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Law enforcement standards commission look to listening sessions

by Phillip Sitter | June 28, 2020 at 5:05 a.m. | Updated June 28, 2020 at 1:21 p.m.
Missouri Department of Public Safety Director Sandra Karsten speaks Tuesday, April 14, 2020, during a COVID-19 news briefing as Gov. Mike Parson looks on.

Leaders of Missouri law enforcement want to be proactive after mass protests in recent weeks against police brutality and demands for measures of accountability for police. Being proactive may include listening sessions around the state.

The widely protested death of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis under the knee of a white officer has led to discussions among the public and lawmakers about how to move forward.

The officer has since been charged with murder.

"I don't know whether we want to see ourselves in a situation where we have things imposed upon us, when we have an opportunity now to discuss those and to make recommendations to best address it from our perspective," Missouri Department of Public Safety Director Sandra Karsten said last week at a meeting of the Missouri Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission.

The News Tribune was not at the POST Commission meeting but later obtained an audio recording of it.

In her concerns about law enforcement having things imposed upon it in the current public and political climate, Karsten referred to a proposal in Colorado to no longer have police officers be protected by qualified immunity - a legal shield for public servants that protects them from lawsuits over alleged negligent conduct.

"When that happens, we are not going to have recruiting," Karsten said.

She also mentioned discussions in Ohio about minimum standards for handling mass protests and "very stringent guidelines" on when tear gas can be deployed. "To me, those decisions are best made by the leaders on the scene at the time."

Karsten said "we've come to a point where I need your advice. I need your guidance on what's the next step. What do we need to do differently in the way of training? What do you we need to do differently in the way of policies or credentialing of peace officers?"

One of the POST Commission's duties is to guide and advise the Missouri Public Safety director on law enforcement standards and training.

The POST Commission also has a lot of power over the training Missouri law enforcement officers receive: establishing minimum standards for basic training; setting the minimum number of hours for basic training; and establishing continuing education requirements, among other roles.

The commission also establishes minimum standards for law enforcement training instructors and sets the minimum standards for the training, training hours and curriculum of school protection officers.

Karsten's training authority as public safety director include setting minimum training center admission requirements, adopting and developing the POST exam and licensing peace officers from other states and jurisdictions. The director also can probate, suspend or revoke a peace officer's license "once there's been cause for discipline," she said.

The POST Commission has had to deal with several vacancies among its members in recent years, with other members serving on expired terms.

While three vacancies remain - for a police chief, a sheriff and a peace officer at or below the rank of sergeant - Gov. Mike Parson recently breathed some new life into the commission by appointing two new members: Lincoln University Police Department Chief Gary Hill and Jefferson County Sheriff Dave Marshak.

Speaking at the beginning of last week's POST Commission meeting, Parson said: "I think you're going to see this commission probably take a much more active role than maybe what you have; trying to figure out 'Where are we? How do we fix some of the problems we're facing? How do we do it professionally? How do we maintain the integrity of law enforcement?'"

Karsten said listening sessions around the state have been proposed, "to hear from our communities, and to hear from our law enforcement officials on what we need to do to improve training, to improve law enforcement in general."

She said the Department of Public Safety had such listening sessions after the events in Ferguson.

Michael Brown, a Black man, was shot by a white Ferguson police officer in August 2014. Brown's death and the later non-indictment of the officer also spurred protests and riots, as Floyd and other Black men, women and children's deaths at the hands of police across the country increasingly have in recent weeks and years.

"We've just got to figure out, 'How do we adapt to the situation we're in?' What changes can we make, if we can make changes? But I don't think you always just want to make changes to react to a problem. You really need to think through things," Parson said.

"To me, it's always 'What's the endgame? What are we trying to do?' When I met with some of the activists in my office here, a couple weeks ago, about 20 of them, I tried to figure that out. By 'defund the police,' OK, what does that mean? What's the endgame to that? You mean you want so many police officers off the streets? You don't want them there when you call for service? What's all that mean?" he asked.

Parson added many young people "probably don't understand the system as we understand it," and that's where the commission will come in - trying to build bridges, "that they get a better understanding of what it is we do."

Hill pointed out during the meeting that there are internal issues within law enforcement that also need to be addressed.

One, when it comes to training, is that training not getting through to some officers in a way they'll pay attention to and learn from it, he said.

"It's like going to church and you're tired. You've been out partying all night long, but you're going to be in church in the morning. You're not really paying attention to what the pastor's saying, or anything else, or getting the message that you probably should be getting, especially when we're telling you, 'Hey, we're paying you to be here training, you need to be at training.' A lot of officers are taking that training and saying - especially with the diversity and the bias stuff - they're saying 'It's not us, it's them,' or, 'I don't have that problem,'" Hill said.

He also said high call volumes requiring responses that might leap from a traffic stop to a death to a situation involving a gun or other weapon takes a toll on officers' ability to project a positive public image at all times.

"We're hoping that every contact our officer has is a positive one, and a lot of the time, we're not getting invited to people's birthdays or bar mitzvahs or anything like that. We're dealing with people on the worst days of their life," he said.

"Trying to ensure that our officers are handling that correctly and putting their emotions aside is our biggest issue, is our biggest problem, I think, we'll run into here on this commission," Hill added, especially of trying to prepare new officers to always put the community first, no matter what call they just came from.

There's also the issue of trust between communities and law enforcement and a lack of understanding about why that tension exists.

"I can tell you from communication within our organization, there's a lack of knowledge of what that history is," Marshak said.

He said he was at a national African American museum in Washington, D.C., a couple months ago, and he heard a woman say, "'They can't deny this, looking at the history.' That was pretty powerful, to me, and it says that there is some real distrust with the police."

There were not many firm details discussed last week on when - or how, given the COVID-19 pandemic - listening sessions might be held, but Karsten said she and the POST Commission's program manager would work on selecting dates and timeframes, and she might have commission members provide locations in their jurisdictions.

The POST Commission's next regularly scheduled meeting is 1 p.m. Oct. 6.

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