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Outside Looking In: What Former Officers Think Could Improve Policing

This is the fifth story in the Mountain West News Bureau series "Elevated Risk," a project powered by America Amplified, a public radio initiative.

Until recently, Logan Dailey was a deputy sheriff in rural Cherry County, Nebraska. But today, he's the managing editor and reporter for four rural news outlets and a farming business publication based in Wyoming.

"I would say both are noble professions," he said. "I mean, they're both, in my opinion, very important professions."

Dailey loves his new job, but he says certain kinds of media can poison how the public sees the police, even in rural areas. He remembers one experience he had as a cop where he saw a young boy in a town he used to patrol. 

"And I drove through one day and he put his hands up," Dailey said. 

At first, Dailey chuckled and asked the kid what he was doing. 

"And he says, 'Hands up, don't shoot!' … And this is like an eight-year-old," he said. 

Dailey asked him why, and the kid told him, "'Well, I saw it on YouTube.' And I was like, 'What did you see on YouTube?' 'Well, cops kill people.'"

The boy even knew Dailey by name. The exchange rattled him.

In his new role, he hopes he can foster better communication between the police, the media and ultimately the community. He's finding some departments are more willing to talk than others, though. 

As a former police officer, he knows transparency can be tricky. He said officers are trained to protect people's privacy. 

"I don't want to break that trust, basically, that the public has in us," he said, speaking of when he was an officer. 

If they are seen as breaking that trust, "You're constantly concerned about being sued because I mean, this is America," he said. "You can sue anybody for anything."

He said more training could help with that – letting police chiefs and officers know what they can and can't say under the law. But it's not just about transparency. He recognizes that there are bad apples and they're not always dealt with. 

"I've encountered that, and I'm not saying this officer was going out and killing people, it was nothing like that. But he was overstepping his bounds," he said. "I would bring it up and say, 'Hey, this is the issue. Here's what I have.' And then nothing would happen."

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Paul Taylor thinks that only focusing on individuals' bad actions isn't the best way to go, though. He said a focus on bad apples "is misguided when we look at how to really improve the profession."Taylor is a former officer and officer trainer who now spends his time trying to figure out ways to make policing safer for both citizens and officers.

"The current approach to how we look at, say, bad outcomes in policing really lends itself towards a liability focus for police organizations," he said. 

In other words, if something bad happens, it starts a criminal investigation. Officers involved don't say exactly what happened, fearing persecution. Case details are sometimes sealed off. 

"That focus stunts the growth of the profession and really the ability to learn," he said. 

His research at the University of Colorado, Denver includes how to minimize accidental shootings of unarmed citizens. He said that kind of research into policing is needed right now, and isn't getting enough attention.

"I call it the profession that science has left behind, because in a lot of areas, whether that be from the management perspectives to...how we look at improving outcomes, we're really stuck in this, in this Tayloristic mindset, that if we just tell people to do better, they will," he said.

He said we need to analyze incidents of police violence the way we look at emergency room deaths or plane crashes. 

"There's a thousand reasons a plane might crash," he said. "If we're only looking at the actions of the pilot and whether or not they were criminal, we would miss why the event occurred most of the time."

Taylor said that kind of system wouldn't just pin acts on individuals, but instead make it the responsibility of the entire profession to figure out how to avoid accidents or abuses of power in the future. 

Former cop and police psychologist Jack Digliani may suggest looking at the mental health of the cops involved as well. Digliani worked in law enforcement in Wyoming and Colorado, and is now a police psychologist and author. 

"It's a fallacy to believe that asking for help is a weakness," he said.

Digliani has worked for decades to get police to ask for help when they need it. If an officer is facing challenges like PTSD, depression or anxiety, he said that can lead to violence –directed at others or themselves.

"Over the past two years, consistently more police officers have died by suicide than by dangers on the police force, including assault, homicide and accidents combined."

In recent decades, officers have also been asked to do more, like de-escalating people who are mentally ill or helping those who are suicidal.

"In the 70s, myself and many of my...co-law enforcement officers used to consistently say, 'We're not social workers. We don't talk people out of killing themselves. You know, that's for social workers. We're cops. We go in, we make arrests, we catch the bad guys.' And of course, I think we knew even then that our role was larger than that."

Even without those new roles, he said a job where there are threats of physical danger increases stress-related issues like anxiety and depression. He wants cops to ask for help before "their work product would degrade to the point where, you know, they become dangerous to themselves or others, or their work product is so bad they begin to encounter discipline."

To encourage asking for help, he's set up an entire 12-step initiative. It's being used by departments around the nation to encourage every officer to monitor their mental well-being and to seek help if they need it.

But he said it's incredibly hard to dig out of an engrained mindset, as the older guard can pass it onto the new recruits. Regular training helps, but he says there's still not enough focus on mental health.

"Yes, we still, in fact, have not only a long way to go in departments that implement these programs – we also have many departments that have no support programs at all, if you can believe that, in the 21st century. But that is, in fact, the case," he said.

Digliani says all officers should have a place to go, a person to talk to and resources. Because he said policing will stick around in one form or another in any society without complete anarchy, so we need to figure out how to help officers help us.

An FAQ about this series and the data behind it can be found here.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.