Not the Norm

A.M. “Jake” Jacocks Jr.

Ed. Note: A.M. “Jake” Jacocks Jr. retired as chief of the Virginia Beach Police Department and is now a law enforcement consultant. This column originally appeared in the The Virginian-Pilot on April 11, 2015.

The inexplicable decision by a South Carolina police officer – fortunately now an ex-police officer – to shoot a fleeing suspect in the back is permanently etched in the minds of all of us who have seen the video.

We couldn’t forget what we saw if we tried. We should not try.

The release of cellphone video showing the use of pepper spray and a Taser by a Virginia Beach police officer, while minor compared to the South Carolina incident, is also troubling, even though police say the suspects were uncooperative and reportedly in possession of drugs.

At this point, though, we don’t know the whole story in Virginia Beach. So we must reserve judgment. I have every confidence that this incident will be fully investigated and the appropriate action will be taken by the department.

Nevertheless, policing in America can ill afford such negative publicity. Without effective policing, unattainable without community support, we would have anarchy. This incident does anything but generate community support.

Some will use the killing in South Carolina to somehow conclude that this is standard procedure, the norm, commonplace.

Whether by design or because it is often easier to follow the outspoken and often ill-informed rather than look at the big picture, some will make an effort to paint all police officers in America with a broad brush of brutality, racism and ineptness.

That’s patently unfair and wholly inaccurate, and here’s why:

There are approximately 18,000 state and local police departments in the United States and more than 800,000 sworn law enforcement positions when you combine university, local, county, state and federal agencies. Given this large pool of human beings, some mistakes and poor decisions will undoubtedly occur, but history tells us these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

In spite of stringent screening practices and hiring standards – often including psychological testing – people ill-suited for the incredible responsibilities of a law enforcement career sometimes will be hired.

Further, according to the FBI’s 2013 report Crime in the United States, “Nationwide, law enforcement made an estimated 11,302,102 arrests in 2013. Of these, 480,360 were for violent crimes, and 1,559,284 were for property crimes.”

The FBI does not collect data on traffic summonses, but based on my 38-plus years in law enforcement, it is safe to assume the number is nearly double the arrests. Conservatively, the number of official police interactions with citizens is upward of 30 million.

The number of interactions in which no documentation exists is many, many millions more. And yet the incidents of egregious, abusive and/or unlawful misconduct by police is a far smaller number.

During my career, including many years in SWAT and countless interactions with officers from departments all over the country, I never met a police officer who wanted to shoot someone.

Fatal or not, a police shooting is a life-changing event for everyone involved. Policing, by and large in America, is performed by professional men and women who are well-trained, dedicated and trying hard to help and protect our citizens. Courageous, often heroic actions by officers are the norm. All too often, they are killed doing what we’ve asked of them.

Is there room for improvement? Of course.

We need more community outreach and engagement, increased staffing, increased training, broader deployment of less-than-lethal weapons and body cameras, rigid hiring standards, better supervision and an unrelenting approach by police leaders to both honor officers who perform to high standards and hold them accountable when they go outside the lines.

In no way do I minimize the killing in South Carolina, or those in Cincinnati, Milwaukee or Anytown, USA. I am disgusted because those episodes do not reflect what professional law enforcement in America is all about.

Instead of lashing out at all American law enforcement, those who are as disgusted as I am by these incidents should be demanding accountability, change and justice as a response to specific incidents.

You can’t do that with a broad brush.

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