Leadership is Speaking Out

black handsThe prison population in our country is the world’s highest, with more than 1.5 million people behind bars.

Within that number is a startling statistic: Black men are more likely to be sent to prison than white men, and often on drug offenses. A study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee looked at my state’s incarceration rates and found they were the highest in the country for black men. They found that the following reasons were why Wisconsin’s prison population tripled since 1990:

— Increased government funding for drug enforcement (rather than treatment).

— Prison construction.

— “Three-strike” rules.

— Mandatory minimum sentence laws.

— Truth-in-sentencing replacing judicial discretion in setting punishments.

— Concentrated policing in minority communities.

— State incarceration for minor probation and supervision violations.

What’s going on? I think it’s about time police leaders stood up and spoke out about using arrest and imprisonment as the way out of our nation’s social problems?

What is a police leader to do? For decades now, the municipal marching orders to police have been to arrest offenders and not ask questions. Well, it’s time now to ask questions about the causes.

In the past, the role of a police leader has been to take sole responsibility for crime; to get tough when it rises, and to praise one another when it decreases. This has always been a rocky road on which to travel.

But systems thinking tells us this is a foolish endeavor. Police cannot be responsible for systems beyond their control which cause crime. And to take on that responsibility is a fool’s journey.

This is the age-old problem of the blog I wrote on “Upstream-Downstream.” A modern police leader goes upstream (identifies systemic problems) to find out why people are failing — what is causing people to be arrested and to use his or her position in the community to encourage changes in the systems that are causing the problems.

What are the causes? Add these to the ones listed above: Lack of early childhood development, being raised in poverty, lack of a decent education, and poor physical and mental health services.

When economic, educational and health systems fail, police leaders must resist the call to “lock ’em up and throw away the key” and, instead, call the community’s attention to the problem and strongly indicate their willingness to partner on the needed improvements. That’s leadership; that’s what leaders do.

The following op-ed of mine was published on line this week by Madison’s Capital Times.

I should have written it 40 years ago when I first saw these problems developing!

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SPEAKING OUT: A TIME TO ACT

     The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families released the Race to Equity report last year which alerted us to the racial disparities existing in Madison and Dane County (www.racetoequity.net). It is a must-read for those of us who care about our city and county. Hopefully, it will not be placed on a pile of other public reports waiting to be acted upon. But be prepared, the report contains some cold, hard facts that will challenge what many of you think about race in Madison and Dane County.

Here is what they found:

  • Black third-graders are five times more likely not to meet reading standards.
  • School suspensions are fifteen times more likely to involve a black student.
  • Black children in our area experience a family separation rate (foster care) fifteen times that of whites.
  • The arrest rate of black children is six times that of whites.
  • Only one-half of black high school students graduate on time compared to 85 percent of whites.
  • Black students are only half as likely to take the ACT test and for those who do, few are ready for college.

Looking back, we should not be surprised at these outcomes. We should have known that when we choose as a nation to use arrest and prison as the way out of our social problems it will end badly for children and their families, especially poor families. If somehow we feel no personal responsibility for dealing with these problems remember that these issues will eventually impact the quality of all our lives.

Forty years ago, as Madison’s chief of police, I realized that many black applicants to the police department were failing a basic standardized reading test. I concluded that these young adults must have been educated in the South, not here. Not so. Those applicants were born and educated right here in Madison.

The Race to Equity report is a good place for our community to finally begin to address these disparities are products of racism rather than to justify ourselves with the great white delusion that it is better here for blacks than elsewhere. This report shatters that belief.

For systems of economics, education, social control, or health to work in a free and democratic society they must work for everyone, not just a few. And by working I mean that they must produce fair, equitable, and just outcomes. Disparities in any form do no one any good; they are indicators of injustice and prejudice.

Let’s first begin with the desired outcome of a fair and equitable economic system. There must be jobs available at a living wage and qualified workers available to fill them. None of us should be so foolish as to think that a system which rewards only a chosen few will succeed. It won’t. Such a system is patently wrong and will eventually produce disastrous outcomes.

Look at the job market in Dane County, one-quarter of our black brothers and sisters are unemployed; compare that to less than five percent of whites. Over one-half of black families have incomes below the federal poverty level, but for white families, over 90 percent are above the poverty level. The lack of employment results in nearly three-quarters of black children in Madison and Dane County growing up in poverty while few white children do. By now, we all should know the devastating and lifelong effects of poverty on employment, education, health, nutrition, and whether or not a child ends up in prison.

These disparities cannot continue. We need to realize that we cannot raise any family out of poverty without beginning at the beginning — pre-natal and early childhood care, strengthening family systems, proper nutrition, and assuring every child is ready for school. Without some form of assistance or intervention this will not happen. Pure and simple, families in poverty need our help.

If we reduce these disparities, we will start to see overall improvements in employment and family income. We also need to realize that if these disparities were turned around and impacted white children there would be a huge outcry and a demand for immediate improvement. Elected officials would be recalled and those who headed up programs in these areas would be dismissed.

Yes, these are complex issues, but we must understand that failure to act on them is not an acceptable alternative. Beginning now, and in the coming years, we need to reduce and eventually eliminate racial disparities in the following critical areas:

  • Reading proficiency.
  • School suspensions.
  • Foster care. High school graduation.
  • College readiness.
  • Police arrests.

In the second half of the last century we Americans finally got fed up with racism. New laws were enacted and the weight of the federal government was put behind them. This resulted in dismantling the Jim Crow system, a right to vote, open housing, action, and other legislation which addressed inequality and disparity in our society. As a nation, we finally put our heart into our values.

It is now time to do it again; to demand that our current broken systems of education, social welfare, and criminal justice be fixed. In order to do this, it will take new and bold thinking, innovation, and action — all of us, working together, to assure everyone in Madison and Dane County counts. For when we all count, we all can succeed.