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How can we build better police forces?

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(Read caption) A demonstrator carries an "End Racism Now" sign as residents demonstrate against police brutality and celebrate the decision to prosecute police officers in the death of 25 year old Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland May 2, 2015.

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Michael Wood is speaking out about abuses of power he has seen and participated in during his 11-year tenure as a Baltimore police officer.

After writing a series of tweets last week naming various instances of corruption he witnessed as a cop, Sergeant Wood criticized urban police forces’ “us vs. them” mentality in an interview with The Washington Post. His prescription for the divided system, he said, is empathy.

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“Police officers aren’t warriors. They aren’t soldiers,” Wood told the Post. “The important thing is to change the mindset, to foster a sense of empathy, so police officers see themselves as the protectors of these communities, not as an occupying force that’s at war with them.”

Policing your own neighborhood

One key to building a more empathetic force is to hire more officers who come from the types of communities they are charged with protecting, says Wood.

“We need more cops from tough backgrounds. We need people who have lived in the rough neighborhoods to patrol them, and to oversee the other officers who walk those areas," he said. 

Fivethirtyeight reports that among the 75 US cities with the biggest police forces, only about 40 percent of cops reside in the cities they serve. On average, about half of black and Hispanic officers live in these cities, while just over a third of white officers do.

Retired Oakland, Calif. police officer Margaret Dixon told NPR in March that recruiting locally was critical for fostering mutual trust and understanding between police and the community. In Oakland, only about 7 percent of cops live within the city limits, she said.

"They understand the needs, and they're policing people that they already know," she said.

Real community policing, not just community PR

Richmond, Calif. has been attempting to bridge the gap between cop and citizen with a community policing model that has seen moderate success. The San Francisco suburb, located about 10 miles north of Oakland, has a historically high violent crime rate, but in 2014 recorded its lowest homicide rate in more than 30 years.

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Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus told Katie Couric that his model of community policing hinged on police officers’ interactions with citizens, both for the sake of building trust and camaraderie between the two groups often seen as being on opposing sides, and for the sake of determining what needs the community sees as priorities.   

“Just starting a conversation sometimes leads to surprising results,” Chief Magnus said.

He emphasized the need for every officer to be involved in community policing – an important shift from the more common model with just a handful of "Officer Friendly" types responsible for public relations, while the rest of the police force continues business as usual. "Every officer is expected to get to know the residents, businesses, community groups, churches, and schools on their beat," Magnus told the Department of Justice.

Military training, not militaristic policing

Another of Wood's suggestions to improve policing was to hire more police officers with military experience. Trained combat officers are less likely to react out of fear in a situation where certainty is low and risk is high, he said.

“Bad police shootings are almost always the result of a cop being afraid,” he explained. “The military strips you of fear. Here’s the thing: There’s nothing brave or heroic about shooting Tamir Rice the second you pull up to the scene.... The hero is the cop who hesitates to pull the trigger.”

The Department of Justice has a program in place that encourages veterans to pursue jobs in police work, but critics warn that the military-to-police pipeline has some drawbacks.

Veterans' rights advocate Jason Deitch told that for veterans who have experienced trauma, becoming a police officer is a risky move. "You're going to continue to expose yourself to violence, tension, stress, anxiety,” he said. “You come back and become a police officer, the potential for retraumatizing is very high."

"The benefits that I could see veterans bringing to a police force would be great," Deitch said. "You are not going to find better leaders. On the other hand, I care about individual people."

Protectors, not warriors

Wood told the Post that his moment of "awakening" to the problems with modern policing came while he was working narcotics, spending countless hours on surveillance.

"[W]hen you work in policing, you’re inundated early on with the 'us vs. them' mentality. It’s ingrained in you that this is a war, and if someone isn’t wearing a uniform, they’re the enemy. 

"But sitting in the van and watching people just living their lives, I started to see that these were just people. They weren’t that different from me. They had to pay rent. See their kids off to school. The main difference is that as a white kid growing up in my neighborhood, I was never going to get arrested for playing basketball in the street. I was never going to get patted down because I was standing on a street corner. There was no chance I was going to get a criminal record early on for basically being a kid."

Ultimately, he said, the solution "starts with empathy. We need to stop all this warrior talk, the militaristic language, and the us versus them rhetoric. We need a better metaphor. Police officers aren’t warriors. They aren’t soldiers. I don’t even like the mentality that we’re 'enforcing the laws.' Maybe a term like 'protectors.' "