Governor Mike Parson has called a special legislative session to address violent crime in Missouri. As a retired chief of police, I believe the governor is missing an opportunity to address a key barrier to fighting crime: the decline in police-community trust. When the public lacks faith in their police department, victims are less inclined to call us for help, and witnesses often refuse to cooperate with us. Our communities lose faith in us when we fail to be transparent and hold officers accountable for abuses of power, when we task officers with problems they are ill-equipped to solve, and when we use excessively aggressive methods, such as no-knock raids, unnecessarily. I believe the special session should be devoted to strengthening public safety by addressing these issues.
As a deputy sheriff in Lincoln County, I saw the value of trust firsthand in developing the first-ever sexual assault response team. But our team was only effective when we could win the trust of assault survivors. I remember early in my career, a troubled woman I’ll call Amanda was brought into the interview room kicking and screaming, cursing officers as they threatened to pepper spray her. I let Amanda speak her mind and calmed her down until she revealed she was the victim of sexual assault. Her testimony helped convict a serial rapist. Police are most effective where we have built trust, not where we have to drag people into the interview room kicking and screaming.
We need to improve transparency to improve trust. The public thinks that law enforcement is hiding skeletons in our closet because we operate behind closed doors. To restore trust, police agencies must share data with the public on situations where deadly force was used and on officers who lost their badges for misconduct. This transparency will demonstrate that the police have nothing to hide and are doing our level best to protect and serve.
We also need to confront accountability. People assert that misconduct in policing can be attributed to a “few bad apples,” forgetting that a few bad apples “spoil the barrel.” It is critical that police departments root out the “bad apples” with legislation that ensures that once an officer is fired for misconduct they will not be rehired by another agency.
We often tell the public that “if you see something, say something.” It is time to heed our own advice. Law enforcement officers must intervene when they witness another officer use excessive force and speak up when they see misconduct. The duty to intervene needs to be written into law and obeyed by law enforcement. Doing so will help officers speak out and stop wrongdoing, fulfilling our oath to the Constitution and to protect and serve the public.
The special session can also stop cities from pushing every social problem onto the shoulders of our officers. In Eugene, Oregon, the CAHOOTS team of EMTs and mental health experts handles most mental health crisis calls instead of armed police. The CAHOOTS team handles 20 percent of 911 calls, allowing police to focus on solving and preventing violent crime. Our legislators can support police by helping to create non-police crisis response teams that share our burden of emergency response.
Finally, our legislature needs to stop unnecessary no-knock raids. As the first female SWAT officer in Lincoln County, I will never forget breaking down the door of a man who had made a few small drug sales, only to find an empty apartment with two small children. The 8-year-old daughter planted herself in front of me in my SWAT armor to protect her 6-year-old brother. I ran into the daughter 15 years later, and she confessed she still has nightmares of that raid. There is no reason to conduct no-knock raids in all but the most urgent, violent cases.
My police career showed me that to reduce crime, we need to focus on building a better relationship between officers and our communities. The special session can impact violent crime by increasing police transparency and accountability. We need to act urgently to restore community trust in law enforcement.
Betty Frizzell served as Deputy Sheriff in the Lincoln County and Ripley County Sheriff’s Departments and as Chief of the Winfield Police Department. She is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, judges, and prosecutors who support criminal justice solutions that will improve public safety.