Letter to the editor: Phyllis Merriam

Response to Rockland PD’s request for hiring bonuses

Sun, 05/09/2021 - 6:45pm

There has been much talk around the country and even here in Rockland about defunding police departments. I do not agree with defunding, rather I believe cities and towns need to offer their law enforcement agencies evidence-based assistance with better screening to identify applicants and serving officers who pose a threat to their communities or are otherwise unqualified to serve in these high risk positions where they and the people they serve may be safer.

A sign-on bonus of $10,000 is not the answer to hiring qualified applicants. Developing better screening of applicants using that $10,000 or more from the city budget may be money better spent.

Council’s first plan to hold public forums for people to vent only serves a false narrative that some sort of goal will be reached through “transparency.” Public forums are best accomplished with the guidance of a skilled facilitator; otherwise forums can quickly devolve into complaint sessions.

Public forums during Covid will only attract a few willing to Zoom-in and could result in further cementing the personal views and biases of the pro and con divisions about policing.

Council’s second goal of establishing a committee to address local policing may on its face seem admirable. However, if such a committee just includes citizens and does not include experts in the fields of criminal justice, human behavior and best practices in screening for psychopathy, little to no evidence-based information and recommendations will result.

Our town was rocked last October when some on-duty RPD officers were alleged to have been involved in torturing porcupines to death. They were fired, charged and are awaiting trial. The story put Rockland on the national media map and not in a positive light. 

What job application tools are used to hire RPD officers? Is there an emphasis on weaponry skills vs. psychological health? Are polygraphs, which are notoriously unreliable and generally inadmissible in court, used to screen applicants? Is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) or something similar used?

Does the RPD conduct regular mental health and physical assessments for hiring, certification of officers? What de-escalation tactics are regularly taught to de-fuse volatile situations? Is bias-based prevention training provided? How is use-of-force defined/employed? Are neck restraints (“choke-holds”) permitted? What is the RPD Code of Conduct? How is serious misconduct defined? Is there a specialized response to people in crisis?

While we should not have access to RPD personnel files and decisions, the methods for hiring, training, evaluating, supervising and retaining RPD officers can be made public for a committee of experts to help the RPD.

While I sympathize with Chief Chris Young’s frustration in filling vacancies, maybe this is the right time to re-evaluate how to hire, and assess applicants for the best possible outcomes. 

I have no expertise whatsoever in policing, only lots of questions and hope for best practices in hiring, training and retention of good police officers in our city.

Phyllis Merriam lives in Rockland