The Use of Force continues to be an ongoing presence in the national discussion.
Whether it’s the shooting of a 911 caller in Minneapolis or disturbing video of police and a University of Utah nurse, questions continue to evolve regarding how and when police use force — and how can departments train their officers to determine what level of force is appropriate for the given situation.
Calling the situation a “training issue,” while perhaps accurate, doesn’t always alleviate the rankled community or outraged, concerned citizens… a situation Camden County Police Department has known all too well, and yet, has overcome through changing leadership, organizational changes, increased training and community outreach — in one of New Jersey’s toughest districts.
We spoke with Lieutenant Kevin Lutz of the Camden County Police Department (New Jersey) to learn more about the program Camden County PD has implemented and the results they’ve seen.
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Let’s start with some basic terminology. When we talk about the use of force, in general, what exactly does that mean? And what do you include in these range of actions?
Kevin Lutz: Use of force is unique to each State and each department. Each department needs to have an intricate knowledge of their State’s laws, both case law, and statutory law. I don’t think it’s easily defined because each application force is really unique onto itself. The textbook definition is the force used to meet a lawful law enforcement objective. Again, every case is different, every application is different. You may have an incident that can be mitigated through verbal de-escalation and basic communication. Perhaps a physical confrontation where the use of unarmed self-defense may be the appropriate way to subdue that individual. Or we can have a more serious encounter where the officers are dealing with an individual armed with a blunt object, a knife, or maybe even a firearm. The circumstances surrounding each encounter can change at a moment’s notice. It’s our job as law enforcement executives and trainers to provide our officers with all of the tools required to be successful.
JCH: What do you think the biggest misunderstanding police officers might have regarding the use of force?
Kevin: I’ll start with the public. I think at times, there is a lack of understanding of the risk and the dangers that the officers are facing every day. And perhaps a lack of understanding of how officers are now being trained in this area, in regard to the use of force. Technology has definitely changed the way that the public views applications of force. Just about every incident and every action that a police officer takes is captured on some form of video either through a body camera, cell phone cameras, whatever it may be.
Right, wrong or indifferent, I think that the public’s expectation of how officers apply force and how law enforcement utilizes force has changed due to the fact that everything is now being captured on video. Officers need to evolve with that change. They need to hold themselves to the highest of standards, and make sure that we’re training and preparing ourselves to be able to handle these situations in the safest way possible – the safest way for the police as well as the public we’re encountering.
You hear the word “de-escalation” thrown around and it’s almost become some sort of a buzzword. De-escalation means so many different things. Officers need to be able to properly de-escalate a situation… but what does that actually mean? It means that they have to be able to communicate. Officers have to be able to defend themselves and they have to be able to defend the public they swore to protect.
As an agency, and police departments across the country, we have to provide our officers with all the skills they require to be successful. Most importantly, and sometimes the most overlooked, would be the ethical component. We need to make sure that the officers are ethically grounded and they’re focused on protecting and saving lives: Really remembering on every call why they’re there, what their purpose is, and how they can safely resolve this encounter to the best of their ability. This really comes down to training and the culture of each department.
Officers need to evolve with that change.
They need to hold themselves to the highest of standards,
and make sure that we’re training and we’re preparing ourselves to be able to handle these situations in the safest way possible:
the safest way for the police, and the safest way for the public we’re encountering.
JCH: It must be hard for the public to keep in the back of their brain that when we see something has happened on the news, a use of force incident is such a small fraction of a percentage of the number of encounters that the average public ever has with the police.
Kevin: I think transparency comes into play here. The more transparent an agency is regarding the overall mission, what their different programs are, what their true mission statement is… the greater credibility you will establish with the residents within your respective communities. This includes being transparent with how officers have been trained.
We’ve embraced the Police Executive Research Forum’s (PERF) 30 guiding principles. We’re one of the first agencies to implement ICAT (Integrating Communications Assessment and Tactics) training, and we’re very transparent with the public with what exactly it is that we’re training our officers to do…..and that’s to save lives.
At its core, the first guiding principle that PERF established was the sanctity of human life. If the officers focus on this principle and truly believe in it, it’s less likely that an incident is going to be handled in a way that it shouldn’t, or go in a direction that we wouldn’t want it to go. We’ve been steadfast with our training which has been the cornerstone of shaping and evolving or agency’s culture.
JCH: How has your organizational approach to training and preparing officers for use of force changed and evolved over the past few years? You said you’ve gone through your own evolution there in Camden.
Kevin: We have. Our department was very unique, in the way all these changes have come about. We were formally the Camden City Police Department. In 2013, the Camden City Police Department transitioned into the Camden County Police Department Metro Division which was responsible for policing in Camden City. At that time, we had a brief window in which the Chief was looking to really change the culture of the agency.
The most effective way to do that was through training and through sustainment of training. The chief no longer wanted “check the box training.” We sampled as many different training programs as we possibly could. We then took what we felt were the best practices and established a program that would provide our officers with all the tools needed to be successful.
Again, going back to PERF’s guiding principles, we worked those guiding principles into our use of force policy. The Chief provided me with tremendous support with some of the most outstanding officers in our ranks. These were the officers who would be delivering this training. When it comes to a message of change, we wanted our strongest, most experienced and most respected officers leading from the front.
After we delivered training, we were then going to sustain that training over time. We refer to these handpicked trainers as mentors. I selected approximately 20 officers from throughout the police department, the ones who brought the most credibility, who had the best track record, and best backgrounds. We made sure the mentors were on board with what we were doing. It would be their responsibility to ensure that training and philosophies were reinforced on an ongoing basis. The type of behavior that we were looking for was heavily rewarded so that we could truly shift the culture from a warrior to a guardian mindset.
ICAT (the Pollice Executive Research Forum’s use of force training: Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics) was right at the forefront of that. It’s training for use of force in a non-firearms related encounter. The type of encounters that involve people who are armed with a knife, a bat, a blunt object, perhaps unarmed and emotionally disturbed. We want to specifically address those types of encounters where someone was not armed with a firearm.
We address things such as distance and cover and how that equates to time. We want our officers to slow things down when possible. Take a step back and evaluate the incident in its totality. If and when it’s safe, it’s OK to slow down, put some form of cover between you and the individual that you’re dealing with, and try to get a dialog going. Sometimes the best thing to do is to holster your weapon and take a step back when someone is in emotional distress or high on drugs, or narcotics or whatever it may be. Pointing a weapon at their face and repeatedly yelling the same command over and over has often been proven ineffective.
Camden’s a very challenged city. We’ve gone through difficult times and we’ve gone through a number of difficult situations throughout the years. If we can do this type of training and police in this manner in our city, I’m certain that this would work just about anywhere else. It takes a significant commitment from the top down and the right people have to be in place to deliver the training, deliver that message and then sustain it over time. We have a saying within the department that everyone goes home safe at the end of your shift – us and the people that we’re arresting or encountering on routine patrol, whatever it may be. But it’s that philosophy, the sanctity of life, that guides all that we do and at the end of the day, everybody goes home safe.
JCH: I remember Tom Wilson using that phrase. He said that he first heard it in Scotland, that you want everybody to go home, not just us going home, but we want everybody to be able to go home and go home safe.
Kevin: Correct. It is a different approach. When we were creating the ICAT curriculum, they brought individuals in from Scotland and a couple of things really resonated with me personally. One of which was how they deal with armed individuals, specifically knives. They do not deal with the gun violence that we deal with here in the US. But what they do deal with is crazy, intoxicated individuals who are armed with knives, bats, and other types of blunt objects. Their officers do not carry firearms so their approach to these types of incidents are completely different than how we have typically approached them in the US.
In Scotland, they tend to start low and then elevate as needed. Much of their training is focused on tactics and communication due to the fact that they cannot rely on the use of a firearm. I believe there are lessons to be learned there. I am by no means saying not to utilize deadly force when the threat’s imminent and there’s no other option. But we want to make sure that our officers are not injecting themselves into a scenario and perhaps elevating the tension as opposed to minimizing it. I believe the concept of slowing things down can be difficult for some officers to wrap their head around. We’ve inherently been taught and trained in the past, it’s just ingrained in us, we want to help people, we want to solve problems. We want to rapidly resolve every situation as quickly as possible, and move on to the next job. If we can slow it down, if we can give ourselves more options and tactically reposition ourselves to be in a winnable situation, we want to do that. No officer wants to use force, and if it can be avoided and the mission still be accomplished, that is the desired outcome for all of us.
If we could do this type of training and police in this manner in our city (Camden, New Jersey),
I’m certain that this would work just about anywhere else.
JCH: You mentioned that if this can be done in Camden, this can be done anywhere. So you must have some sense of how things have turned out, the results of from how things were going before you implemented this training program and this organizational cultural change to how things are now. Would you have any results that you can share?
Kevin: Our officers are well aware of the type of behavior that we’re looking for from them when they’re responding to scenes. One specific example is, we had an officer, and this happens quite often, a few months back who de-escalated a situation where a suicidal female who was armed with a knife. By all accounts, deadly force would have been authorized during this encounter. There are things that took place and things that happened where, had it been a different officer, had it been an officer who had not received our training or wasn’t in the proper mindset, it may have ended differently. He was able to de-escalate, the woman ended up dropping the knife and went to the hospital, got medical treatment for whatever ailment or whatever issue she was having that particular day. I received a text messaged me at two or three in the morning, “Sir, we de-escalated a woman with a knife, you’d be proud.”
I can tell you that years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case. They’re proud of this type of behavior, they’re proud of what they’re doing. The constant reinforcement of the type of behavior that we’re seeking is resonating. It doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time. Starting at the Police Academy all the way through field training and beyond, we’ve been able to shift that culture into, I’ll say it multiple times – “guardians before warriors.” They’re going to be prepared to take action when it’s necessary and when it can be avoided, they’re going to do so.
You can equate that to a number of things but the full implementation of body cameras has certainly helped in that regard as well. When the public knows they’re being filmed, they’re going to be less likely to either make false accusations or do some things that they would’ve otherwise not thought twice about because they know everything they’re doing is being recorded. So in combination with training, this has led to a significant decrease in use of force incidents.
JCH: When a use of force situation occurs there’s often a feeling of distrust that happens between the public and the officers who serve and protect them. In your experience though, was the distrust already there, maybe because of history, bad blood, whatever, and the incident only brought that to light and magnified it? How do you see that happening?
Kevin: I think historically, police departments have done a poor job of educating the public on training initiatives and just the overall core values of the agency. Social media is a tremendous asset for a police department if used properly. I think that our agency does an outstanding job of publicly putting out just about everything that we’re doing. We’re very transparent with our training initiatives, with investigations, with just about everything that we do. And with that, it builds community trust.
You build that trust over time, you involve the public in what you’re doing. When you do that, when you establish a relationship built on trust, and a serious incident takes place such as a police use of deadly force, the public knows that you did everything within your power to avoid that situation. They know that there was no other option and the chances for civil unrest or protest are avoided altogether.
The greatest force multiplier is the public.
If they trust you, then they’re going to give you information and they’re going to help you.
JCH: I would think that it’s like any other relationship. Meaning if you could use the same philosophy in a friend situation… if you have a friend who’s always there, and always honest and they’re always up front…
Kevin: You know that they’re doing the right thing. That there are no ill intentions in what they’re doing and when there are serious incidents that happen, you’ve built up credit with the community where they’re going to trust that you’re going to be transparent in the investigation, you’re going to be transparent in just about everything that you do, there’s nothing to hide in what our intentions are, or the actions of that officer on that given day.
You can’t wait until a critical incident occurs. You need to be transparent before that and after that and be inclusive in how you evolve and change moving forward. The greatest force multiplier is the public, if they trust you, then they’re going to give you information and they’re going to help you. Especially in a city like Camden that’s very challenged, poverty-stricken, drug-infested in certain parts of the city, that having the public’s confidence, trust and support in dealing with those more challenged areas, it’s a win-win for everybody.
JCH: How does a police department rebuild that trust?
Kevin: It happens over time. I would say it’s the approach that our chief has been taking from the time that he took the job. It’s about implementing best practices, strategies, and training programs that are going to be sustained over a long period of time. We have seen significant immediate results, but in my opinion, the true results will be seen in the years to come. When a teenager chooses the right path, as opposed to a life of drug dealing as a result of meaningful change in his neighborhood.
Since the transition to the Camden County Police Department in 2013, we’ve done a tremendous job of reaching out to the youth within our city. I believe we still have a lot of work to do, but we’ve made tremendous strides in the reduction of crime and the reduction of open-air drug markets and other quality of life issues. There is still a lot of work to be done, but it’s a long term approach and we are making great strides.
JCH: Is that part of that overall organizational cultural change, that shift that was made?
Kevin: Absolutely. On our badge, it says, “service before self.” We’re focused on community policing and building and strengthening those relationships with the community. From the clergy to the community stakeholders, to the business-owners, whoever that may be. We have now sustained that over time and built these relationships that continue to gain the trust of the public which I don’t believe we had in its entirety for many years.
We reward our officers for their de-escalation efforts,
and we also reward them for the behavior that exemplifies our culture.
THis is very important… And it’s yielded great results within our Agency.
JCH: Use of force has been such a hot topic as of late and so much so that some people would say that there’s almost a chilling effect that’s happening among some officers who may actually hesitate in encounters that could lead to the use of force. In one of our previous webinars that we had, during one of our online polling, half of our respondents said yes to the question ‘Would the recent negative media and public response to police use of force caused you to actually hesitate if you had to use force?’. How would you coach police officers who are feeling that pressure who are starting to find themselves hesitating?
Kevin: First, as an administration, you have to provide officers with the training and equipment needed to be successful. If an officer works in an agency where they might not be dealing with some of the more serious incidents on a regular basis, you have to train to ensure you’re prepared when it does. In the departments that do experience these incidents on a regular basis, you have to train and apply the practical experience gained to mentor and ensure that the younger more inexperienced officers are prepared. I think what is often overlooked is the ethical component, you have to define your self-concept and you have to reinforce that we’re protectors of all human life, not just our own, not just our brother/sister-officer, but everyone that we’re dealing with. You have to provide them with the skills that they need to be successful.
I can’t expect somebody to de-escalate a situation if I haven’t first provided them with the training and the skills that they need to successfully de-escalate. They have to be able to defend themselves and others, they have to be able to successfully communicate and work through a crisis situation.
So we have to provide them reality-based, scenario-based training that makes the training scenario as real as possible for them, so that when they are faced with that encounter they’re able to handle it — reach the desired outcome without panicking or overreacting. But that takes a significant time and financial commitment to get that done. You have to continue to educate. And then, we have to make sure that their confidence levels are maintained over time.
I think we all could say we’ve been to different classes, school, or college, whatever it may be. You go to a class, you read a book, you think it’s great. If you don’t ever pick that book up again, or you don’t ever read it again, then that knowledge or skill diminishes and goes away.Everything has to be sustained over time and that is probably the most important thing.
We reward our officers for their de-escalation efforts, and we also reward them for the behavior that exemplifies our culture. This is very important and it’s yielded great results within our agency.
You go to a class, you read a book, and you think it’s great.
If you don’t ever pick that book up ever again,
or you don’t ever read that again, then that knowledge or skill diminishes and goes away.
Everything has to be sustained over time.
JCH: If you could provide just one piece of advice to a patrol officer who might be reading this, before they go back out on duty today, regarding the use of force, what advice would you have?
Kevin: We’re the only profession in the world that continues to evolve which seems to be day by day. Embrace the change and the challenges of the job. Train and prepare yourself to be successful in today’s changing climate. And most importantly, remember why you got into this job in the first place. We’re not just law enforcers, we’re public servants first who protect all people — and I emphasized the word ALL.