Use of force the focus of upcoming policing conference

August 12, 2016
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PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – The community’s view of police use of force seems to be at a boiling point on the national level. The issue of appropriate police force will take precedence at the second annual 21st Century Policing Conference at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville on Friday, Sept. 16.

The conference will draw Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which in March released a controversial report, “Guiding Principles on Use of Force.” Wexler will serve as the keynote speaker, with rebuttal from Dr. Mark Bowman, director of the Center for Excellence in Justice Administration at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

The PERF report offers 30 recommendations for police agency policies and training programs, focused on reducing the need for officers to use force in certain situations that occur frequently – namely, incidents in which a person with a mental illness, a drug addiction, or a developmental disability is behaving erratically or threateningly, and the person either is unarmed, or is armed with a weapon, other than a firearm, such as a knife.

“When police encounter a person brandishing a firearm, their options are limited,” said Wexler (pictured at left). “But when they encounter a person with a mental illness or similar condition who is holding a knife or throwing rocks, there is greater potential for de-escalation. If police officers are trained to ‘slow the response down’ in these situations, summon additional resources, use tactical  skills that are typically taught to SWAT officers, and use crisis communications skills to make a connection with the person, they often can resolve the situation without ever reaching the point where they would need to consider lethal force, the PERF report says. Thus, the PERF says that its guiding principles increase officer safety as well as public safety.”

Wexler’s UW-Platteville presentation will be his lone visit to the Midwest during that time. “This whole discussion at UW-Platteville’s conference really focuses on a national issue that has the attention of the President of the United States on down, so I hope that my talk will be helpful in presenting some positive ideas in how we move forward,” said Wexler. “That’s what our 30 guidelines are about. There are very much a function of where we find ourselves today with police use of force. Our focus has been, can we do better? Can we train police to develop policies, tactics and outreach to the community that will have a real impact?”

Chuck WexlerThe Fraternal Order of Police rejected the report, while other groups favor the plan. The conference will allow an in-depth discussion of the divisive issues. “These guiding principles have received a lot of national attention,” said Wexler.

“The idea here is that, given what I consider to be a national crisis in policing now related to use of force, minority communities and related issues, we are at a crossroads, perhaps historically, looking at how we can police in a democratic context,” said Dr. Staci Strobl, chair of the UW-Platteville Department of Criminal Justice and member of the conference planning committee. “We want police to talk directly with the people who represent their communities. Policing needs to be done in a way that is grounded in local democratic principles of what a community wants.”

According to Strobl, use of force issues seem to be the flashpoint where the community is critical of law enforcement. “This conference will be looking at those issues and linking them to the larger issues of community trust and legitimacy,” she said. “We want to talk about that.”

“Cops are trained and well versed in the law pertaining to the use of force,” said Patrick Solar, assistant professor of criminal justice at UW-Platteville, lifetime member of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the Illinois Law Enforcement Accreditation Council as well as a member of the conference planning committee. “They are the only societal actors vested with the authority to employ violence on our collective behalf. It's a necessary function in a civilized society. It's never pretty, even when perfectly lawful, and the more we see of it the more disturbed the uninformed citizen is likely to become.”  

During a portion of the conference the attendees will be divided into two groups. Police officers will meet in one room, while non-police officers will meet in another room. The non-officers will learn from Lt. Dan Marcou, a national police trainer, about current use of force standards. Meanwhile, police personnel will be looking at use of force standards and discuss ways to improve them or leave them as is. They will have a visionary conversation in a safe environment. The groups will reconvene and share ideas.

“These are really tough issues,” said Strobl. “They involve human life. What we’re trying to do here is say, ‘look, we have to keep talking about this no matter how desperate the situation seems on the national stage or how inflamed it gets…We have to keep talking to each other.’”

The general public is strongly encouraged to attend the conference, which will attract police and community leaders as well as state and government officials. Last year’s event drew approximately 300 attendees, half of those were police personnel.

“The subject matter of this conference is particularly timely. UW-Platteville is pleased to provide a forum for learning and discourse between participants representing the many parties that are impacted by the use of force,” said UW-Platteville Chancellor Dennis J. Shields. “These certainly are challenging topics. Getting constituents in the same room is an excellent opportunity to learn from each other and to move forward.”

According to Wexler, the nation is at a crossroads when it comes to police use of force. “It really has been unrelenting in terms of the public exposure of the series of incidents that question how police handle these incidents, and it has impacted police officers and community members. And so on the one hand you have this intensive focus and on the other hand the consequences are so significant,” he said. “We live in an age in which the incidents have been recorded, people view them and people walk away with real questions.”

“One of the fundamental goals of the conference, in my view, is a venue to open the discussion in an academic setting where ideas can be shared and positions abandoned,” said Solar. “Unlike other public forums, the university encourages a diversity of opinions and ideas for improving policing. It's a place where rational thinking can prevail over the passion that routinely drives the arguments over these issues.”   

The impetus for last year’s conference was born from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, released in May 2015. The report outlined six pillars from which to improve policing. This year’s conference will focus on use of force as part of pillar one, which is building trust and legitimacy.

“By attending the conference on Sept. 16, each participant will better understand the importance of building community trust and why it's essential to learn de-escalation training, methods for rebuilding community trust and how each law enforcement agency can become more effective in fighting crime,” said Anthony Amato, adjunct professor in the UW-Platteville Department of Criminal Justice.

Registration for community members for the entire day is $25. There is no cost for anyone attending for a part of the day or for UW-Platteville faculty, staff and students.

“It’s important that the community be brought into this,” said Wexler. “That’s why this conference is so important. It’s not just for law enforcement; it’s for the community as well. It’s a public trust issue here.”

“We’re not just coming to Wisconsin to talk about the issue, but to talk about some concrete recommendations, which – if departments embrace – will have an impact,” concluded Wexler.

For a complete itinerary, a list of speakers, and to register, go to www.uwplatt.edu/criminal-justice.

Written by: Dan Wackershauser, UW-Platteville Communications, 608-342-1194, wackersd@uwplatt.edu

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