When Will They Ever Learn?

I can’t stress it more. In today’s world, the fair and effective handling of public protest by police is essential — one of their primary tasks.

When they do it poorly, they and the community suffers. When they do it well, much is gained in terms of community trust and support.

In my new book I have this to say about the handling of protest:

“The way in which police in a democracy respond to public protest is often a defining moment for them and the community… In the long run, police will ultimately be judged by how well they do this—how they do it fairly and effectively, without regard to whether they agree with the people in those crowds or not… It’s a big job, but the primary function of police is always relational, whether they are responding to a domestic dispute, investigating a crime, enforcing a traffic regulation, helping an elderly person cross a busy street, or handling a crowd. Once this is understood, it is a lot easier to figure out what it is police need to do and how they should do it when it comes to handling public protest.”  (“Arrested Development,” p. 189)

In the October, 2012 edition of “The Police Chief” there is an article about how the Chicago Police Department handled the NATO Summit last June in their city. I eagerly started reading the article until I was underwhelmed. I was interested in finding out what had been learned and how our important democratic values were reinforced and how the freedom of speech had been upheld. But, instead, the article stressed the importance of department-wide training at various levels. It did not articulate their mission nor what, specifically, was trained. You see, I wanted to hear about values and how values become operational practices. That’s what will “un-arrest” our nation’s police.

Yet in the August, 2012 edition of the “FBI Bulletin” I found what I was looking for. Police Chief Mike Masterson of Boise, Idaho, wrote specifically about values — the importance of reinforcing them and how leaders turn values into practices. He also cited a number of police departments in the U.S. and Canada that have, in fact, done exactly as he is recommending. So why haven’t we developed a “best known method” of crowd-handling? Here are a few important quotes from Masterson’s article:

“A police chief’s  involv­ement and direction prove critical to officers’ ability to successfully manage emotional , potentially volatile crowds. The message received from top-level management greatly influences the behavior and mind-set of frontline officers. Shaping these attitudes begins with a solid understanding that police work involves building relationships with members of the public whom officers are sworn to serve and protect… Officers must have a well-defined mission that encourages  the peaceful gath­ering of people and uses plan­ning, open communication, negotiation, and leadership to accomplish this goal…

“Police and demonstration organizers should coordinate prior to an event. This re­-enforces law enforcement’s role as facilitator, rather than con­fronter. Maintaining dialogue throughout the event helps minimize conflict…

“Using communication  and best prac­tices in crowd management, of­ficers reinforce their position as peacekeepers…

Now these are important teachings that every police officer and leader needs to know. The lack of continuous improvement in the police field and the failure to experiment and learn from these experiments and turn them into “best practices” is the bane of policing. Even worse, lacking this knowledge, it endangers officers in front-line crowd-control situations.

That’s what my new book is all about. When leaders put their “heads in the sand” and fail to act on best practices they impeded the development of democratic policing. I called this kind of attitude “anti-intellectualism” and called it one of the four obstacles that “arrest” the development of our nation’s police.

“The lack of a foundation of rigorous academic training makes it difficult for police leaders to digest any kind of research or case study. This is the continuing and oppressive effect of anti-intellectualism in the police field and why it remains a major obstacle…

“The negative spirit of anti-intellectualism presents itself in a number of ways in American policing. It begins with low educational standards for police applicants. Then in police training as the classroom curricula are more oriented towards high school than college. Within police operations, new ideas and creative approaches are neither sought nor encouraged. When it comes to police operations, traditionally-based past-experience is valued more highly than research or experience gained by others outside the field—even if it works…” (“Arrested Development,” p. 115, 119-20)

What will it take to wake up our nation’s police?

How long will it take to overcome the obstacle of “anti-intellectualism?”


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About improvingpolice

I served over 20 years as the chief of police in Madison (WI), four years as chief of the Burnsville (MN) Police Department, and before that as a police officer in Edina (MN) and the City of Minneapolis. I hold graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota and Edgewood College in Madison. I have written many articles over my years as a police leader calling for police improvement (for example, How To Rate Your Local Police, and with my wife, Sabine, Quality Policing: The Madison Experience). After retiring from the police department, I answered a call to ministry, attended seminary, and was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. At the present time, I serve a small church in North Lake (WI), east of Madison. Sabine and I have nine adult children, eleven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She is also a retired police officer and we both continue active lives.

2 Responses to “When Will They Ever Learn?”

  1. David, thank you for continuing to educate and speak out on these important issues.

  2. I think Liberia National Police is greatly affected by anti-intellectualism.Thank you for given me knowledge on this topic. Reply September 30, 2012 at 11:37 pm

    I think Liberia National Police is greatly affected by anti-intellectualism.Thank you for given me knowledge on this topic.

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