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The Uvalde report revealed systemic policing issues in the U.S.


For years, the police have been confronted with calls to change the way they do business in the wake of killings of civilians, mainly, though not exclusively Black and brown people. But recent weeks have brought a new wave of scrutiny of police practices for a very different reason - the failed response to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

SETH STOUGHTON: I think the natural tendency in policing or in public conversations about policing is to individualize problems - this officer made a bad call, this officer did something wrong. And one of the things that I think this report really brought to bear is we're talking about systems failures here. This isn't an officer or a group of officers that made a bad call.

MARTIN: Seth Stoughton is a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. But before that, he was an officer with the Tallahassee Police Department, where he also trained other officers. We spoke with him a number of times about police procedures, so we called in to ask him if the failures in Uvalde have caused any self-reflection in law enforcement.

STOUGHTON: From training to equipment to command structure to inter-agency communications, there were systemic failures not just at the incident, but at these multiple agencies leading up to the incident. I think that forces us to confront this reality that we need to think about policing from a systems perspective. We need to think about it as an institution and not be quick to dismiss individual incident failures as purely individual failures, to recognize that they can be symptoms of deeper problems.

MARTIN: I guess when it comes to sort of police misconduct, people tend to call it like the bad apple syndrome, this, oh, no, that's just a few bad apples. It's not a system problem. Is that a human response, or is that something that you've observed is particularly characteristic of law enforcement and the way they tend to respond to criticism?

STOUGHTON: In policing, and because policing has been so much at the center of public attention and criticism, I think that normal human tendency has been exacerbated. And it's been particularly exacerbated within policing, where the idea of the rogue cop and the bad apple have become so entrenched that I think everyone now knows, regardless of what ideology or political persuasion, everyone knows what you're talking about when you say police and bad apple.

MARTIN: I mean, I take your point that the - kind of the bad apple is such a staple of, you know, television and the movies and all of this that, I mean, it's almost like a part of the culture. But I think what really stood out to people in the Uvalde situation is that you had literally 400 people, almost 400 people from all these different agencies, from the tiny local police department, to the Border Patrol, to the state police, and yet the response was completely lacking. And so I guess what's so dissonant about this is that it's so contrary to the way we have been accustomed to thinking about police. And I'm just wondering, are people thinking about that? Are people in law enforcement that you talk to, has this kind of changed their image of themselves? Has it caused them to do some soul searching?

STOUGHTON: I mean, the real answer to that specific question is no. What I'm hearing from most of my friends and contacts in law enforcement is a particular version of the bad apple commentary, but this one's the cowardly apple, right? These were cowards. They made a cowardly decision. This is something that we saw in Orlando in the Pulse nightclub shooting. There were accusations within policing that the officers were being cowardly by not rushing in more quickly. When we're pointing at an officer's failure or a failure of a group of officers and we're saying they're cowards, that's really just another way of individualizing the problem as opposed to identifying more systemic issues.

I do think, though, that it puts some strain on the rhetorical metaphor that's been used in policing, this idea of cops as warriors, of running towards the sound of gunfire. When you have an incident of this magnitude and you don't see officers living up to that rhetoric, you can look at it and just say that it's an individual failure on the officer's part. But again, I think a more systemic review, a more comprehensive, holistic review is useful here. And I think it really identifies the problem with that rhetoric, especially when we start to identify that this isn't the only incident of its type, that there are other incidents, and not just mass shootings. There are other instances, for example, when officers used force and publicly explained the use of force in situations where it seems excessive by saying, well, I was afraid. That's a very different picture than this public rhetoric of the fearless and courageous police warrior. And I think it's worth interrogating.

MARTIN: The day after the Uvalde shooting marked the second anniversary of the killing of George Floyd. You know, former President Barack Obama was one of the people who noted that. And, of course, you get the typical criticism on social media from the usual sources. While what happened in each case is very different, I do wonder if you see any way in which they are related or that they provoke similar things to think about. It sounds like you do.

STOUGHTON: I absolutely do. If you look at the statements given justifying the officers' actions in both cases, I think they are rooted in fear. The officers involved in the George Floyd situation were afraid of him, the statement said. They were afraid of the crowd. They were afraid of the situation. And when you see the statements coming out of Uvalde, I believe it was the police chief who said the officers didn't want to go in because they didn't want to get shot. Well, of course they didn't want to get shot. No one wants to get shot. But you can't use that as a justification for not doing the job that you signed up to do.

The same thing is true with use of excessive force. An officer might say, well, I used this degree of force because I was really afraid. OK, but you still have a professional obligation to act appropriately, even in high pressure situations where there might be some degree of risk, let alone the professional obligation to accurately assess that risk in the first place. Looking individually at the two incidents, the officers acted very differently - overly aggressive officers as opposed to officers who were not aggressive enough. But when you look at the justifications for those actions, I think there are commonalities that - frankly, that we need to identify and that we shouldn't ignore.

MARTIN: I want to conclude where we started, which is that the summer of 2020, all the social justice protests, some of which took place really around the world but certainly around the United States, there is no question that it did provoke a rethinking of police practices. Even if it didn't evoke an embrace of new police practices or new practices around, you know, criminal justice, it certainly provoked the public to think about law enforcement in ways that they perhaps had not unless they were directly affected by law enforcement conduct. Do you think that these events that we've been talking about here are adding to a shifting view of law enforcement in this country and in what way?

STOUGHTON: I do. When you look historically, public opinion about policing has been shaped to a very significant extent by public actions by officers. In the civil rights era, one of the turning points that brought a large swath of middle-class white society to the side of civil rights protesters was seeing the images on the news of what police were doing to protesters. In the aftermath of Rodney King, what started a lot of conversations, not just private conversations, but also public conversations about how police agencies are regulated and what their policies are and criminal charges for officers - those conversations were started because of what the public saw in that high-profile incident.

When policing has been the focus of sustained public attention the way it has been, at least since George Floyd's death in 2020, I think we are more attuned as a society to identify and focus on police issues. And I think we need to do that. We're at the place as a society where we have the potential to reinvent the way that we think about and do policing. But that will only happen if people are paying attention. Unfortunately, there's a lot for people to pay attention to.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, why do police change their behavior? I mean, do they do it because of outside pressure from the public, or do they do it because they don't think the practices that they've become accustomed to work anymore? Why do police change? Because you've told us that to this point, you really don't think that they necessarily are.

STOUGHTON: Yeah. I think there's been a lot of resistance to change in many aspects of policing. I think it's helpful here to take a historical look. When we've seen advancements or big changes in policing, sometimes that's been because of something internal to policing. The original professionalization of policing and the introduction of actual training, for example, about 100 years ago came from a particular police leader. But we also see a lot of changes, including big cultural changes, that are externally imposed. Society is demanding a certain level of change. Police agencies have given up weapons that officers loved using because of public pressure. So it's not that public pressure drives all police change. There are certainly a significant amount of internal changes in the evolution of American policing, but public pressure drives a lot of change in policing.

MARTIN: Seth Stoughton is a former Tallahassee police officer. He is now a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Professor Stoughton, thanks so much for talking with us once again.

STOUGHTON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: If you want to hear more of this conversation, you can find it in this week's Consider This podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.