Dear PERF members, 

Another Saturday morning. Another attempt to get policing out of its comfort zone. 

We all know that it is happening with alarming frequency: body-worn or cell phone camera video showing street level-encounters in which police officers use force. As the late John Timoney would say, it never looks pretty when police use force. In the current environment, these videos are unsettling to a large swath of the American public.

The most recent example comes from Rochester, New York. The circumstances of this March 2020 incident are challenging, and the video can be difficult to watch. But that’s what makes it such an important teaching moment.

A 911 call from a concerned family member about a loved one who is naked, in the street and acting erratically at 3 am. It’s snowing, and Daniel Prude is clearly in a mental health crisis and showing signs of being high on PCP. He’s just been released from a local hospital following a mental health evaluation, and family members can’t control him. 

A global pandemic is spreading, and Mr. Prude claims he’s infected and begins spitting, so officers put a spit hood on him. Mr. Prude grows increasingly agitated, yelling at officers to give him their guns. When he attempts to get up, officers physically restrain him face down on the pavement. He loses consciousness after about two minutes and is transported to a local hospital where he dies a week later.

Think about the consequences of this one event. One person dead. Seven police officers suspended. A grand jury impaneled to consider criminal charges. The police chief and command staff members decide to resign. And daily protests in the city and elsewhere, some of them violent.

Rochester was a tragedy on many levels, but we have learned that with every crisis there is opportunity. So treat Rochester like an opportunity for your city.

You know the drill by now. Bring in your command staff, close the door, put on the Rochester video, and begin your Monday-morning quarterbacking all over again.

You may have already started this process, like Chiefs Peter Sloly in Ottawa and Bill Brooks in Norwood, MA told me this week. If you began with the Kenosha video last week, your staff might be surprised that you are doing this again. Didn’t you notice the folded arms and the grumbling from some corners? And the chief is watching how we are reacting to these videos. 

Why is Rochester so important? Because it is a case study of responding to a person in crisis. Police try to get him under control, with unintended and disastrous consequences.

Take the scenario apart. Ask, what did the officers know about this individual? What was their strategy – what where they trying to accomplish? Did the officers have other options and if so, what were they?

What would our officers do in a similar situation? What do our policies and training say? Beyond tactics, do our officers have the communications skills and empathy that are so important in situations like this?

With practice and experience, you and your commanders will get more comfortable and more effective with this whole process.

OK. So you’ve done your next round of internal Monday-morning quarterbacking. Now, do something completely outside the box.

Convene a meeting at police headquarters. Invite people from outside your agency. Maybe the mayor, city manager, and the heads of departments such as fire/EMS, health, and mental health. Local mental health and addiction service providers, and some community leaders as well.

(You need to know your community and its readiness for this type of approach. Some communities may not be ready, so timing is important. Maybe start with a small group first and build from there.)

Once the group is assembled, play the Rochester video and then ask some pointed questions.

Who owns this scene? Who is best equipped to handle it? And what should they do when they arrive?

In almost every city today, it’s the police who have primary responsibility for situations like this one. Besides fire and EMS agencies, the police are about the only public agency available at 3 am to respond to calls like this.

Is that what the community wants? And if not, what do they think should be done differently? Who else is going to respond, either alone or in conjunction with the police? And how will the local government ensure those other services are available and can respond when needed, including at 3 o’clock on a snowy morning?

Those are the type of detailed and difficult questions that seem to get lost in the discussions around defunding the police and reimagining public safety. But they’re the questions that police and communities must come to grips with if we are to move forward.

Ask the assembled group for help. Tell them that encounters with people in mental health crisis are on the rise, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. And lead a discussion on how the response to these encounters can change and become a model for others. 

Make the community part of the uncomfortable conversations you are already having with your own personnel. Bring the community into the process, and challenge them to do more than just criticize, but to offer analysis and solutions instead.

This is community policing at a whole different level, and I think the time is right.

Trust me: Rochester can happen anywhere in America. Every police chief and sheriff knows they are just one incident away from chaos. You think your cops know what to do and are doing it right. And the vast, vast majority of the time, they are. But it takes only one incident captured on video where they get it wrong for your world to be turned upside down.  

Rochester is a teaching moment for every agency and every city in the country. Let’s make sure we learn from this tragic case. And let’s do so by getting the community involved in our Monday-morning quarterbacking too. 

Enjoy your weekend.

Best,

Chuck