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Former Chiefs Want To Change Police Culture

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is a television program coming up on PBS we'd like to tell you about. It's a two-night special program examining gun violence in the U.S. Two documentary films will be shown on Monday and Tuesday nights. The first peace officer examines whether local law enforcement agencies have become too reliant upon and are being changed by military equipment handed down from the federal government. This issue has been in the spotlight in the last year or so because of the way police departments have responded to civil unrest in places like Seattle and Ferguson and Baltimore. While many say the use of military-style equipment is necessary and appropriate, others suggest that the ready supply of this equipment has contributed to an unnecessarily aggressive and antagonistic policing strategy that ultimately does more harm than good.

We're going to talk about that with two people who were part of the discussion and know it well. Susan Rahr is a former sheriff of King County in Washington state. Now she's the director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission in charge of training police recruits in Washington state. We actually caught up with her in St. Louis. Sheriff, thank you for joining us.

SUSAN RAHR: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And Betty Taylor is the former chief of police for the city of Winfield, Mo. A former SWAT team member, she is now active with a group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officers who want to end the war on drugs. She happens to be in Seattle, and she's joining us from KUOW in Seattle. Chief Taylor, thank you for joining us as well.

BETTY TAYLOR: Yes, thank you.

MARTIN: So Sheriff, how did it happen that so many police departments - I understated that something like 8,000 now are in possession of surplus military equipment? Why did that start?

RAHR: You know, I don't know when the program started specifically. I know that when I was sheriff and when I was the patrol operations chief, we did acquire a great deal of equipment for the military. We got a helicopter, a couple of armored personnel carriers, a number of a rifles, night-vision goggles, those sorts of things. The reason we got those from the military is 'cause we could not afford to purchase those on our own, and that equipment was very necessary. We police the metropolitan area in and around Seattle. So the equipment was very necessary.

MARTIN: Overall, do you have a view about the police departments having access to this equipment? This has become an issue, of course, most recently because of Ferguson and Baltimore. And many people say that there's just something jarring about police officers confronting the public even in hostile circumstances with looking like they're in the military in some cases, you know, in armored personnel carriers. Do you have an overall philosophy about this?

RAHR: I do. I think having the military equipment is extremely valuable and is absolutely necessary that police departments have access to it. It's kind of like a ladder truck for the fire department. Not every single volunteer fire department needs a ladder truck, but when you need one there's nothing else will do. And unfortunately, there are some police departments that have not done a good job of using them in proper circumstances. And so as the saying goes, they make the rest of us look bad.

MARTIN: Chief Taylor, let's go to you now. Do you remember why you became a police officer? Why did you want to be one?

TAYLOR: My sister had disappeared and the police wouldn't help us. They seen us as lower-class citizens is the way I felt it to be. So if you can't beat them, join them.

MARTIN: Wow.

TAYLOR: But I came from a high-crime, high-poverty area. And I think a lot of the best police officers do come to from the worst situations because you understand who you're policing if you go into those types of areas.

MARTIN: You did, at one point, become a member of a SWAT team, but you've - you really changed your view about how frequently these kinds of teams should be used and how they should be employed. What was it that really changed your mind about it?

TAYLOR: The children and animals that were disregarded. I know that a lot of times they say well, we need this equipment for officer safety, and I agree we all should go home at night, all police officers should. But the children were the voiceless victim. And I think the turning point was when I had to go into a room and, you know, here we are. We busted down the door. We've been told that there's this big drug bust, we've got to get these drugs of the streets. OK. And then we get in there and they go, well, go ahead the children are in the other room, you know, I'm female. So I go in the room and I've got two younger children and the sister's protecting the brother against me, and I'm the good guy.

So I felt, oh my goodness, think about this. This little girl could be re-victimized. How is she - if she does become a crime victim, how is she going to feel comfortable coming to me, someone that came in the middle of the night, busted down a door and took her parents into custody? And how's she going to feel about me? And I was like - I told my lieutenant I don't think I can do this anymore.

MARTIN: Some people would say you know what? That's a shame but there are some really dangerous people out here and this equipment is necessary to protect police officers - their lives as well as, you know, in the broader interest of public safety. What do you say to that?

TAYLOR: Some circumstances would warrant it, but we look at statistics and, you know, the ACLU report says that 79 percent of these SWAT teams have been activated between 2011-2012 for search warrants. It's not for the barricaded person. It's not for the hostage situation. It's for the search warrant. And that's what I always had a problem with because wrong information, the information's not right or this person's trying to give you information, you know, I've been on the other side of that. I grew up in those areas. We didn't know how to really to address police. I got an appreciation for police through my mother, who always wanted to be a police officer but society wouldn't let her be a police officer.

MARTIN: Interesting. So sheriff, is it your view that this is a bad apple situation? That the horror stories that we've heard about that have now become part of the public conversation involving individuals who are perhaps wrongly killed or people whose doors were busted in, those are isolated instances that reflect poorly on the whole practice. Is that your view?

RAHR: Well, I don't think I would use the term bad apples. I think there are some agencies that don't have proper leadership and discipline, and there are probably many missions that are very poorly done and nobody gets hurt and so the public doesn't learn about it. So I think there probably are many other examples of bad police work. But I would say on the balance, the majority of those missions are successful and no one gets hurt.

There is a great deal of reform that is happening in this country, and we are really trying to refocus our training on getting officers - new officers in particular - to understand their role and focus more on the public safety side of the role and using enforcement as one tool in a tool belt full of lots of tools to keep the community safe. I think that we've gotten off track in this country a bit focusing much, much more on enforcement with less emphasis on what is the greater good.

MARTIN: Sue Rahr is a former sheriff of King County, Wash. She's now director of the Washington State Police Training Academy. I do want to mention, she's also been named to Obama's - President Obama's taskforce on 21st century policing. She joined us from the studios of St. Louis Public Radio. And Betty Taylor is the former Winfield, Mo., police chief. She's now studying for her doctorate in psychology, and she joined us from KUOW in Seattle. Chief, sheriff, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

RAHR: Thank you.

TAYLOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.