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Former WA sheriff: Police reform requires culture change, accountability

Seattle police downtown Wednesday. (Nicole Jennings, KIRO Radio)

Since the death of George Floyd, there has been a renewed focus on racism and the topics of police reform and accountability. Former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr is currently in charge of the training for all law enforcement in Washington state, and joined the show to discuss how changing police culture is as important as punishing bad cops.

“I think the conversation around police accountability is based on, in my opinion, a very outdated model for holding police accountable. It’s the same model on which our criminal justice system is based. It’s known as the deterrence model, and it’s probably the most common way we all know for controlling human behavior,” she said.

“It rests on the belief that the human being, or in this case, that the police officer expects punishment for misbehavior to be swift, and sure, and painful. And the belief is, if that’s the case, they will follow the rules to avoid the pain. But in order for this model to work, they also have to believe that they’ll be caught.”

Rahr says that with improved technology and the proliferation of cameras, the approach must change and refocus.

“Now that we have cameras everywhere and officers are being caught in acts of misconduct, now we have to come to grips with, ‘OK, then what do we do on the punishment side of it?’ And there’s there’s a lot of due process and collective bargaining rights that impact this,” she said.

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As Ursula noted, we often hear about a few bad apples. But yet those bad apples end up getting their jobs back, or it’s hard for them to get a conviction. What does the union need to do for it to change?

“A conversation about unions is really tricky because I believe that unions are necessary and they are needed, because if we don’t have unions, then we’re gonna end up with cops that are very poorly paid and don’t have the resources they need. … The cases of misconduct that we’ve seen in the last several years are very extreme examples of misconduct, and it’s pretty clear that I think everybody believes they’re wrong.”

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“I think we’re missing the boat if we only focus on the most extreme examples of misconduct, because in my experience and in my conversations with hundreds of community members, the thing that damages trust with the community the most are what I call the thousands of paper cuts, and that is disrespectful behavior between officers and people in the community,” Rahr added.

Changing police culture

So because of union rules and collective bargaining agreements, Rahr believes that relying strictly on punishment for misconduct is going to be challenging. A culture approach matters as well.

“I think we need to put more effort into focusing on improving the culture, because again, officers are human beings and they’re going to be influenced by human behavior. And humans need desperately to be accepted by their group, whatever that group is. This is intensified in law enforcement because it’s a dangerous job and you rely on your partners for your very life,” she said.

“And if an officer violates cultural norms, they’ll get caught swiftly and surely, and they will be excluded from the group, and there’s no process protections. So if we really want to change police behavior … we really need to focus a lot of energy in the culture. I’m not saying we abandon the deterrence model because we do need those rules for the extreme behavior, but we can’t focus on the rules to the exclusion of the culture.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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