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Lance LoRusso on the Campbell Conversations

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Lance LoRusso. He's a former police officer that now represents law enforcement officers in court as a lawyer handling on-duty shootings and in-custody deaths. LoRusso is also a firearms instructor and a consultant on police use of force. He's the author of the books, "When Cops Kill" and "Blue News."

Program Transcription:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Lance LoRusso, a former police officer, now a lawyer who has represented police officers in on duty shootings and in-custody deaths. He's a firearms instructor and a consultant on police use of force. And he's also the author of the books “When Cops Kill” and “Blue News.” Lance, welcome to the program.

Lance LoRusso: Thanks for having me.

GR: So let me start with kind of the beginnings of the present day context for the conversation that we're about to have. I want to start with the Black Lives Matter movement and the associated protests against police killings, in particular of black citizens, including George Floyd. This led to a rallying cry in the movement to defund the police. So let me just start with that, what exactly does that term mean? Has or has its meaning changed and been changeable? But what what what is that?

LL: Well, it's interesting. At the outset, it was a there were probably people on different ends of the spectrum. There were people who hated the police and out and out said that they wanted to abolish law enforcement in certain communities because they were not needed. On the other end of the spectrum, you had people just like any other social movement. You had other people on the other spectrum said, Well, you know, I think what we really want to do is we want to divert some of the resources that are given to law enforcement and find another better, higher use for those to serve people in the public. So throughout that entire spectrum, unlike not unlike most political causes, that has been the spectrum of them. Now, depending on where you are, we have had millions of dollars removed from police budgets such as New York and L.A. and different organizations. But the numbers really don't tell the whole story, because in a smaller jurisdiction, the small county of maybe 100,000 people, if you remove 40 or $50,000 from a police budget, you can have devastating effects to the ability of that agency to complete its mission.

GR: So the movement clearly, though, and I appreciate you identifying the different sort of ends of the axis there. But I think overall, it clearly led to greater scrutiny of police behavior in addition to the funding movement and the creation of additional mechanisms to police the police. So could you describe what has changed in the last few years and that particular area?

LL: Well, I don't know that I would agree that it's led to more mechanisms. I know there has been a cry for more mechanisms. So, for instance, some jurisdictions had police oversight groups in Atlanta, for example, and Chicago had police oversight groups. Those were in place before. They're in place now. There have been some organizations, government organizations that have said they wanted to put those in place. I'm sure that there are some have been put in place, but it really has not fundamentally affected other than a national conversation, which was really an international conversation, which law enforcement has no problems with that. I mean, the law enforcement and the public are supposed to go hand in hand and they're responsible to the public within the confines of the Constitution. So I think what has really happened and this is unfortunate, law enforcement as a little background, is always doing an analysis of their own techniques, their own statistics, their own perception, if you will, in the eyes of the public. What has happened, though, is people who often had no insight, no clue, if you will, and no real appreciation of how law enforcement was conducted in the United States, took the forefront, almost in a cacophony, to try to scream loudest and say that their opinions mattered and try to take over the narrative. So whether there has been a change in policing overall throughout the United States based on the defund the police movement, I don't know that that's true. But law enforcement has always been improving its methods. I don't know that that has really helped. I think that if you look at the defund the police movement from the perspective of what it has accomplished as a social engineering mechanism, I think it is the fastest concede, implemented and failed public policy in U.S. history.

GR: Well, I want to tap into probably what you mean in the last part of your sentence there about it being failed public policy. And maybe this will be the segway into that. But during the same time period that we are talking about, crime and especially violent crime in many cities has seen a significant spike. And so do you think there's a relationship there between these two things?

LL: There's absolutely a relationship. And that's one of the reasons why police leadership and police officers, the rank and file were so upset about this concept of reducing funding to law enforcement, physically reducing the amount of people who would be on the ground to enforce the law, because we knew that the people who would be penalized by that the most would be poor people and lower socioeconomic groups who did not go to work behind metal detectors, who did not go to work behind armed security officers, who rely on law enforcement to keep gang members from recruiting sixth graders, to keep people from selling drugs on street corners. So the people who were screaming the loudest in the media, screaming the loudest from the if you will, the bully pulpit of politics were never going to feel the effects of the claimed intent of defund the police, which was to reduce the amount of law enforcement officers on the street.

GR: I’m Grant Reeher, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, and my guest is police use of force expert Lance LoRusso. Now, some political figures look have looked at this spike in violent crime and they have linked it to what is also happened during this same time period, which is a spike in gun purchases. We see this in the number of background checks that have been done the last couple of years. Does that make sense to you as some kind of causal link or perhaps you would reverse the cause? I don't know. But curious to get your thoughts on that.

LL: I think they are not only completely unrelated, but you talk about a waste of resources, taking money and taking law enforcement efforts and political efforts and blaming firearms ownership for crime is the absolute biggest waste of public efforts I've ever seen. And I'll give you an example. It starts with a premise that a person who robs a liquor store and shoots the clerk who's working a late night shift is dangerous because they're in possession of a firearm however they bought, whether they bought it legally, pretermitting the fact that firearms that are used in criminal acts are not purchased legally. So when you look at the possession of the firearm by the person who shoots and kills the clerk, the notion that that person will no longer be a danger to society if they are not in possession of a firearm is absolutely ludicrous and is borne out by the fact that when we look at that person and we arrest that criminal, they have, by and large multiple felonies. And I can tell you from example, I have had friends who were law enforcement officers shot and killed by criminals. When we go back into their background, they are criminals. They are multiple convicted felons. So the firearm and people talk about the purchase of firearms. The only thing that is tracked is the lawful purchase of firearms. So directing all these efforts saying we're going to clean up crime that has spiked because of the defund the police movement, because we're going to reduce the number of lawful gun purchases is sleight of hand. It's not going to work. And again, as I stated previously, the people who are going to be victimized are not the people with security details, not the people who work behind metal detectors at the Capitol, the people who are going to be victimized and fall prey to more criminals who prey on weak people are the poor and people who live in depressed areas.

GR: What about the argument that simply putting more supply into the system of firearms, even though it doesn't have the 1-to-1 causal effect that you have just argued against, nonetheless, just by increasing the supply raises the overall level of risk of violent crime. You know, the more guns out there, the easier it is for the criminal to get a hold of them from somewhere, from someone. Do you buy that argument at all?

LL: No. And the biggest reason that I don't buy it is if that were the case, then violence would be increasing far more exponentially than it is right now. In addition, when you look at the people committing the violent crimes, Atlanta has had some 58% increase in violent crimes. And when I talk of violent crimes, attacking armed robberies, aggravated assaults, people shot on the street corner for their wallets, crimes that weren't happening before. Those crimes are being committed by multiple convicted felons. They cannot legally own a firearm. So logically, there's nothing you are going to do to regulate the possession of firearms by lawful individuals that is going to change the dynamic of a criminal finding a weapon, whether it's a gun, a knife, any other type of object to commit a violent criminal act. There is a segment of society. Fortunately, it's a very small segment, but there is a segment of society and whether it's based on gang violence, whether it's based on organized crime, whether it's based on people just being mean, they will prey on weaker citizens.

GR: So I want to get back to the police again. And I wonder whether the backlash against the police that we have seen in response to some of the police behavior has changed police behavior in some unintended ways, such as the police becoming less reluctant to engage in more proactive policing, perhaps being slower in responding to calls in order just to lower the chances that they will be the focus of the next media story and the next investigation into police behavior that results in the injury or the death of someone.

LL: So let's look from a 30,000 foot. Let's look at a city like Portland or cities that have had dozens of days where they have had multiple protests and riots. There is a fixed amount of police resources available in any community. So whether it is by violent protests that you are occupying those resources, whether it's by threats, whether it's by peaceful protests, that requires security to protect those peaceful protesters who have a First Amendment right to do so. Or it is by the physical putting of the number of law enforcement officers on the street, you will have an effect on the ability of law enforcement to proactively reduce crime. You also will have an effect on response times. So as an example, throughout the United States, unless you get into very rural areas, you're looking about a 4 to 6-minute response time to a bona fide 911, I need help right now call. However, you want to classify that as people that will play games with the numbers. But the bottom line is a citizen, for whatever reason, picks up the phone and calls 911 says, I need the police now. Universally, a few years ago you were looking at a 4 to 6-minute response time, unless you were in a very rural area. When you start reducing the number of officers who are available or you start taking those resources to do other things, you are going to reduce the alacrity of that response. That is going to affect the public. And when we look at the crimes that are committed, like the organized, strong-armed robberies, people are calling them organized shoplifters, people that en masse go in and break the counters in a jewelry store. They go in and shoplift, thousands, tens of thousands of dollars of merchandise at a time that can't be prevented while it's happening. There is not enough law enforcement officers to stop everybody to do doing that. That is only done by a police presence that lets people know if we do this, we're going to get caught. So we're either going to go somewhere else or we're not going to commit the crime.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Lance LoRusso, an attorney who specializes in police use of force. He's also the author of, among other books “When Cops Kill” and “Blue News.” So I want to pursue this question I ask just a little bit more, though, because when I put myself in the shoes of a police officer and I'm thinking about the last couple of years, it seems perfectly natural, though, to me and my individual decision making that I am going to be more cautious. And that part of that greater caution might be to be less proactive, to be a little less quick out the door. Maybe that's why I'm not a police officer. It's a good thing I'm not. But you don't sense any of that from the circles that you travel in.

LL: First of all, Grant, you have a big heart. You'd make a great police officer. This is what you have to understand about law enforcement. Think about and this is what we talk about in “Blue News” is law enforcement officers telling own stories. And that's why all the profits from “Blue News” and “When Cops Kill,” go to law enforcement charities. When we look at the average law enforcement officer in the United States, why did they become a police officer? You ask them over and over again. They did it because they wanted to help the public. Think about what's been said about them, what's been done to them. Law enforcement officers being shot at ambush is up 115% where somebody's trying to kill them just because they're wearing the uniform. If you look at any other industry, if you look at private industry, if you look at any other segment of public service, if you had that type of negative publicity, that type of rhetoric, that type of physical threats of violence and that number of people being killed just for being in the profession, there would be no one in the profession. But the law enforcement officers in this country are incredibly well-trained, and they come to work every day, they accept the risks and they still keep answering the calls. So you can't imagine how many people I've had, Grant, ask me that question. Well, why wouldn't cops slow up? Why wouldn't they get there a few minutes later? Why wouldn't they let you know the acts occur and then clean up the mess? And this kind of gets to you remember that dispute between guardians and warriors? We don't need this warrior training. We need guardians. Well, the officer who runs into an active shooter while gunfire is being handled, that being dispersed in a building that they don't know, to save strangers, is a warrior. They're not a guardian. Guardians draw chalk lines after the effect. The law enforcement officers that we have in this country are standing up to protect the rights of citizens, standing up to save the lives of strangers. And remember how critical this is. Dallas Police Department had five officers murdered in the street a few years ago. Most people forget what they were doing in the street when they were murdered. This typifies the law enforced in the United States. They were providing security for an anti-law enforcement rally.

GR: So you're a consultant to the police on the use of force. Can you distill the advice that you give the police?

LL: I've represented over 135 officers involved in shootings. And when we look at situations and it's still out there, you can find a quote where I said that Derek Chauvin was an outlier. Derek Chauvin was an outlier. And I'm going to give you an example along the lines of your question, just how much law enforcement showed he was an outlier. Law enforcement universally came out and condemned his actions. And instead of recognizing, wow, law enforcement condemned his actions, maybe we need to reexamine whether all of law enforcement needs to be changed. The same people who wanted to double down on that one end of the spectrum who just didn't like police, they doubled down on their condemnation of police, even though police were condemning Derek Chauvin's actions. So the advice that I give to law enforcement is it's an incredibly honorable profession. Do what you love and you never work a day in your life. Be careful. Take the threat seriously and get as much training as you absolutely, positively can. And I'll give you the other side of the coin. I do a lot of media interviews and people ask me, what message do you have for the public? The message I have for the public is go find somebody in uniform, either a firefighter or police officer, and thank them. Very good people, very conscientious people, very community-minded people such as yourself have said that same thing. If I was a cop, I wouldn't be rushing to call. If I was a cop. I would find something else to do. Yet every day they show up and protect the lives of strangers. And we need to keep every great one in the profession that we can find.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher and my guest is the lawyer and author, Lance LoRusso. I imagine, though, that there have been and I think you have commented on this in the past, some very tangible effects, though, on the ability in the last few years of police departments to both recruit and retain officers. Can you comment a little bit on that? Has that been a problem for police departments in the last couple of years?

LL: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we saw it in 2016. There was an ABC News poll that said recruiting was down 90 or 92% in some communities. So on one end, we have people screaming that we need the best law enforcement in the community we can get. We agree with that. We need higher standards. We agree with that. But we're going to cut budgets. Well, when you cut budgets, law enforcement agencies still have to buy gas for patrol cars. They have to buy uniforms, and they have to perform the minimum amount of training in order to get state standards met. So when you cut budgets, what you wind up doing is reducing the amount of money available for extra training, recruiting and other things. So you're working at contrary purposes. So what we have seen is not only a reduction in people applying to the job, but I think the bigger threat to law enforcement and to the public, in general, is we are losing the elders in the profession. And it doesn't matter to me what profession you're in. You and I were talking before about a sound engineer and other people who have been in the profession. You can take any profession, whether it's law, accounting, media. We all look up to the people who have been in it 20, 25 years. And we hope God, you know, I hope they never retire. We all look up to them. The young people come to them for advice. It's the same thing in law enforcement. A lot of those people, though, that at that 20 and 25-year mark are really becoming the leaders are tapping out and saying, I'm done. Either pressure from family members or financially they've been able to save and they don't need to put themselves at risk. And just think for a minute, in 2021, we had 115% increase in the number of officers ambushed because they were wearing a uniform. That is not exactly a great recruiting tool.

GR: I wonder if that has also changed in any kind of way that you could identify who most wants to become a police officer? Is there a has that profile changed in any important way in recent years?

LL: That's actually an excellent question. So what I have seen personally and I speak to groups all around the United States, what I have seen personally is an increase in very well-educated people who are coming from other professions to become law enforcement officers. Recently, I was talking to somebody who was on a hiring panel for a state agency and interviewed a woman who had a undergraduate degree and a master's degree and wanted to get into law enforcement to make a difference. Typically, when you have a down economy or an anomaly like we have with COVID, with people losing their jobs, you will get people applying, thinking, well, it's a government job. It's pretty secure. I can I can get that. But maybe we're weeding out some of those people. The problem is this, the ratios change. But I have seen agencies have 300 applicants and at the end they will interview five to go forward into the agency. So it takes a tremendous amount of people. Once you select out a criminal background that are criminal background qualifiers that basically take you out of the mix or psychological backgrounds to take you out of the mix. Personal history. It takes sometimes 300 applicants to get five good applicants. And everybody agrees we want the best and the brightest in the profession.

GR: So we've got about 5 minutes left. And I want to try to squeeze three questions and if I can before we have to stop. The first is you were talking before about your advice to someone in the public to seek out a police officer, have a conversation, thank them. What do you say, though, to those members of the public who have experienced the police in a negative fashion and who have felt like and there's data to that that suggests this is real, that, you know, that there that there are systematic differences in the way certain kinds of people are treated than other kinds of people who have been on the receiving end of this and are frustrated by it. What do you say? And then there is something like a George Floyd incident. On top of that, you know, what do you say to them if you can answer that briefly.

LL: Sure. Well, the first thing you have to recognize that every person's perception is reality. And if their perception is that when they see a police car driving down the street, they're afraid of it, then that needs to change. And that changes by a dialog. It changes by a dialog between the police, and it changes by a dialog through the community. Nobody benefits from somebody drawing a line in the sand and say, we need to make this profession go away. It also doesn't benefit and it hurts the public when we have people trying to make those decisions who don't know what they're doing. I'll give you an example. In Philadelphia, we had a two officers wound up shooting a man who came at them with a knife. We had people complaining that they should have had tasers. And why didn't they use the tasers? The reason they did not have tasers. Some 6000 Philly patrol officers, 1200 of them or so, had tasers because the same activists who wanted to regulate the police several years ago were preventing the police from getting tasers because they thought they were improper. All of these methods that have been used, the tasers, batons, O.C, spray, all of these different devices that have been developed to try to use less force. And this gets to this perception. Recognize those were created by law enforcement officers or law enforcement agencies. The last thing an officer ever wants to do is use deadly force. And when people are saying that's not true, you need to listen to someone else.

GR: Now, let's take the outliers who do cross the line on appropriate behavior. Who do use excessive force and deadly excessive force. Are there any common traits of those police officers that as a profile?

LL: Sometimes when we go back and look and this is where the internal affairs process is, so important, when we go back and look, sometimes they never should have been police to start with. They were there was a bad selection process. Sometimes it's a problem. And this is where the defund the police movement is so problematic. If you have fewer people applying. Somebody may slip through the cracks that shouldn't have been there. When we look at the people who have violated the law, you know they're arrested by other law enforcement officers. The problem we're experiencing right now, Grant, is we are seeing in the name of proving a point, we are seeing completely justified law enforcement use of force being labeled as another example of improper use of force. And that is not only problematic, it's causing a problem within communities that need police protection.

GR: So last question and only got about 20 seconds for your answer here, but while it's not the case that every or even most Democrats want to defund the police, it does seem like that movement has been tagged to them. And it does seem like the Republicans are seen more as the supporters of policing as it exists. Do you think that's going to affect the party politics in the next couple of election cycles?

LL: I think it'll any type of any type of public statements and policy decisions have consequences. And I think that when you look at some communities, it seems like one party seems to be pushing defund more than others. But, you know, there should be consequences for that. The people that had to bury that storeowner who was just trying to make a living and got shot and killed by somebody with a stolen gun who never should have been out of prison. There should be consequences for that.

GR: We'll have to leave it there. That was Lance LoRusso. And again, his books include “When Cops Kill” and “Blue News.” And he's also got a book, similar book on firefighters called “Firefighters in the Hot Seat.” Lance, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

LL: Thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed this. Thanks for calling attention.

GR: You bet. You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.