ELPD Chief Answers Questions about Bias, De-escalation Techniques

Monday, July 11, 2016, 8:15 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: ELPD Officer Adam Park and K9 Max, left, out in the community, and ELPD Chief Jeff Murphy, right, courtesy City of East Lansing

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought significant attention to the killing of African-Americans by police officers. Last week, social media circulated suggestions about what citizens should be asking their local police forces about anti-bias training, techniques used to de-escalate tense encounters, the use of non-lethal force in policing, and the like.

For ELi’s readers, I put a combination of these questions to East Lansing Police Department (ELPD) Chief Jeff Murphy, and a summary of our hour-long interview is provided below. We talked about what ELPD is doing to prevent and address problems, why Murphy very much wants citizens to report any concerns they have about perceived police mistreatment or misconduct, and what resources are being provided to our officers in the wake of the killing in Dallas last Friday of five police officers.

Anti-bias training: As ELi previously reported, MSU’s Police Department provides anti-bias training. I asked Murphy if all officers attend this or similar training.

Murphy notes that this kind of training provides “an awareness of your individual, inherent biases. This training’s main message is we all have biases and that we should look into them, be aware of them, and that’s one way to limit their effect on people you deal with.”

He says about 35 ELPD officers have gone through MSU’s program, and that not all did simply because of scheduling. (Someone has to be on shift, and at any given time, some officers will be on vacation.) He says that, within budgetary constraints, ELPD is looking to do more training of this type.

Community engagement: Throughout our conversation, Murphy made clear that he believes “what’s better than formalized training is getting out to know the community.” As examples of community engagement, he named officers being invited to and attending recent Black Lives Matter dinners, anti-gun-violence presentations, ACLU meetings, neighborhood ice cream socials, and the like.

Murphy told me, “We go to every one of these events that we can.” He added, “In my opinion, these are more valuable than a formalized training because it puts police officers and police administration and PACE officers, or whomever we send, face-to-face with regular people from the community and it gives everyone an opportunity to know each other and talk to each other in a non-traditional forum.” He noted this kind of engagement is recommended by President Obama in the report on “pillars of law enforcement.”

Murphy points out that, “when we deal with the public for arrests and traffic stops and tickets, those can be inherently negative experiences.” By contrast, in arranged community meetings, “it allows us—law enforcement—to see community members in a different light and it allows them to see law enforcement in a different light.”

As he has told ELi before, Murphy said the ELPD is fortunate to have uncommitted time for officers so that they can be scheduled to go to these events, barring extraordinary emergencies. Compared to East Lansing, “some communities don’t have uncommitted time and they are going call to call, all day long, so we are lucky in that respect.” He added, “We have the luxury of having uncommitted time to go there, and we want to get as much bang for our buck as possible in terms of use of uncommitted time.”

De-escalation and the use of non-lethal force: ELPD is mandated to follow the State of Michigan’s “force continuum” through MCOLES (the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards). The “force continuum” standards state what counts as appropriate use of force in various situations. Murphy explains that MCOLES oversees the training and licensing of police officers and may take away licenses if an officer is found to have used unreasonable force.

As for de-escalation, Murphy says, “that is more or less our business. Every call we go to is a de-escalation of some sort.” Whether an officer is called to a scene of domestic violence or a fight, “if we are dealing with people, we are de-escalating something.”

Murphy says that when ELPD interviews officers, the department asks candidates, “What do you think would be your most commonly used tool at ELPD?” Says Murphy, “the bad answer I’m looking for is ‘I’m going to use a gun or a baton.’ The absolute right answer is ‘I’m going to use communication.’” He says that’s what ELPD officers do “all day, every day, and anything else is very rare.”

Murphy told me that, “Years ago, the police would carry a radio and a gun, and maybe a baton. That doesn’t give you a lot of options between talking and shooting.” Today, he says, ELPD officers carry an asp baton (a collapsible baton), pepper spray, and a Taser. These provide ways to restrain a person who may be attacking an officer without the level of danger that comes with firing a gun.

Murphy says, “In modern policing, we want them to have as many options as they can because it is always better if we can resolve things with the least amount of force. It’s better for the community and better for the officer psychologically as well as legally. It’s better for everybody.”

He noted if force is overused, “the consequences are pretty grave for everyone involved. All the officers see when someone uses too much force, they see the consequences. The first one is your career is over. If you are found to use too much force or use force inappropriately, you end up getting terminated from a police force for it, and then there’s no police department that is ever going to hire you.” He noted as well that, “if it is bad enough, you’re also risking prosecution.”

Oversight of the use of force: The use of force is constantly monitored at ELPD. Policy states that, “any time [there is] any of use force, it has to be documented.” That means if an officer uses pepper spray or a baton, or uses an “arm-bar take-down,” then “it all has to be documented in a police report.” A supervisor reviews the report of force to see if the use was appropriate.

If the use of force is found to be inappropriate, ELPD will initiate an internal investigation or will seek criminal prosecution if the offense rises to that level. If an officer is found to have used force and not reported it, there will be disciplinary action taken against the officer.

How citizens can support de-escalation and anti-bias work by the ELPD: I asked Murphy if there are things citizens can do to support the ELPD in its attempts to use de-escalation techniques and to work against bias in policing. He responded, “The best way to support de-escalation would be to comply with police officers, comply with what they say” when you are involved with an encounter with an officer. He stresses there are always opportunities later to formally complain about the way you are treated by an officer, and that de-escalation is safest for everyone in the heat of the moment.

As for officers working from bias, Murphy says, while everyone has biases they need to recognize and deal with them.“There are obviously bad police officers just like in any other profession but our number one goal is if we have one, we want to identify that person and get rid of them, because a police officer who is not treating people appropriately is eventually going to destroy an organization.” He strongly encourages people who think they are dealing with bias in an encounter to report it, as noted below.

He said the main thing people in the community can do to help ELPD do a good job is, “simply, if they see a problem, tell us about it.” Supervisors can’t be out on every call, so if there’s a perceived problem, Murphy says he wants to make sure ELPD is told about it.

Dealing with an “us versus them” mentality: I asked Murphy, “Given racial tensions around African-Americans and police officers and the consequent mutual suspicion, what are we doing in East Lansing to ensure that African-American drivers (and other African-Americans) and police officers can approach each other without a heightened fear and heightened risk of violence?”

Murphy responded that he thought talking about it as “us versus them” was not helpful. He added, “I don’t think all African-Americans are suspicious of the police and I don’t think all police officers are suspicion of African-Americans. I’d be naïve to think that doesn’t happen, but I don’t think everybody is like that.”

He mentioned again the importance of “getting police officers out into the community.” He said an officer could drive around East Lansing for 25 or even 30 years, go on calls, help people, but never really come to know the people she or he is serving and to know what they expect of their officers. He wants his officers to engage with people in positive environments, not only when people are in distress or worse, caught conducting criminal activity. Only engaging with people during inherently negative moments, he said, leads to a cynical attitude that is hostile and unhelpful to the police department and the community.

Murphy said the ELPD is trying to diversify its force and that, “Every time we hire someone, we look at diversity and we try to hire the right people, the most qualified people for any of our jobs, but we are always conscious of diversity.” He said he wants to hire more African-Americans but that, “especially right now, with all the stuff in the media about police mistreatment and shooting of people, it’s evident by our applications that there are not a lot of African-American people in their early 20s who are dying to get a police job.” He expressed frustration at this: “When we most need to hire them, they are least available to us. We have had some success, especially with hiring women and African-American people, but not as much as what we’d like to have.”

Accountability: Murphy told me, “We expect our officers to treat everyone fairly, including co-workers. That’s enforced through our Code of Conduct.” He explained that on every shift, there is at least one supervisor in charge—which is not the case with all departments. All officers have it “hammered in” to them that, “if any officer sees any misconduct on the part of a fellow police officer, they are expected to report it.”

“Long gone,” Murphy told me, “are the days where officers can see another officer acting in appropriately and say ‘I’m just their peer, it’s not my problem’ and ignore it or, worse yet, hide it. It’s in the Code of Conduct and elsewhere that they are mandated to report violations of the policies, and even more importantly, criminal violations.”

Citizen oversight of police: When I asked Murphy about whether we have provisions in East Lansing for citizen oversight of the police to look into police shootings or charges of misconduct, he explained that our Human Relations Commission is specifically designated to be available for this.

A citizen who feels she or he was mistreated by an officer or by the ELPD could complain to that Commission, or to the ELPD itself, which would investigate the complaint. A complaint could also be made to the City Manager, although Murphy notes that would generally then be referred to him as Chief. He says the ELPD investigates all complaints and tells the person who filed the complaint what the outcome is.

Murphy strongly encourages anyone with a complaint to pass it along, because, he reiterated in our conversation, sometimes ELPD cannot know if there is a problem if the department doesn’t hear about it from a citizen. “The way we look at it is if someone is going to complain, they are doing us a favor.”

Sometimes, he says, the complaint arises from a misunderstanding, but regardless, he wants to know if someone feels he or she was mistreated by an officer. He says they investigate everything: anonymous complaints, emailed complaints, face-to-face complaints, complaints from people in the jail. “That helps us be a better police department.”

Additionally, Murphy says, a citizen can make a complaint to the State and also to the federal government, particularly if there is a concern about racial bias. Murphy says that when you “hear on the news that a police department is being investigated by the federal government for civil rights investigations, usually the police department is asking the federal government to investigate, because if they look at it themselves, it looks skewed.”

He added, “most departments want to be investigated by the federal government if they think there is a problem. That’s the best way to get rid of big problems in your police departments. It may cost a lot of money but you’re definitely going to solve the problem.”

In talking with me, Murphy reflected on policing: “there’s no profession that I know of in the U.S. that has more checks and balances than law enforcement...with good reason. It’s a lot of personal stuff for community members. You’re dealing with people on their worst days, in their homes, dealing with their families –law enforcement goes where others don’t. We also deal with everything no one else wants to deal with.”

He added, “A Police Department cannot say ‘we are overwhelmed today so you have to find a different place or you have to wait,’ like Community Mental Health might say. We can’t say that. We have to go when people call us. That’s the role of the police department and we have to come up with the best resolutions we can. So that’s another reason for all the oversight – modern policing is so diverse in what it deals with.”

“It’s getting more complicated because of all the mental health issues,” he told me. “There’s a lot of oversight and the time to argue your case is not on the street when you’ve been stopped. If a police officer says to do something, the best advice is to do it, and if you don’t agree with it, use one of the oversight methods to get the officers checked.”

He recommended, “Start with us, but use the community as well for oversight. Anyone can come to City Council and complain about the police, or go to the Human Relations Commission. Part of the community is people like you—if you, Alice, heard from a community member that the police were acting outside their authority, you would definitely do something about it. So that’s another form of oversight. That’s all in addition to state and federal means of oversight, especially when it comes to discrimination and civil rights.”

Triggering a criminal prosecution against an officer: If a police officer is accused of a crime, the matter may be referred to the State Police for investigation. This could happen, for example, if a homeowner thinks a police officer stole something while in her or his home. The State Police would be called to ensure that the investigators had no relationship with the accused. Murphy said there would also be an internal investigation. If there is reason to believe the officer has committed a crime, the matter will be referred for prosecution. If an officer is corrupt, “We don’t want them here because it is bad for all of us.”

More body cameras:  ELi previously reported on the adoption of body cameras for officers. I asked Murphy if there are plans in the works to make sure every officer is wearing a camera while out on duty. He said yes, but that the body camera they adopted has turned out to be not very reliable, and so the department is looking into how to get reliable cameras before outfitting all officers.

He explained that “L-3 is the type of the body camera system that we use and it is not working well. We used it because we’ve had great success with their in-car cameras.” He said, “In our initial testing, they were okay. The other advantage [of buying L-3 cameras] is it was cheaper for us to use them because we have available storage capacity on our car camera storage server, so we can store data on that if we use the same brand.”

But, “We’ve had nothing but problems with them. They are constantly breaking, the cameras themselves or the electronics. They get knocked off, ripped off by seat belts, banged around. They’ve been breaking a lot more than they should. We just sent them all back to L-3. They said they will send us all brand new ones and extend the warranty.”

He noted that City Council approved an additional $5,000 for body cameras last year, but said ELPD wants to find a reliable type before they buy more. He said he wants to put cameras on PACE (Parking and Code Enforcement) officers, too. But first he wants a reliable product.

He told me, “body cameras really need to work well and be reliable” for people to trust the police. Once they get a better product, “We are committed to having more officers wear them. It would be great if every officer on the road had a camera on but that’s a real financial consideration. And it would be great to have PACE officers have body cameras.”

Managing the stress of officers: I asked Murphy what, in the wake of Dallas, ELPD was doing to support its officers. He replied that the City’s employee assistance program is actively offering help.

“People look at police officers as being tough and macho, but you know,” he said, “we are really nothing more than human. The thought of standing on the street trying to protect someone’s right to assemble and protest and getting shot at is kind of scary. There probably are police officers who have trouble dealing with it, and that can be a kind of private thing, so every employee here knows they can always go to our employee assistance program anonymously and talk to someone on the phone or in person.”

He noted, “We also have a police chaplain’s program here where there are local chaplains from East Lansing that offer another form of helping people. They’ve reached out to us as well to say if anyone needs help and wants to talk, they are welcome to call. What they do is they come in and have talked to our shifts to offer support. They will also ride with our officers on their shifts as a way to talk. They will also meet with people at their churches or at their homes, and they will include family if they want them to.”

Murphy says that often families of officers “have more trouble with it.” He told me, “For example, my wife is freaked out about this. The sign near my car identifies me as ‘police chief.’ I try not to think about it, but my parents and my wife and my kids get very worried about all of that. They personalize that when they see it in Dallas.”

He concluded, “I try to think about that happening there, and figure it might be different here—I mean, I try to be safe—but we can’t be so paranoid that we can’t go out and do our job.”