Herkimer County Community College Professor Mark Polkosnik, Utica College Professor Bernie Hyman, and Attorney Steve Lockwood discussed the use of force in policing in an October 14 webinar moderated by Hamilton Associate Professor of Government Gbemende Johnson.
Polkosnik began by discussing the use of force from a police perspective, having previously served as an officer training instructor. He outlined the “continuum” of force taught to officers, which ranges from physical presence and offering verbal direction to, ultimately, deadly force. “The theory is that you should always, always defuse situations using the lowest level of force possible — and officers are taught this,” Polkosnik said.
The webinar series covers Black Lives Matter, police use of force, the treatment of people with mental illness in the criminal justice system, domestic violence, and other issues relevant to effective reform.
“This is not a new journey; this is not a new battle. This has been going on for centuries,” Lockwood then noted on police brutality. An attorney who has handled civil rights cases since the early 1970s, he drew on his experience in the field to provide personal accounts of excessive force in policing. “A good part of my litigation practice has been suing the police,” he said. “The only ones I remember that were just absolutely foolproof excessive force cases were for Black people, and we got no cause of action.”
Tying the conversation to current events, Hyman brought up the case of George Floyd. The officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck, Hyman said, is “the epitome of what law enforcement shouldn’t be.” Hyman highlighted the “ultimate lack of judgment” exercised by the officer, as there was no reason to employ even potentially deadly force in a situation where the officers’ lives were not being threatened. The importance of this precondition was emphasized by Polkosnik earlier in the webinar.
During the Q&A section, Lockwood recalled a moment in which he witnessed a training officer instruct trainees to claim a suspect was resisting arrest if they feared being charged for using excessive force. He also argued for the publicization of police records as a means of increasing transparency.
When asked about de-escalation training regimens, Hyman pointed out that many smaller police departments lack both the oversight and resources to effectively implement such programs and regulate officer conduct. “We know of police officers who have been removed from some of the larger departments, simply to end up working in a smaller department,” he said. “And they’ve been removed for excessive force, or some other unethical behavior, and they still end up wearing a badge and a gun elsewhere.”
The influence of implicit biases was also brought up, which all three speakers agreed presented a particularly difficult challenge to police training. “You can educate people to it,” said Polkosnik, “but usually when it’s implicit, [officers] will see themselves … as not biased.” To this end, Lockwood suggested that officers should live in the neighborhoods they serve and that the makeup of a police force should, ideally, “mirror” that of its community.
As with the previous few webinars in the series, Wednesday’s event featured Hamilton Professor Michael Woods, who continued to examine forms of African-American musical expression, this time looking at R&B.