An esteemed police expert, Dr. Larry Jetmore, believes that the most important person who sets the standard for culture and day to day operations of a police department is the first-line supervisor or sergeant. In this role and capacity, the first-line supervisor has the most contact with and informs his/her subordinates on what is and what is not acceptable and expected on a routine basis. I do agree with his assessment concerning the role of a first-line supervisor. The chief of police, who is many times the public face of the organization is tasked with setting the overall mission of any department. But it’s the first line supervisor who is responsible for carrying out that mission when the chief and his command staff are asleep at 3 am. It’s the sergeant’s role to ensure that when a motor vehicle is pulled over at 2 am on a Saturday morning that the constitutional rights and departmental policies and procedures are adhered to by the initiating officer.
We can never forget what mid-managers and members of the command staff and upper echelons are also integral to informing the police culture. Recently there was a case in Florida in which a police captain was overheard via body-worn camera (BWC) footage instructing her subordinates to treat a murder suspect in a disrespectful manner. Her instructions to the officer(s) were to treat the suspect like he (the officer) was a white supremacist cop and do what was necessary to intimidate the suspect. I addressed this matter in my monthly wrap up on my podcast. However, after much thought, I do not believe I gave this story the full attention it deserves.
Let’s examine this to the fullest detail I can imagine. Let me start off by stating after reading the story and having some understanding of police work, I do believe that the captain, Penny Phelps, had (may have had?) good intentions when she was instructing her subordinates to take certain measures in order to bring a suspected murder suspect into custody. I certainly do not know for sure, in fact, she may have a racial animus toward some people. However, what was truly reprehensible is that she played upon the growing resentment and divide between the community and the police. She instructed her subordinates to be that which the public fears and loathes. In this time of cultural change, implicit bias training, cultural sensitivity training, warrior vs. guardian mindset and every other training concerning the way police should interact with the public, this woman instructed her people to do the exact opposite of what society is now demanding. And this is what is so dangerous on many levels. It gives the lower-ranking officers the “ok” to treat people unfairly based upon their race. Clearly, Ms. Phelps wouldn’t instruct white officers to treat white citizens as if they were white supremacist officers. Or would she? Would she instruct black officers to act as a black supremacist group in order to bring a white suspect into custody? That’s hard to imagine. This throws the idea of living in a color-blind society right into the trash heap. Getting your man (criminal) cannot come at the expense of the department’s reputation for fairness across the board. I wonder where the captain learned this type of thinking and strategy to gain confessions. Was it taught to her as a young recruit? Did her field training officer (FTO) tell her to separate and divide along racial lines? To intimidate black suspects and treat them unfairly and act like crazed racist officers to get the job done? As a young supervisor, did she instruct other officers to deal with suspects in a similar fashion?
The police world and mainstream society are slowly coming to terms with the fact that modern-day police are the outgrowth of racist origins. From the slave catching patrols in the south to the personal property protectors in the north, this country’s police force has been used as a way to separate, detain and punish people who are the minority and poor. As departments grapple with their pasts, most progressive administrations are taking precautions to ensure that all members of their community are seen and treated fairly. But here we see a woman who is capitalizing on this painful past and seeks to exploit it. This cannot stand. Members of the department who hear her words may come away thinking that it was and is okay for them to treat a suspect or occupants of a motor vehicle stops in a rough manner with hints of white supremacism in order to search their car or to gain a confession. And this is not ok. Those who believe that the hands of the police are tied now, and the reins need to be loosened should imagine a world in which it once again acceptable to scare and lie to the very people they are sworn to protect.
Ms. Phelps’s words were and are extremely dangerous and as high ranking member of her department, they are the equivalent of a parent telling her children to start fights and bully the neighbor’s kids. But the worst part, as if the story could be any worse, is that this incident, recording, and instructions took place in 2017. The story and the initial disciplinary reaction from the sheriff (chief) did not occur until 2019. It took 2 years and the outing of the story by the press for the sheriff to take any action. All of these facts, the instructions, the possible ramifications and lack of action on the sheriff’s part are exactly why there is a divide between the police and the communities they serve. It’s great that the sheriff took some action now, but in truth, the town(s) managers and voters should take a look at him and question his ability to lead that department.
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