Editor's Note: We received the following commentary from Elk Grove Police Chief Robert Lehner in response to Jane Gassner's behind-the-scenes look at the police dispatch unit. We hope readers will read both articles and weigh in with their own thoughts on the relationship between police officers and community members in Elk Grove.
When I introduced myself to the Citizens Police Academy (CPA) during their opening session, I invited the attendees to remain skeptical, to ask tough questions and get answers that would help their understanding of who we (EGPD and the police) are and how and why we do what we do. Though I was aware we had a reporter from Elk Grove Patch in our most recent session, the invitation was the same made of all citizens who attended previous sessions and will be the same for all future attendees. I was, therefore, a bit surprised to read Jane Gassner’s account of her recent experience.
She is entitled to and encouraged to have her own opinion about how she thinks police employees should behave, what they should think, and how they should act. However, she presented two assumptions as fact that require correction: first, the stated purpose of CPAs and, second, the importance of officer safety relative to the public safety.
To the purpose of CPAs, I am at least grateful for the recognition that the CPA is “not like a press conference where some unruly reporter tries to filter out the official BS to get a nugget of truth.” I will try hard to remember that stated fact about press conferences the next time we call one on some matter of community importance.
According to Ms. Gassner, the story being told is that the relationship between the cops and the community “has long been fraught with bad feeling – on both sides.” That underlying assumption is incorrect.
There will always be some people who do not like what we do, how we do it, or the transportation we use to arrive when called on for help. On balance, EGPD enjoys a positive relationship with the community. We’re not perfect, but for every person who has a negative experience or bad opinion about their interaction with the EGPD, there are many others who feel the opposite. A number of surveys, including informal surveys conducted by other media outlets, prove this to be the case.
So, if changing the relationship from negative to positive is not the reason for CPAs, what is?
Citizens Police Academies are not an invention of the Elk Grove Police Department. They are an experience-tested means by which relationships can be developed between individual members of the community and individual members of their police departments. It’s not at all about reversing bad feelings or opinions. It’s about the relationship itself. Having one. Continuing one. Understanding each other.
If you’re going to have a negative opinion about police, that’s fine, but have it based on what we really do, not what you think we should do or what you see on television. Understand that our job is to fairly serve the entire community and every sub-community within it, all at the same time. We have but one bias: an intolerance for unlawful behavior.
It is true that like every police agency in this country, we place a great emphasis on officer safety. Obviously, that emphasis is coming through in the CPA. However, it would be a mistake to assume that an emphasis on officer safety means that citizen safety is less important. In fact, citizen safety is the highest priority, officer safety second, and perpetrator safety third followed by property damage, if formal prioritization helps clarify the issue. It helps explain why we might make an immediate forced entry to free a hostage but will wait hours and use tear gas (not exactly friendly to carpet and drapes) before extricating the armed subject of an arrest warrant.
When an officer becomes a victim in the course of responding to an incident, it complicates the response and, ultimately, delays it. Quick response to emergencies and exhaustive officer safety training are the keys to reducing injury to all concerned.
The example provided of Tasers is illustrative. Missing from the story is a simple but verifiable fact – in every police agency that introduced Tasers as a force option, the number of force uses generally, their severity, and the number and severity of resulting injury to both officers and arrestees decreased dramatically. That is why (depending on the circumstances) Tasers may be preferred to pepper spray, which is preferred to a baton, which is preferred to a boxing match. If you’re going to have to fight someone, quick and over is the key to injury reduction.
It is true—I do want my officers going home to their families at the end of their shifts. That is a fact and I will make absolutely no apology for the emphasis of the profession or our department on the safety of our employees. These are the same people who give up their nights, weekends and family special events to willingly deal with what are often alcohol- or drug-infused petty disputes.
In the extreme (which happens weekly if not daily here), when people call in terror as they run from someone in a drunken or mental rage who is threatening someone else with a weapon, it is our call-takers and dispatchers who elicit what to the uninformed may be mundane, irritating questions but provide critical detail to responding officers. Usually, not all the detail is reliable, which carries an increased risk for the responding officers. Officers cannot entirely eliminate risk but they go anyway, and with the benefit of whatever information they have and their own training and experience, the situation is most frequently resolved with no injury to anyone.
The attitude Ms. Gassner experienced is not about us (the police) versus them (the citizens). It is about us (law-abiding citizens) versus those who would separate us from our lives, our blood, and our property. That particular battle, I am not about to concede.