By Joyce Coronel
It was July 18, the day I was to interview Chandler Police Chief Sean Duggan about his perspective of the growing, seemingly nationwide chasm between police officers and members of the Black community.
The American flag in front of his department’s headquarters fluttered at half-staff as all mourned the assassination of eight law enforcement officers, three in Baton Rouge a day earlier, five in Dallas on July 7.
The spate of targeted killings came on the heels of, and proved in part to have been prompted by, bystander videos that went viral on social media and quickly sparked follow-up protests.
In one video, a man bleeds to death in the front seat of a car driven by his girlfriend. In another, police officers attempt to restrain an armed man and then, without readily visible confirmation, shoot him multiple times.
Both men killed by police officers’ use of force were African American.
Because Wrangler News wanted to learn how police chiefs are dealing with the almost unparalleled challenges now facing communities, I sat down with Chief Duggan to discuss the ongoing complexities involving police officers’ use of force and how social media and other outside influences are impacting their work.
It’s a topic on which Duggan obviously has focused many hours of thought, no doubt with more introspection to come.
“It’s fundamentally changed the role of a chief and certainly policing in general because, in the past, you used to have time (to ascertain exactly what had occurred, and how). You had a news cycle to collect as much information and try to come up with a statement (of facts),” Duggan said, emphasizing, however: “Our job is predicated on facts, and sometimes the facts aren’t immediately apparent.”
The rush to Tweet and post to Facebook and other social media sites means that police departments no longer have the benefit of time, Duggan added.
Within seconds of an incident, citizen versions of the event begin popping up.
“This is what’s new for chiefs and policing—if you don’t respond (to questions about what happened), someone else will. So someone’s painting a narrative that is not always factual,” Duggan said.
A provocative video, such as the one on Facebook in which the Minnesota man bleeds to death, often has the power to drive public opinion, sometimes at the expense of the facts.
“The frustrating part is that people do rush to judgment, and they’re going to look at that and take away whatever they want, especially if they have preconceived perceptions about police,” Duggan said. “No one saw what led to that, so I have no idea—but neither does anyone else watching that same video. Yet many people jump to conclusions.”
And while pundits, politicians and protesters continue to debate the use of force vis-a-vis the African American community, Duggan offered a broad view of the challenges needing to be faced.
“This is a deep-rooted, historic, American issue, and it’s not going to be solved in one day,” said Duggan, noting that his responsibilities to serve the interests of the community at large have become more complex than ever.
“At the end of the day, I am everyone’s chief,” Duggan said. “I haven’t walked in the shoes of some of those who are involved, but I have to have an understanding.”
About 3.5 percent to 4 percent of Chandler’s police officers are Black, Duggan said, reflective of Chandler’s latest census-calculated Black population, which is 4 percent. As far as a perception among some citizens that police use of force is applied differently in the African American community, Duggan insisted that hasn’t been his experience while working in Chandler.
“We look at behavior,” Duggan said. “The color of skin is never factored in.”
At the same time, he allowed as to how he hasn’t worked in cities such as Baltimore or some older communities that have different cultures and different history. Nonetheless, trying to summarize in a few words the plethora of possible solutions, Duggan said the formula for success is mutual respect. Police officers have an obligation to respect members of the community, and those in the community need to respect the law.
“The only way we’re going to solve any of these issues right now is through communication and respect. I know there are different opinions and different perceptions, but if we are not sitting at the table talking, it’s going to be very hard to understand each other,” Duggan said.
Police officers carry weapons to protect themselves and the community. At times, the use of force is necessary, he said, adding however:
“Any time you use force, it’s ugly. It’s ugly to look at, it’s ugly for the officers and it’s ugly for the suspects, but that is our job. We are unlike any other profession.”
A question emerges: With about 90 percent of Americans owning a cell phone, and therefore the prospect of on-the-spot videos at any moment, are police officers acting differently as they carry out their jobs?
“Our officers are expected to act professionally at all times whether being recorded or not, and we hope citizens we encounter act responsibly so we can minimize the need to use force,” Duggan said.
Sgt. Daniel Mejia, a public information officer for the Chandler police, said that all of the city’s patrol officers on the streets now have body cameras.
“People tend to behave differently when they know they are being recorded,” Duggan said. “In fact, that is another benefit of having a body-worn camera program.”
And while professional and citizen journalists Tweet and post videos and commentary, the Chandler Police Department isn’t sitting back in silence. From Twitter to Facebook, the department is getting out its message.
There are posts about back-to-school safety, a citizens police academy, another on distracted driving. One photo of a PD-sponsored program shows a motorcycle officer buying lemonade at a neighborhood stand.
Duggan also spoke of an upcoming post which shows an officer responding to a plea for help when a man called to say his wife had collapsed and was not breathing.
The officer was the first person on the scene and was able to render lifesaving aid before the wife was taken to the hospital.
But that wasn’t the end of the officer’s concern, Duggan noted.
“He went back to the house and found out that the wife had been in the process of cooking dinner, so he finished cooking, packaged the food and put it in the fridge for the husband,” Duggan said.
“These are goodhearted guardians of the community.”
So what is Duggan telling officers in the wake of the targeted killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge? “We tell them that number one, they need to be vigilant and have keen situational awareness, yet at the same time, know that I support them, that our elected leaders support them and that the overwhelming majority of people in our community support them.”
From cards and banners to a steady stream of food and other symbolic shows of appreciation, the support from the community has been “tremendous” Duggan said.
If Duggan’s guidance of the department and his concepts of how a community can work together take hold, one would hope they might create a model for law enforcement around the country, 21st century-style.