How a Black, Female LAPD Cop Would Change Policing, Part II of II
Monica Westfall: Do you think there’s a gap in use-of-force training that allows officers to plead that they feared for their lives when they face murder charges for use of force — in killing unarmed black men in particular? And what do you think would be a better method of training in this area?
Sgt. Cheryl Dorsey (Ret.): It’s not a training issue. It’s an accountability issue! We are trained a certain way, and we are certainly not trained to shoot people who scare us. If you are that frightened of a community, again, this is not the job for you. If you’re easily moved to anger because someone curses at you, or because someone runs from you, or because someone doesn’t comply — this is not the job for you. Those are things that are inherent to police work, those things happen everyday — sometimes all day! You don’t get to shoot people when they run from you. I don’t think any officer wakes up in the morning thinking, “I’m going to kill somebody today, I just don’t know who.” So, when that happens, it’s like uh-oh — now what? I feared for my life! Or, I couldn’t see his hands. It’s very difficult to argue what’s in someone’s head, and great deference is given to an officer’s version of events. Those types of excuses worked in the fatal police shootings of Michael Brown, John Crawford, and 12 year-old Tamir Rice. The problem is with accountability.
Except the black officer in Minnesota, Mohamed Noor, that fatally shot the unarmed woman, Justine Damond, last summer. He said he feared for his life and it didn’t work for him. He was charged with murder and jailed.
So, then there’s that!
I don’t know the makeup of that jury or if the color of that officer’s skin overshadowed the uniform. As another example, Betty Shelby, the former female officer who shot and killed Terence Crutcher, used the “I was scared more than anything ever in my life,” excuse. Shelby shot Crutcher in the back as he walked away from her with his hands raised in the air. She’s now working on another department right now, poised to do the same thing. The Crutcher family was paid millions of dollars, but it wasn’t Shelby’s money! It wasn’t even the department’s money; it was the taxpayers’ money. So, I think part of the deterrence against using unnecessary deadly force will happen when police officers who use deadly force as a first resort rather than a last resort — which is the way we are trained — are held financially and legally responsible.
I commented on a police shooting recently where a lone officer responded to a call after a man crashed his car and began attacking bystanders. After being chased by the driver, the officer tased the man 10 times and still didn’t gain compliance. The driver continued attempting to assault the officer and was eventually shot. He later died. When asked, I responded, “Sometimes deadly force is required and in this case I believe it was justified.” As a female officer, I am not going to allow a suspect to hit me. One punch could incapacitate me, and now the suspect has access to my weapon.
Do you feel that police training academies adequately keep up with the latest techniques in training to address current issues?
I think it’s trial and error. Financial resources play a part. While on the LAPD working specialized operations it was routine that at the end of an operation, we would debrief as a unit and discuss what we might do better tactically next time to make sure our responses were tight. That’s how I was trained. When we stopped someone and wrote a ticket, and especially as a trainee, my training officer would often discuss tactics. It’s important. So, training should be ongoing, because it’s perishable.
Most new recruits on police forces who come from the military are trained to have the warrior mindset of “us versus them”, “evil versus good.”
How do you think training could be reformed to change that mindset, if it is even possible? How can we get officers to feel more like guardians of their communities?
I don’t think that’s anything new. When I joined the LAPD in the 1980s it was quasi-military. Policework is common sense most of the time. I used this analogy when speaking on CNN: If I was a chef working in a five star restaurant, and every night my meals were amazing, spectacular, and aesthetically appealing but customers were getting sick as a dog, I would not be allowed to continue in that occupation. They would say thank you Cheryl, I get you want to be a chef, but this isn’t working out — same thing should apply with police. We swear an oath to protect and serve, and if you have an officer who can’t relate to a community, they should be removed from that occupation. This happened with the officer who shot Philando Castile. That officer seemingly did not view or relate to the four-year-old baby sitting in the backseat of the car. Clearly, that officer didn’t look at that baby and think, “She could be my little sister, or my daughter, and firing 7 shots into this vehicle is not tactically sound. Let me back away from the car and make myself safe until I can get additional units.” If the officer was so fearful, then why continue to engage? Go get in a safe place. Go sit in your car! Roll up the window. Lock your doors and tell the real police that you have a man out here who scares you.
In your perfect world, how would you think we could best weed out these people that don’t belong as police officers?
There needs to be an ongoing, regular psychological re-evaluation. When I joined the LAPD, we had a psychological test to get hired and that was it. Never again! I know what officers are exposed to day-to-day and most will not self-report if they are having issues. Doing so could cost an officer their duty weapon. I think it’s important for police departments to crack open an officer’s head every couple of years and look around. If you see something that’s troubling, then get this officer some assistance — maybe it’s an alcohol problem or an anger management problem. It’s not cool. It’s not sexy to say you’re struggling with trauma, and we have to change that.
I had a situation as a patrol sergeant — with a jumper. A young man attempted suicide in front of us. We’d been talking to him for a long time, thinking he was going to come down off this building, and he didn’t. He jumped. And when he jumped, we watched him land and live! He didn’t die, and you know, I’m out there and I’m watching him and I’m a big, bad city police sergeant, and I have a son who’s about his age — and it bothered me! I’m looking around at everyone else, and everybody is looking wise and otherwise, and so I went back to the station and I told my lieutenant. I suggested psychologists from behavioral sciences come over and just be available. By the time my officers started rolling back into the police station, psychologists were there. Nobody wanted to talk. I let everybody know that we got some people here, if you want to speak to them about what we just saw. And everybody said, “I’m good, no worries.” And so, I asked my lieutenant, “What room do I go in, because I need to talk to somebody!” It bothered me, and I didn’t see any shame in saying that I was bothered. It bothers me to this day. I can right now hear what it sounded like when that young man hit the ground! You don’t get over that. And so that’s why I think it’s on the department to pull everybody in every 18 months or so. If experiences like seeing that jumper didn’t bother me, I would have to wonder about myself. I’m using my experiences to be honest about the things that are not right so we can fix it.
Having spent a significant portion of my adult life as a police officer, I really want things to be better, not only in police departments, but I want things to be better in minority and poor white communities -because none of us are immune.
There’s a level of credibility that comes with the title retired LAPD sergeant, so I’m appreciative that I have this platform and am able to speak the way that I do. So, thank you.
Sgt. Cheryl Dorsey (Ret.) spent 20 years with the Los Angeles Police Department and was their first ever African-American female Officer-in-Charge, Newton Area Vice. As a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, she uses her expertise in police training, community relations, sexual assault investigations, procedural justice, racial bias, and PTSD/mental health issues in law enforcement to improve the justice system and public safety.
Learn more at www.sgtcheryldorsey.com.
Monica Westfall is the Program Associate at the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.