police Department are partnering and building trust with other community members. (I say “other community members” because we live here, too, and also are part of this community.) The latest initiative we undertook to ensure trust was earlier this month on Election Day. I appointed one of our captains to be an election liaison. His job was to investigate any complaints of officers interfering with the election process (something that happened during an unfortunate chapter of KCPD history in the 1930s), such as any officers intimidating or interfering with voters. One anonymous caller informed us that he thought he saw police officers passing out campaign material. The election liaison went to the location and investigated, but he couldn’t find anything. That was the only reported incident. We will continue using the election liaison at all future elections.

We’re also trying to change the way our officers think about volatile situations that can lead to officer-involved shootings. At this year’s in-service training (required for all officers), we’re teaching a course about tactical disengagement and redeployment. The instructor of the course, Sergeant Ward Smith, describes the idea well: “I can remain in this same position, and I’ll have to use force. But if I use tactics and training and think my way through this, I can pull out of this location and avoid shooting it out with someone.” This is a change of mindset for many. Throughout the history of law enforcement, we’ve had the idea of “never back down, never retreat.” We are encouraging and training our officers to use critical thinking and problem solving to avoid a situation in which they have to shoot someone to protect themselves. This is easier said than done, because oftentimes situations unfold rapidly, leaving officers seconds or less to make decisions. Although we've stressed critical thinking and problem solving in the past, with Sergeant Smith's training, we’re emphasizing the idea that there may be other options. Ultimately, however, we’re only in control of our actions, not the actions of suspects. When a suspect endangers the life of an officer or innocent person, that officer has the legal right to protect himself or herself and others using lethal force.

Our officers are trained to administer first aid and call for an ambulance at the earliest and safest opportunity when lethal force is used. Officers on this department are taught that if they are forced to shoot someone, and if that person is no longer posing a threat to them or others, the officer should immediately render medical care. Their care has kept those they’ve shot alive while awaiting ambulances on too many occasions for me to recall.

Our officers now must qualify on their firearms twice a year. But it isn’t just about hitting a target. A big part of this semiannual firearms training is threat assessment. It’s just as important for officers to know when not to shoot as it is to know when to shoot. Officers are tested in a number of shoot/don’t-shoot scenarios and must pass them to remain in service.

But all the training in the world won’t help an officer who isn’t well enough to effectively do his or her duty. I don’t just mean physical wellness. I’m putting a big focus this year on the overall wellness of our department members. One of the major components of this is addressing secondary trauma. First responders like police officers (and civilian staff like dispatchers and crime scene investigators) see and hear the most disturbing and evil things our society has to offer. They regularly see murdered bodies, abused children, mangled victims of car crashes and more heinous things that are unthinkable to most other people. They deal with angry and grieving loved ones. They are placed in stressful and life-threatening situations.

Those things undoubtedly have a physical, emotional and mental impact on officers, as they would on any human being, and can lead to devastating consequences, both on and off the job. Officers can experience compassion fatigue. In an attempt to protect themselves psychologically, they can stop caring for others. Cumulative secondary trauma also can change the way officers’ brains and bodies respond to things. They become hyper-vigilant and act out of a fight, flight or freeze state. That’s not safe for them or the people with whom they interact. Off the clock, secondary trauma also can devastate officers’ personal and family relationships.

We’ve teamed with Truman Behavioral Health to create training to address this issue. The first course was offered to KCPD employees this month. By the completion of training, participants should be able to define and identify secondary trauma and risk factors; describe the mind-body connection to secondary trauma in work and life; complete a variety of assessment tools; and practice, reflect upon and develop coping skills to build resiliency for self and peer support. Several peer support initiatives are underway, as well. We already have several informal groups meeting whose members are coping with a variety of issues from work and home, and we plan to expand and formalize those. We’re often so busy helping others that we can forget we need help, too.

Some of our officers also are participating in the Save a Warrior program. The Kansas City Star did a great feature on it a few weeks ago. It seeks to help those who have been in the military and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Our department has many military veterans.

These are just some of the many ways we’re trying to better care for our people so they can better care for their community. We’re sponsoring a peace rally at 10 a.m. this Saturday at 31st and Prospect. I want members of our department to come together with other members of the community to rally for peace in our city and our nation.

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