To fix law enforcement failures, officers must be better educated and trained, El Paso sheriff says
By Sheriff Richard Wiles
I am extremely pleased with the result of the trial for the murderer of George Floyd. As I have mentioned previously, watching the horrific video of Mr. Floyd being unlawfully killed by a peace officer, sworn to protect and serve the public, was beyond difficult, especially considering his total disregard of Mr. Floyd’s pleas, as well as those of bystanders who witnessed the event unfolding.
Law enforcement failed to protect Mr. Floyd. But beyond that, it failed in its fundamental and elemental duty to protect the people of Minneapolis. As evidenced by other similar instances around the nation, law enforcement has been failing in its most basic responsibility: the protection of people it is sworn to protect. It is no surprise our fellow citizens are searching for answers, trying to understand repeated failures of law enforcement to enforce the law, to their detriment.
The criminal justice system in our country, while complicated, is one of the best in the world, and does work when law enforcement and citizens come together proactively to suppress crime. It evidences the protections that flow out of all people working together to make and keep that partnership viable and vital.
Several things, which may be the product of the current dynamic, are of concern to me: talk of defunding law enforcement, the elimination of qualified immunity, and reduced legal requirements for criminal actions against law enforcement officers.
By way of example, “qualified immunity” balances two important interests: the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably but make an honest mistake.
There is no indication eliminating qualified immunity would have any impact on any case currently in the national spotlight, including Mr. Floyd’s murder. The only thing it would accomplish is giving rise to a myriad of mostly minor civil suits leaving taxpayers on the hook for having to defend government employees, along with judgments that might be awarded from time to time.
If politicians want to make substantial changes that will potentially prevent incidents of this nature, we need to address fundamental issues involving law enforcement as a profession.
Just as we would not allow our children to be taught by a teacher without a college degree, we should not allow individuals as young as 21 with a high school diploma or GED to have the authority to take away our freedom and/or use force against us.
This was an issue during the presidency of John F. Kennedy and the recommendation at that time was that all law enforcement officers have a college education.
Once provisionally hired, most are currently sent through “boot camp” style training, where they are taught everyone is out to hurt or kill them. Then we are shocked when we see them develop an “us vs. them” mentality, yet we expect them to be a “guardian” for which they had no training or exposure.
Hence, it is no wonder some communities have constant conflict between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
Our conversations should not be about “defunding,” but rather investing in what we want to see out of law enforcement in the future. A well screened, educated professional with proper training, ties to the community they want to police, standardized policies, strict discipline, and termination if it becomes clear they cannot or will not meet the expectations of the community and the agency.
I recognize this is just the proverbial “tip of the iceberg,” but we really need to stop spinning our wheels and wasting our time on reactive measures that, in the end, will not make things better. Let’s start a dialogue around preventive measures that are attainable and will have a direct, positive effect on how law enforcement can work with the community it serves.
Richard Wiles is a 39-year veteran of law enforcement. He served as El Paso police chief from 2004-2007 and has been El Paso County sheriff since 2009.
Cover photo: The 124th class of the El Paso Police Academy gathered for its first day of training in June 2018. (Photo courtesy of El Paso Police Department)