STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A series of high-profile confrontations is changing the attitudes of American police. Even before the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last summer, American police forces were finding themselves under increased scrutiny. Incidents since then have only increased the pressure. Camera phones and social media make it easier to question them. And police are changing their behavior, though not always in the way the public might like. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Let's be clear. There are a lot of things about police that haven't changed - for instance, bagpipes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Four.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAGPIPES)
KASTE: Cops still play them at funerals and at ceremonies like this one at the National Law Enforcement Memorial here in Washington, D.C. This was Tuesday afternoon, the festive finish to an annual police bike ride.
KASTE: Nearly 2,000 cops from around the country cycling in memory of colleagues who died on the job. They were welcomed by friends and families, some of them wearing T-shirts with the image of the thin blue line. Josh Underwood is a sheriff's deputy from St. Johns County, Fla. He shows the metal wristbands that the riders wear.
JOSH UNDERWOOD: It's an engraved band, and you have somebody's name on it, so that's who you ride for that year. And usually the tradition is you find that family and you give them that band and say hey, I rode for your son or your brother, you know, your husband.
KASTE: But this event feels a little different this year - more embattled. It's hard to forget about Ferguson, North Charleston, and this year, the riders were routed away from Baltimore because they were worried about becoming targets. Steve Staletovich watches the cyclists arrive. He's a sergeant with the Indianapolis Police Department, and he's been on the job for 30 years.
STEVE STALETOVICH: And over the 30 years I've seen a lot of changes - a lot of ups and downs - but I've got to tell you, the current situation is about as bad as I've seen.
KASTE: Lately, he's been checking the news every morning for incidents involving police, incidents anywhere in the country so that he can warn his officers at roll call.
STALETOVICH: I tell them hey, this is going to break today, and it's going to be ugly, and there's going to be some catcalls and some jeers.
KASTE: America's local police are now acting on a national stage. When something happens in South Carolina, the cops feel the effects in Indianapolis. And as I've talked to cops over the last year, one word keeps coming to mind - disruption. It's a Silicon Valley cliche, but police embrace it, and they're quick to point out the technologies that are doing the disrupting.
STALETOVICH: Social media has made stories that never would have been heard or seen before national news.
KASTE: On the other side of the country, another veteran cop makes this analogy...
CLOYD STEIGER: It's just like Vietnam. The first cameras that went to war in Vietnam - everybody was shocked at the violence.
KASTE: That's Cloyd Stieger. He's a police detective in Seattle, and he started out as a patrolman in 1979. He says it's like when the TV cameras arrived in Vietnam because, like that moment, the public is getting a dose of harsh reality.
STEIGER: People see things that they didn't see before, and people watch the TV shows, and it's so sanitized. That's what they think violence is supposed to really look like. Well, it doesn't. That's not the way use of force looks. Use of force looks ugly, but that's the way it's always been.
KASTE: Now, civilians hear this and think good, the more transparency the better. A lot of cops say that, too, but some of them add this warning - all this exposure is going to mean a different kind of policing. Steiger says it's making cops more passive. He recalls what it was like to patrol the streets back in the '80s.
STEIGER: Our whole job was to go and shake gang bangers or dope dealers and stuff to kind of clean up the area.
KASTE: That would never fly today, especially in Seattle, a city that's been burned by unflattering videos of aggressive cops. Two of Steiger's sons are patrolmen, and they tell him it's a whole different philosophy now.
STEIGER: You know, if you're driving down the street and there's a guy you think is dealing drugs or prowling cars or something and if you stop him and things kind of go bad a little bit - like you get - have a use of force situation - then it's micromanaged. Everybody looks at everything you said, everything you did. But if you just choose to just drive on by - no one ever second-guesses you if you just ignore it.
KASTE: But cops say when they are forced to act, when things do get confrontational, then they face the other part of this disruption - people now are a lot more willing to ask questions and even talk back. It's as if they have been practicing it in their minds while watching other people's videos of encounters with the police. And police trainer Mark Best says people also now seem to know what they're talking about.
MARK BEST: They may know how far a police officer can go. They do the research on the Internet where it used to be you had to go down to the law library. Now you just click a mouse button and, you know, people know their rights and - which they should.
KASTE: He says he's now training aspiring police officers to expect questions and to explain what they're doing. Still, there's a fundamental conflict here. For the past few decades, American cops have been trained in something called command presence. That's the technique of using a forceful tone and body language to take control of a scene. It's meant to keep things from spinning out of control, but it can also come off as offensive, and it looks terrible on video. In Seattle, Cloyd Steiger worries about cops losing their command presence.
STEIGER: There's nothing wrong with, you know, saying hey, why are you stopping me and giving an explanation. That's not what I'm talking about. But I'm talking about the in your face, you can't touch me, trying to walk away and stuff that leads to physical confrontations that wouldn't have led to a physical confrontation before.
KASTE: Still, Steiger doesn't think the public's challenging attitude will last. He takes the long view. He says just wait until the crime rate goes back up again.
STEIGER: The pendulum has swung many times in my career. This is the farthest it's swung in its arc, but that doesn't mean it won't swing back to the middle where it needs to be.
KASTE: You hear that from a lot of the older cops. Laurie Robinson has heard it, too, and she doesn't buy it.
LAURIE ROBINSON: I don't think this is just a pendulum swing.
KASTE: She's a professor of criminology, law and society at George Mason University, and she co-chaired President Obama's task force on 21st-century policing.
ROBINSON: I think that there is something different now, in part because of the visibility of what's occurred due to social media, due to the 24-hour media cycle. And part of it because of the focus of the American people on what has been occurring.
KASTE: She thinks the effect of all this attention will be a fundamental change in the culture of American policing. It's a change that's already underway, and what's interesting here is how it's happening. America has one of the most decentralized police systems in the world. We can't even figure out exactly how many local police agencies we have. And the federal government doesn't have a good way to force nationwide reform. And yet, that reform seems to be happening, and it's being propelled by people on the Internet. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: We're going to keep talking about our changing police culture tomorrow. We hear from two leaders changing the way officers are trained - the chief of the Camden County New Jersey Police Department and the director of Washington State's police academy.
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