Politics Trumping Tactics: [Don't] Sit Down… You're Rocking the Boat

Elected officials' underlying goal of getting re-elected directly impacts how these politicians interact with their police departments in setting department policy.

Earlier this week, we reported that San Francisco Police Chief William Scott told his officers that they may command suspects to sit on the ground during their interaction only when "exceptional circumstances" exist.

Adding insult to injury, Chief Scott decreed in his memo that officers shall document—in an incident report—any time it is necessary to seat an individual on the ground.

The reason for the policy change?

Chief Scott reportedly finds the practice "demeaning" to the offender.

Oh my goodness.

Chief Scott wrote in a memo that "sitting a subject on the ground or sidewalk should be done only as a last resort and only when necessary."

SIDEBAR: Who sets the definition of "necessary?" Is it the officer at the scene of a potentially dangerous incident, or the supervisor with a cup of coffee in his hand reviewing the body camera footage several hours after the event?

The potential for some really difficult times now exists for officers in the City by the Bay.

Consider a scenario: An officer will hesitate to deem sitting a subject because he or she cannot exactly articulate why his or her spider sense is elevated—something just doesn't feel right, but they just can't put their finger on it. The officer chooses then to keep the suspect standing, handcuffed behind the back. The subject suddenly lunges forward, striking the officer squarely on the nose with a vicious head-butt move. The officer is rendered unconscious.

I won't expound on this hypothetical scenario any further. You get the idea. Very, very bad things can potentially happen. And when it eventually does, I will be the first person to say, "I told you so."

Okay, enough with the theoretical realm—back to the real world.

Sitting subjects on the ground or a sidewalk is a longstanding tactic employed for the safety of both the subject and the officer. Sitting subjects on the ground puts them at a tactical disadvantage, preventing violent attacks on officers or attempts to flee on foot. Even handcuffed subjects are potentially dangerous to an officer, especially a cop who is working alone.

Ordering officers to allow subjects to remain on their feet increases the possibility of an attack or an attempt to escape.

It's counterintuitive from a tactical perspective, but is completely logical when viewed through the prism of political pandering.

Politics Over Tactics

The political culture of a community has an enormous effect on the police department and its policies—and it is well known that San Francisco is one of the most left-leaning cities in America.

It is no surprise, then, that the political pressure applied to anyone who holds the position of police chief in Fog City will cause some decisions that are not exactly pro-police.

Following the fatal shooting of Mario Woods in 2016, then-Chief Greg Suhr—who I count as a personal friend—came under immense political pressure from then-Mayor Ed Lee to make changes to the department's use-of-force policy.

In his recommendations, Chief Suhr included a request—for the umpteenth time—for the agency to add TASERs to officers' duty belts.

That request was denied—for the umpteenth time.

Other policy changes—all less favorable to police officers on the street and all the result of pressure from political forces—were accepted.

Go figure.

This problem of police departments being forced into policy changes by politics is not confined to this idyllic little patch of land at the south end of the Golden Gate.

Following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, the Baltimore Police Department was forced to make sweeping policy changes, many of which were mandated in a consent decree issued by the Department of Justice. One of the principal tenets of the reforms was an increased emphasis on de-escalation.

Indeed, policy changes have occurred in myriad American cities with the word "de-escalation" prominent in the text—and the subtext—of the document. It's the "it" word for politicians in places like Minneapolis, Cleveland, New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and the abovementioned San Francisco and Baltimore.

There's just one problem.

De-escalation is like the Tango—it takes two for the dance to be successful.

The Dance of De-Escalation

Let's get one thing perfectly clear: adding time and distance to many police incidents is a laudable goal. Taking advantage of existing environmental elements such as furniture in a room or a car on the street to put a barrier between the officer and the subject is simply sound tactics. Using refined communications skills like Verbal Judo is a great way to "talk someone down" from a heightened state of mental or emotional distress.

Those are all good things. Officers have been talking people into handcuffs for more than a century.

However, problems arise when the person the police are talking with is unwilling or unable to listen.

A subject may be high on drugs, mentally unstable, or both. A subject may have it in his or her head, "I'm not going back to jail."

Reasoning with an unreasonable person is borderline impossible.

A rapidly unfolding, high-stress, potentially violent incident in which the outcome is unclear must afford officers the ability to defend their own safety or the safety of innocents.

This explains why things can sometimes get messy or go loud.

Politicians need to recognize this reality, and account for it in the application of pressure on police administrators in setting police policy.

Prevailing Political Winds

Elected officials have one underlying goal that informs and influences all their other objectives—getting re-elected.

This deep-seated desire directly impacts how those politicians interact with their police departments—specifically with their chiefs of police—in setting department policy.

By extension, the chiefs themselves become political creatures, seeking to retain their jobs held at the pleasure of their political bosses.

Consequently, in places where the political winds blow to the left, you're going to get policies that represent the desires of the voting majority. You get sanctuary cities, needle programs, and departments generally tolerant of certain criminal activities. You get de-policing.

Where the prevailing jetstream blows in the opposite direction, you're going to see expectedly more conservative results in police policy. You get proactive policing. You get "broken windows" policing. You get Terry Stops. You get arrests.

It should be noted that not all police policy changes are left-leaning. Recall that back when Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York and William Bratton was that city's chief of police, the department adopted "zero tolerance" policing polices credited for dramatic reductions in the city's crime rate.

Further, not all police policy changes are negative. In cities where problem-oriented policing, evidence-based policing, and Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) have been adopted, crime has generally been reduced while approval ratings of police has simultaneously risen.

Unfortunately, those success stories are often overshadowed by Hug-a-Thug policy changes such as we saw this week in San Francisco.

We shall soon see what we shall see here in my adopted hometown. But you can bet a waist-high stack of green money that when an officer with SFPD is assaulted by a subject who was standing instead of sitting, I'll be the first to say, "I told you so."

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