MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This type of video is easy to find on YouTube - a bystander recording of police acting aggressively.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE POLICE OFFICER: How old are you? How old are you?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible).
BLOCK: This was the scene earlier this month in Brooklyn. Cops were trying to clear out a crowd of street vendors. Somebody talked back and push quickly led to shove.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey, hey, police brutality.
BLOCK: Scenes like this, along with the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, have reenergized reformers who argue that American police are too confrontational - too quick to use force - in minor situations. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, police are challenging that. They say if they don't show strength, they run the risk of losing their authority and even their lives.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: This is really a debate about police culture. And it's an old debate. David Couper's been talking about it since the 1970s, when he ran the police department in Madison, Wisconsin. He came to believe that it's often the little things that make police seem aggressive.
DAVID COUPER: I didn't want my officers to wear those mirrored sunglasses.
KASTE: He's talking about those mirrored aviator glasses that were big with the cops back then.
COUPER: Think about it. You want to talk to somebody that's got sunglasses on - that's got power over you? I don't think so. I think there's a lot of tension.
KASTE: And it was Couper's job to reduce that tension. When he came onboard, Madison cops had been butting heads with anti-war demonstrators for years. Couper says the police had fallen into what he calls a domination and control mentality. They strutted around town like an occupying army. So he looked for ways to change the atmosphere. And one trick was to get some of them out of their military-style uniforms.
COUPER: So in many of our demonstrations, when officers came out to handle a crowd, they were wearing these blazers and slacks and embroidered shield on their blazer.
KASTE: He also had his officers mingle in the crowds to chat people up before things could get rowdy. And he made sure to keep the riot gear out of sight until it was needed. It rarely was. Couper's de-escalation strategies came to be known as the Madison Method. And by the 1990s, it was part of a broader national trend toward what's called community policing. But that trend didn't last.
COUPER: September 11, 2001 - it all changed for American police.
KASTE: After 9/11, the new concept of homeland security made philosophies like the Madison Method seem naive. The mirrored sunglasses made a comeback in the form of wraparound Oakleys, not to mention big guns and tactical gear courtesy of the Pentagon. Today, if you tell cops about Madison's blue blazers, it sounds to them like some kind of hippie fantasy.
JEFF ROORDA: My guys can wear tie-dye T-shirts and hemp bracelets to work. And there'll still be violence and crime in the community.
KASTE: That's Jeff Roorda. He's a retired policeman who's now with the St. Louis Police Officers Association. He's also a state representative. Like many St. Louis cops last month, he dismissed the suggestion that the police should have taken a softer approach with protesters in Ferguson.
ROORDA: I think that having a swift and sure response is the quickest way to bring a situation under control - to avoid things being out of control.
KASTE: But there's still some people pushing for that softer approach, most notably the Justice Department. Even before Ferguson, it was going after police departments for being a little too swift and sure. One of those departments was Seattle. Under Justice Department pressure, the city rewrote its use of force policy. And now all Seattle cops are being trained under the new rules.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No. This is absolutely ridiculous. Three hours is unacceptable. I call three hours of...
KASTE: In this role-playing exercise, an officer encounters a man who's pacing around, angry at the police for taking so long to show up. Instead of ordering him to calm down, the officer lets him vent and even offers a little sympathy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #3: It's a pretty bad complex over here. We get a lot of reports over here.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2: Oh, well, I wish you guys would do something.
KASTE: It's exactly what the officer's supposed to do. Officer Kerry Zieger is one of the trainers here.
KERRY ZIEGER: The wrong way to handle it would be to view the citizen as a threat and place hands on the citizen or get into an argument with the citizen over what's right, what's wrong.
KASTE: Zieger says de-escalation has always been part of the police training here. It's just that now with the new use-of-force policy, it's being spelled out.
ZIEGER: I think maybe we're more emphasizing, you know, slowing situations down.
KASTE: Slowing things down, talking things through, de-escalating. It all sounds great, until you talk to Mike Severance.
MIKE SEVERANCE: I think an officer will eventually get killed.
KASTE: Severance was a Seattle cop for 46 years - mostly on patrol here on the city's north end. He was shot at on these streets and he shot back. Severance has just retired, which means he now has the freedom to say what he really thinks of the city's new use-of-force policy.
SEVERANCE: I couldn't read it in one sitting, you know. I'd read a few pages. I'd get up and go somewhere and scream.
KASTE: The policy is wordy - everybody admits that. But the critics say it's so complicated, it'll cause officers to hesitate in a crisis. It requires them to consider extenuating circumstances when confronting someone such as whether the person has a language barrier or a mental problem.
SEVERANCE: The policy wants you to consider that. Well, what do we consider? Yeah, this guy's nuts and he's holding a gun? So does that mean he's not a threat or he's less of a threat? He's probably more of a threat.
KASTE: Some Seattle cops hate the policy so much they filed a federal lawsuit over it. They got some help from lawyer Lisa Battalia. She says the policy violates their constitutional right to defend themselves, especially in the way it emphasizes slowing things down.
LISA BATTALIA: What these officers would say is actually, that's not always better. And often, in many cases, that allows a situation to get out of control. It allows a suspect to get an upper hand. And it winds up being more dangerous for everybody.
KASTE: But after you've talked to cops for a while, you also hear some deeper reason for why they sometimes prefer to be aggressive. Russ Hicks is a patrol cop with 23 years' experience. He now teaches at the Washington State Police Academy.
RUSS HICKS: There is a element of fear. You know, we call it - us a bunch at the academy - fear biting. The dog is fearful, so he bites.
KASTE: Hicks says the military gear and the martial bearing allow cops to feel safer. But he says that's an illusion. It didn't save a buddy of his who was gunned down with three other cops five years ago.
HICKS: This guy was a Second Ranger Battalion and a SWAT team tactical leader. And he was sitting at a coffee shop. That's the reality.
KASTE: Hicks says the job is just dangerous and cops have to accept that. And yes, people are less deferential now. They stick camera phones in cops' faces and they talk back. But Hicks says if police want the public's respect, they have to show restraint. And they can't go around looking and acting as though they regard the public as a potential enemy. Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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