I hope you do not think that I am saying or suggesting that our nation’s police have not improved? They have! Looking back (and I make this point in my new book) there have been major points of improvement that have helped move police forward. First of all, there is the Wickersham Commission in the 1930s and President Johnson’s crime commission in the mid-1960s. Both commissions led to many of today’s improvements. The better use of technology, increased educational requirements, hiring of women and minorities, and community-oriented policing. What I have been suggesting in my book and blog is that the rate of that improvement needs to increase if our nation’s police are ever to get where I think they should be. Hear me out.
I began policing in 1960 after a four-year tour of duty with the Marines. I was hired with no pre-employment training (I rode a week with my sergeant and the next week was given the keys to a squad car, a book of state statutes, the city ordinances, a map, and told to go to work). I learned on the job and my sergeant was out there to answer my many questions. I didn’t have personal or portable radio (if I couldn’t make it back to my squad car, I couldn’t call for help). I had no body armor, and I typed and filed my own reports. Within the metropolitan area in which I worked, was considered a good and progressive police department.
With that experience in mind today, I am amazed by how far we have come. So what’s the matter? Why do I press on and talk about improving police? Let me put it this way. I spent over three decades in policing. I was a chief for 25 of those years and since my earliest days, I had a passion for the work and I had a dream – a hopeful vision of what police could become. For me, police are the glue that holds a well-functioning democratic society together and good, honest, and caring police are absolutely necessary to keep a society free. Since I first pinned on that badge over 50 years ago, I have always dreamed we could be much, much better. The dream I had then is still the dream I hold today.
What does that dream look like? In my dream, police are highly educated and trained; a diverse group of men and women committed to building a stronger and more peaceful society. First and foremost, they exist to protect and model the Constitution and its Bill of Rights and they are intimately connected with the communities they serve. They work with people in their neighborhoods to solve problems, reduce crime and other disorder, and help citizens live in peace and without fear. They protect those without social power and who cannot care for themselves. They intervene in community disputes and work and mediate in order to find a solution. They frequently do this by working upstream and collaboratively with other social and governmental agencies to find a solution. In doing so, they have the respect and trust of those whom they police because they, themselves, are respectful and trustworthy. They hold this trust because they are impeccably honest, fair, and recognize the authority they are given is a public trust (the right to arrest and physical force). These officers protect and guard that which we hold to be of value in our society.
Will this ever happen? Will this dream ever become a reality? To answer this question, we need to acknowledge the forces that could make this dream happen as well as those which could hinder it. The negative forces are out there. For one, the growing gap between rich and poor in our country. As distance between us increases, pressure is placed on the police to protect the haves from the have-nots. How will police respond this? There is also the matter of the increasing militarization of our police, not just in terms of SWAT teams and armored vehicles, but also in the working attitude of our nation’s police. Who will speak to the danger of this? Then add the abandonment of community policing and this dream will never see the light of day.
On the other hand, what are the forces that could make this dream become a reality? The primary positive force is the realization that the great historical values of our democracy can be reinforced and modeled by police who are committed to holding and practicing them; men and women who understand that they, no matter what, will never break the law in order to enforce it. Another positive force is from officers who understand the messiness and sometimes chaos of public protest but realize the necessity of enabling and protecting. These police will be the glue that can and will hold and bind our diverse and multicultural nation together.
This is my hope and my dream. I hope it is yours, too.