In recent months there have been confrontations across the nation between police and citizens that bring into question how law enforcement officers should react in certain critical situations. It’s a complicated issue.
I support our Highlands Police Department and other area law enforcement agencies. But, I do not blindly support unjustifiable police actions. We must strive for continuous improvement in government, including law enforcement agencies. Even in the recent turmoil I hold to the hope that communities can improve policing across the nation, thereby building trust and support.
The North Carolina Legislature is looking at ways to improve law enforcement. As a mayor, and I suspect most elected officials would agree, that the solution is not to simply defund the police. I certainly do not want to see that happening in our Highlands Police Department. On the other hand, reallocation of resources and redirecting law enforcement programs may certainly be in order.
As a former magistrate, I was very aware that law enforcement officers are expected to deal with and solve problems that were not a part of their enforcement mission and training. We need more community mental health resources, drug addiction programs and social support services that redress problems that law enforcement officers address daily and on a repeat basis.
For example, it is more cost effective to provide treatment for a person addicted to drugs rather than incarcerate that person in a state penitentiary. Almost all the folks I encountered as a magistrate were basically good people that were dealing with dysfunctional life problems. They needed help rather than criminalization.
State legislative committees are now addressing these law enforcement issues. At the next session recommendations will be presented for legislative action. Below are several areas where lawmakers believe improvements can be made.
First, there will be a focus on training. Being an effective policeman in today’s environment is complex and requires a high level of training. Our own police department has highly trained officers, many with criminal justice degrees, but their training never stops.
Our new chief is already revising training to address these national concerns. I hope we have a statewide initiative to fund and support even better training.
Second, legislators are looking at the issue of mental health services for policemen. Police officers are under constant stress, in some instances it is tantamount to military battle fatigue.
Third, there is the issue of law enforcement agency accreditation. Schools, medical facilities, and fire departments have accreditation requirements, and many folks believe law enforcement agencies should too.
Other issues being examined are the use of force policies, and a state wide data base for decertified officers and officers that have a history of disciplinary actions.
The statewide policy of the release of police camera footage is also being reviewed. All of our town police have body cameras, but that is not the case across the state and nation. Research has shown that when body cameras are used both the police and citizens on average behave more civilly.
The legislature is also looking at whistle blower protections for officers who report misconduct. Also, law enforcement pay is a critical issue. In this time of turmoil many good law enforcement officers are leaving the profession. Communities need to recruit and retain committed and competent officers.
I hope our state representatives will pass legislation that addresses these critical law enforcement concerns. A balance and deliberative plan are certainly needed.
- Town of Highland Mayor Pat Taylor