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Components for improving professionalism of policing, by Sheriff Eric Scheffler

The tragic death of George Floyd and the ensuing civil unrest in the country has once again placed the spotlight on police use of force and the policies and practices that govern it.

There has been a demand for reform and “defunding the police” to effect drastic change within the law enforcement culture. I wish to share my perspective on this paradigm, as a career law enforcement officer who has served the citizens of Atlantic County in two separate agencies for over 25 years.

As a retired lieutenant from the Atlantic City Police Department and as the sheriff of Atlantic County, I firmly support our police and can tell you from experience that the sum of outstanding police officers far outnumbers those who are unfit to serve in our communities.

However, we cannot continue to allow events like these to occur without taking meaningful inventory of policies, tactics and training to enhance our efficiency and effectiveness as guardians and safe keepers of communities.

As sheriff, I am constantly looking for ways to improve our delivery of services and keep our officers and communities safe. This is a complex and layered issue that requires funding and commitment from local and federal governments to facilitate and sustain meaningful and positive change. Additionally, there are human factors that need to be addressed that will result in better policing. Here are some fundamental components that, in my opinion, would support systemic change:

Mandatory pre-employment screening, mental health wellness and resilience training — Psychological fitness should begin at the hiring stage and continue throughout an officer’s career to include mental health checkups and resiliency training. Officers will be exposed to repetitive trauma throughout their careers. It is paramount they are given the skills to adapt and overcome these experiences for the sake of their own mental health, to be present for their families and to view and serve their communities through an empathetic lens.

Standardize physical fitness requirements — Officers should be physically prepared to respond to any situation they may encounter. Physical stress is a huge part of the job that takes its toll on an officer’s overall health. The frequency of “fight or flight” in the typical officer’s experience is significantly higher than the average civilian. That stress response causes massive dumps of cortisol for the officer, which ultimately leads to numerous serious health concerns. Physical fitness is a critical requirement for longevity and adaptation to stress from the job.

Weekly tactical training — Training is also a crucial part of the equation to be an effective officer. They are expected to perform under high stress, rapidly unfolding circumstances much like professional athletes. However, in most cases, they do not receive the support or time to build their skill set individually or in terms of team tactics. Standardized tactical training should be mandatory every week. Consistent training will result in increased officer confidence under pressure and improvements in overall performance.

Age/education restrictions — The emotional intelligence, life experience and education of an officer can impact his or her ability to deal with certain types of critical incidents. Science suggests the human brain is not fully developed until 24 years of age, yet there are no uniform hiring requirements to reflect these findings. A hard look should be given at establishing requirements raising the minimum age for new hires, creating higher education standards and placing limits on the maximum age of an officer, especially as it relates to physical fitness capabilities.

Community engagement — Community engagement falls squarely on the shoulders of the agency and should become part of every police organization. In other words, it should be part of the daily routine of every officer from top to bottom. This will allow the community to become familiar with their local police officers and form mutual respect for one another.

Leadership/accountability — There are many great leaders in local and state police departments, but enhanced training and experience should apply to them as well. Professional development should be consistent and on-going to truly produce visionary leaders. Leaders who develop self-awareness inevitably create self-management skills and see personal and organizational accountability as a high priority.

By implementing standardized and consistent self-assessment, training and community engagement, we will create a greater police professionalism and community relationships built on trust and transparency ... which, ironically, will result in more support for the police and a healthier and safer community for all.

Eric Scheffler, of Northfield, is sheriff of Atlantic County.

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