Cellphone cameras and other technological advances are tools of a new accountability that cops need to embrace, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite said Friday at a luncheon for law enforcement officials on the north shore.
“This is not going to change,” Polite said of the new reality that almost every encounter with the public can be filmed. “Everybody over the age of 10 has a camera.”
While he pointed out that no one piece of evidence tells the whole story, he said that in most cases, those cameras, whether on a car's dashboard, on an officer’s body or in a bystander’s hand, are going to reflect well on police.
“The majority of footage captures you doing the right thing,” Polite said to more than 100 law enforcement officers from a variety of agencies gathered at the Castine Center near Mandeville for an annual "thank you" lunch hosted by St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister.
Polite, the highest-ranking federal law enforcement officer in the 13 parishes around New Orleans, had some other advice for the officers: Never stop learning and try to implement community policing.
If the latter policy had been in use in Baton Rouge, he said in an interview after the speech, it might have changed the outcome of the encounter that took the life of Alton Sterling, a 37-year old black man who was shot by police responding to reports of a man with a gun. The FBI, which is handling the investigation, has not said whether a gun was recovered at the scene.
Training in de-escalating tense situations and identifying implicit biases is a key element of 21st century policing but is not widespread enough, Polite said.
Nationwide, only 22 police forces out of more than 18,000 are mandated by the courts or others to go through such training, meaning the initiative must come from within the profession, he said.
“We have to figure out a way to have law enforcement step forward and advocate to their brothers and sisters in blue that this has to be a feature,” he said.
During his speech, Polite also touched on the problem of heroin and opioid abuse, saying it isn’t just a local issue but something that is “gripping the entire country.”
He also offered a glimpse of his personal story, saying that his proudest achievement was being the son and brother of cops. And recently, he said, his 4-year-old daughter told him she wants to be a police officer, too, which also made him proud. But, he cautioned, she would need an agency with a generous leave policy so that she could pursue her other career goals: being a princess and a doctor.
He closed with a message of solidarity.
“We stand with you,” he told the crowd. “Know that I love you and stand behind everything you’re doing.”