Carole Owens: Police accountability, shared responsibility

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STOCKBRIDGE — Seth Stoughton, former police officer and assistant law professor, studies the police and policing. In an interview on National Public Radio in 2015, he was asked about the increased number of civilian deaths at the hands of police. In response, Stoughton warned that police were developing a "warrior mindset."

Stoughton defined "warrior mindset" as seeing the public as the enemy. The warrior mindset is antithetical to seeing the public as their community to protect and serve.

Stoughton concluded, "There needs to be a paradigm shift in policing away from the `warrior mindset' to the guardian role."

Throughout American history, there were a number of paradigmatic shifts in the philosophy of policing. Whom the police protected — and from whom — was never as simple as victims from criminals. The police role was often dictated by politics, the economy, and the media. The police were always guardians of someone; the question was who decides.


The police do what they are trained to do and what they are asked to do. If there is increased police violence, is there some political, economic or media driven cause?

Some say yes. They suggest, historically, in the 1700s, police were used to protect property and oust the poor. In the 1800s, police returned fugitive slaves to their owners. Police were strike breakers at the end of the 19th century, and union busters in the early 20th century. Those who blame external forces such as economics and politics, say today police are asked to do too much. Police are dispatched to deal with domestic violence, the homeless, the emotionally challenged, and addicts. In short, all society's ills are dumped in the laps of the police.

However, in 2015, Stoughton said no. He said violence was inherent in police culture. It was "trained in." He described training wherein cadets were shown videos of officers beaten or killed. They were taught hesitation or complacency resulted in death. They were taught to be "hyper-vigilant," assume anyone on the street is a potential threat. They were taught shoot first and survive.

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"Those ideas encourage a warrior mentality and negate the idea of protect and serve," Stoughton said, "The culture can and should change."

Stoughton was interviewed in 2015 and his book "Examining Police Use of Force" was just released. How have we used the intervening five years?

Apparently, the move was in the opposite direction. There was a "militarizing of the police." That is, an increased use by police of military equipment and tactics. Except in the case of insurrection, it is unconstitutional to dispatch active duty military to American streets. Is it equally bad to use military weapons and tactics on civilians?

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Our forefathers were not na ve. Nor were they forming a government out of whole cloth. They were breaking away from one they believed to be oppressive. Therefore, they wrote many safeguards into the Constitution of the United States that were incorporated into state constitutions.

For example, those given guns and uniforms answer to civilians who are representatives of and elected by the people. The military answers to the commander-in-chief, the National Guard to the governor, and the police to select boards or mayors. Unless you live in Massachusetts.


In Massachusetts there is a choice. The choice is made by vote of town meeting or town council. It is commonly referred to as weak chief or strong chief. The choice is in Chapter VII Title 41.

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Section 97 reads: "In towns which accept this section there shall be a police department established under the direction of the selectmen."

Section 97A reads: "In any town which accepts this section there shall be a police department under the supervision of an officer to be known as the chief of police."

The difference between 97 and 97A is: to whom are the police are accountable? To themselves, or to elected officials? Most Massachusetts towns and villages picked 97A "strong chief."

In some towns and villages, the police chief is the highest paid official. Some police department budgets have increased until they are a disproportionately high percent of the municipal budget. Questioning police policy or asking for a shift in policy is misread as an attack. Is one choice the result of the other?

Our forefathers envisioned a sensible process that spelled out accountability for those entrusted with so much power and responsibility. We in Berkshire are fortune to look on the recent violence from a distance. However, the suggestions to rethink accountability and reimagine policing may be useful in Berkshire as well.

Perhaps it is wise to relieve the police of some burdens. It may be wise to share those burdens and fund others to work with police. If we dump everything on the police, are we contributing to the isolation and alienation Stoughton suggests police feel? If we want police to see us as their community, shouldn't we see them as ours? Sharing responsibility and asking for accountability is not criticism; it is community building. "Weak chief" may be an unfortunate choice of words.

A writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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