What I learned from my ride-along

Over the last few years, we have witnessed far too much violence and tragedy from war, terrorism, senseless acts by deranged young men, shootings of unarmed black men and women, and most recently, shootings of police officers.

After the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the police officers in Dallas and other US cities, I decided  I needed to learn more about the root causes of violence between police departments and minority communities.

When I watched the video from the Castile shooting, I couldn’t help but thinking that this horrible loss of life could have been prevented. It appeared that Castile thought he was instructed to reach for his wallet while the officer thought Castile was reaching for a gun. While it is possible that each failed to communicate clearly with the other, we must hold our police officers to a higher standard than ordinary citizens. From their position of power, police officers have a greater responsibility to stay calm and de-escalate tense situations. Now I’m sure there was more to it than that, but I have to wonder if better training and communication could have prevented this tragic shooting.

In mid-July, I met with two senior Lakewood police officers to learn about hiring and training practices and community policing initiatives. I was impressed by how much work they put into preventing violence. First of all, each potential officer is carefully screened. They must have a bachelor’s degree, and thanks to two new laws (HB15-1262 and SB15-218), their history with other law enforcement agencies is now more easily accessible.

Secondly, Lakewood PD’s training programs are top notch. In addition to the standard and anti-bias training, nearly half of our officers have gone through Critical Incident Team training (CIT). CIT includes de-escalation training by a police psychologist that helps officers understand how to identify the behavior of people in crisis and how to deal with them properly. Officers go through a “decisional use-of-force” simulator where they practice tactics and learn the importance of clear verbal commands. Perhaps these hiring and training protocols help explain why Lakewood PD is so seldom accused of excessive force.

In addition, our officers work hard to get out into the community. Among other efforts, they regularly hold public meetings called Cops, Council, and Community.  Every year they send officers to participate in National Night Out gatherings – events that are held to bring communities together and reduce crime.

After my initial meeting, I went on a ride-along with one of Lakewood’s CIT-certified officers. Though it was a mostly uneventful day, I was able to ask many more questions, particularly about his interactions with minority communities. He again emphasized the importance of the anti-bias and critical incident training programs and gave me examples of how he has handled tense situations in the past.

It was in our last call of the day, though, that I truly saw the character of our department. We were called to a motel where a family traveling through the state was staying while their vehicle was undergoing repairs. The family had failed to pay in time for an additional night and struggled to pay at all. Though they ultimately came up with the money, the manager called the police to have the family escorted off the premises.

After hearing from the motel and the family, the three officers on site put their heads together. They called every motel they could think of to ask about vacancies and costs, but options were limited. The officers decided to try once more to make an arrangement with the motel’s manager and succeeded in making a deal. The family was allowed to pay and stay one more night, but they would have to leave by 11:00am the following day or else the police would return.

I’m not sure what I was expecting to see on my ride-along, but I was so impressed by the temperament, training, and commitment to public service embodied by our Lakewood police officers.

While there are certainly many other factors in the cities facing more violence, I feel that these high-quality hiring and training practices and community policing initiatives could help.

I also met with Representative Angela Williams to learn about her work on police and community issues. She pushed many of the new 2015-16 laws that are working to rebuild trust, improve training, incentivize the use of body cameras, and increase transparency after shootings. She has been meeting with the US Department of Justice and others to learn about best practices from other states, and is planning to keep up this work in the years ahead.

Rep. Williams pointed out that these problems didn’t develop overnight and won’t be solved overnight. Many of them are systemic issues tied to inequities  in economic opportunity, education, and health care. The long-term solutions will require a lot of hard work and new ideas.

These are not simple issues, but by working together and digging in, we have the potential to identify real policy changes that could save lives. I hope to take the lessons from Lakewood’s outstanding police department with me to the capitol so I can join efforts to improve relationships across Colorado between police and the communities they serve.