“We have consulted with literally hundreds of police officers and police departments. We met and studied best practices around the country,” Wexler said.
The research organization consulted with hundreds of police chiefs for over two years, and looked at countless case studies and reports to put together their findings and then their training program.
“We would not be recommending something if we didn't think it would work, and we've seen enough cases in the United States and in other countries where some may already be doing it or are in the process of implementing it.”
One of the other sources Wexler and PERF president, Scott Thompson, consulted in putting together the report was the archbishop of the largest city in the United States, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.
“The person who we thought would really be interested in this concept was Cardinal Dolan in New York,” Wexler recalled. “We went to see Cardinal Dolan because we thought our principles, and in particular that principle, would be very significant to him.”
Cardinal Dolan was elected as the chairman-elect of the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life activities beginning his term as chair in 2015.
“We had a really good meeting and he really understood and embraced” the core principle of protecting life, Wexler said. “It was something he could be very supportive of.”
There has been pushback from a lot of the major organizations.
PERF mentioned that Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago has also lent his support in helping the group's training programs for the Chicago Police Department.
While the police policy guidelines have been met with support among the hundreds of departments who worked with PERF, the organization’s focus on prioritizing the sanctity of the lives of all persons involved in police incidents has not been without controversy.
“There has been pushback from a lot of the major organizations,” Wexler acknowledged.
When PERF first released its guidelines in March 2016, it was met with harsh criticism from both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Fraternal Order of Police.
“We cannot reasonably expect law enforcement officers to walk away from potentially dangerous situations and individuals in the hope that those situations resolve themselves without further harm being done,” the organizations said in a joint response to PERF’s initial report.
A year later, however, national police organizations have started to adopt consensus principles that echo many of the ideas emphasized by PERF.
In a document laying out “National Consensus Policy” on the use of force, released in January 2017, 11 national police organizations – including the FOP and IACP – emphasized the importance of de-escalation policies, “reasonably prudent” responses, and less-lethal force. The policy also asks that departments around the country openly state that the “policy of this law enforcement agency is to value and preserve human life.”
While Wexler said he could not comment on these adaptations, he did say the shift in focus to emphasize the dignity and value of all lives – even in the most challenging situations – is a “difficult” shift in perspective: “The changes we're recommending are probably some of the biggest changes in police tactics that we’ve seen in 25 years.”
And the size of the policing community in the United States – more than 18,000 departments – only adds to the challenge.
Still, while the values and emphasis in police policy might still face some debate, PERF's training and concrete policies have met with wide acceptance.
“We've had no pushback from our training,” he said, pointing to the hundreds of departments who have come to their training workshops in New Orleans, Baltimore, and Los Angeles.
With this support in the year since putting out the guidelines and what they've seen in the research process, Wexler is confident that they can create a culture that defends the sanctity of human life in all aspects of its police work.
“I'm optimistic that in five years, this will no longer be controversial,” Wexler said. “This will be the way people handle these situations.”
This article was originally published on CNA April 7, 2017.