As I watched the horrific videos after the Memphis beating, I wondered could it happen here, right in our home town. Probably not, I decided, but “probably” is not absolutely. We’ve had several incidents over recent years in Palo Alto where officers have acted “inappropriately” and unprofessionally – like bashing a man’s head into a car windshield or letting a police dog attack a sleeping person who the officer mistakenly thought had committed a crime. Or having other police officers in the department refer to one officer as “the fuse,” meaning he was quick to anger and inflict that anger onto innocent individuals.
Palo Alto has paid out millions of dollars (of taxpayers’ money) to settle law suits against the police department because of officer misconduct. The city settled, perhaps because it was less costly to do so than go to trial, or more expedient, but, to me, the settlement suggest that tacitly, the e suits' charges against police behavior were valid.
We have seen here day-after official police reports of an incident that left off parts of what happened in a confrontation – a coverup, so to say, in order for the report to look like the police did a good job.
That is what happened in Memphis this week – the police involved said in their day-after report that Nichols went after them. The video shows that was totally false. The same cover-up happened in the George Floyd arrest.
It’s becoming CYA reporting system.
Most of the time our police departments here and elsewhere are doing a good job. The public standards for police conduct are high in this state, because we demand appropriate professional police behavior, thank goodness. By having police wear video cameras, and having their encounters recorded, has helped police tow the line. For example, having outside investigations of police (e.g, by the OIR Group which has a contract with the city), is great, also because their findings on possible police misconduct are released to the public following their objective investigations. Those reports have helped improve police behavior, because what OIR Group reports to the public goes on an officer’s record.
I called former Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns to get his view on this topic. Burns worked for PAPD for 25 years, the last nine of which he was chief. I’ve known him professionally since that time, and believe he is an honest, straight-shooting, conscientious and compassionate man.
I first asked him about the culture in police departments and whether a police chief can change that culture. He pointed out this country has 18,000 different PDs in this country, and about 18,000 police chefs, so cultures vary considerably. The chiefs are in positions where they can try to change the culture, but also need to have their troops act in accord with the chief and local department rules. Burns also said it is important to note that police officers are public employees, and have their employee rights, which police unions insist on, which also must be upheld.
What about bad apples in the force? What can police chiefs do? Burns said if an officer violates a departmental policy, he (or she) can be disciplined, or punished.
But that’s not always simple. The police unions are there to protect officers, and have, in their contracts, demanded the city agree to certain protections; cities have met those demands.
For example, a police officer can be sent home for a period for questionable behavior, with or without pay. And when a reporter asks the department for his name, it is not released. Yet that same consideration is not given to lay people who are arrested – our names go public almost instantly. Why the double standard?
I asked Burns about the hiring of a police officer. He said a candidate goes through an array of tests (mental and physical) and as chief, he went through each page of a background report on the candidate – the most informative way, because that three-inch-high document contains interviews with his peers, data on his previous performance, a review of his credit cards, including a nonpayment history, any record of this officer’s misconduct, etc.
Years ago, I asked former Police Chief Chris Durkin, who preceded Burns, about his techniques of hiring an officer.
He told me a great story. When a candidate has passed all the police tests with flying colors, he would take the applicant out for a beer “to celebrate” the actual formal hiring the next day. After a second round, Durkin asked one soon-to-be officer what he thought of those two women at the bar. The candidate responded, “They’re probably gay. Look at how they are talking to each other, and sitting so close.” Durkin would ask about that black man sitting alone at the end of the bar. “You can’t trust people that color,” was the answer.” And what about that elderly couple? “Jewish, of course!”
Durkin did not hire the candidate.
I thought the way he found out about this man was a marvelous hiring technique for a police department. It brings out a potential officer’s character and biases.
I wish we could have more chiefs in this country like Dennis Burns and Chris Durkin. I wish departments would stop hiring para-military-type guys (so prevalent in so many departments) who want to become policemen because then they have power and authority and can order people around and of course, carry guns all the time.
Policing is a complicated issue in this country, and it is becoming more so, as evidenced in Memphis. Other countries don’t seem to have the police problems that we do here (nor do they have so many guns). We have to think about how to improve the behavior of these departments to achieve what can be a wonderful system.