[I wrote the following letter to President Obama shortly after his election. Six years later, I believe the letter has even more relevance; especially after the events surrounding the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.]
I know you have a lot on your plate: the economy, healthcare, and two wars. Those are important first-tasks, but I don’t want you and your staff to overlook the reform needed in our nation’s criminal justice system. It has been far too long since we, as a nation, have addressed the needs of our police, prosecutors, courts and prisons.
In fact, it has been over forty years since President Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice looked deeply into our justice system and recommended many needed improvements.
That year, I was a beat cop in a large Midwestern city. I had just been discharged from the Marines with a growing family in tow and being a cop seemed to be right for me. After some years on the beat, I heard there was a newly-released national report on the police and how they needed to be educated to function in our complex society. I also learned that tuition grants were available to police officers like me who wanted to get a college education. I jumped at the chance and so did many of my colleagues. This was the only way we could get a college education because our salaries could not support our families and college tuition. This one opportunity changed my life.
We organized the college cops in our area and started, for the first time, to see the need for police reform. We had to work with far too many drunks, thieves, bullies, and incompetents wearing the same uniform we did. We began to speak out about the need for increased hiring standards and that we, the police, needed to change our responses to the Civil Rights “sit-ins” and anti-war demonstrations to which we were summoned. We looked around at our leaders and thought we could do a better job. So, when we got our degrees many of us found ourselves heading up our own police departments and in a position to make the changes we knew needed to be made.
As a young chief of police, I was able to implement the four-year college degree requirement Johnson’s Commission recommended. Our hiring posters proclaimed, “Join the Other Peace Corps!” I experimented with different policing styles and approaches to crowd control; even instituted a non-military style police uniform.
My education and experience enabled me to see the job of a police officer in new and different ways. I wanted my police officers to focus on turf – to be vitally connected to and work with the people in those neighborhoods they were privileged to serve. I wanted police officers who had a deep desire to serve others; to be Constitutional Officers – defenders of our Bill of Rights – and community organizers!
It took over twenty years to do this and now, along with me, most of us have retired. I have kept touch with the field of policing and I don’t see many police leaders with the same commitment to democratic policing as we did. And that makes me sad. I believe the reason is because of that fateful day in September, 2001; the day when fear came down upon the nation and upon its police.
When that happened, many of our police leaders forgot about their role in defending the Constitution. In their fear, some of them willingly engaged in illegal surveillances, went along with “free speech” zones, looked the other way when their police officers over-reacted, abused citizens, started doing immigration enforcement work, and became faceless paramilitary forces. Nothing is more endangering to a democracy as the militarization of its local police.
Mr. President-Elect, our nation again needs to deeply and intensively examine its police (while I can make the same argument for others in our massive system of criminal justice, I will keep my remarks to that which I know only too well: the police). Our police play a vital role in who we are as a nation. We will not have justice in our courts unless it is first a working value of our nation’s police.
Our nation needs men and women who are broadly educated in the liberal arts. They need exposure to subjects such as history, philosophy, sociology, law, anthropology, psychology, foreign languages, and even art. Far too often the standard police education curriculum has been designed by cops, taught by cops, and the classroom filled with cops or those who wish to be. This is not education – it is training.
Not only must police be well educated, they must also be well trained and compensated. We will never eliminate corruption in the police ranks solely by imposing external controls and organizing watchdog groups; instead, it must be done early on by developing an officer’s internal controls; building a strong foundation for ethical and moral behavior, a clear understanding of his or her role in society, and a commitment to the highest ideals of public service. Sure, police officers need to be crime fighters, but it is not unreasonable to also expect that they will protect our Constitution, resolve and mediate conflict, and care for people in need while they are fighting crime and other disorder.
We have the right as citizens of this great nation to expect our police will always be respectful and courteous to a fault, well-informed, honest, and only use the most minimal amount of force when carrying out their duties. We, as a nation, deserve no less. After all, police can only effectively function in a democracy such as ours when they have the full support and trust of all members of their community.
What has happened since that fateful day in 2001 is that homeland security monies have trickled down through the system to buy military style equipment for local police departments and not to improve the police themselves. All that money simply turned the heads of the police away from community and problem-oriented policing and toward the new and ill defined role of preventing terrorism As I mentioned earlier, this is a dangerous direction. I don’t discount the need for a local antiterrorism response, but I thought that was primarily the role of our National Guard with local police sharing information with them that local police develop as a result of their close relationship with the community.
Mr. President-Elect, I encourage a reexamination of where our nation’s police are today, where they need to be, the kind of people we need to police our communities, and how police should be educated, trained, and deployed. This must be done before it is too late.
p.s. 50,000 body cameras will NOT improve our nation’s police. Much, much more is needed. Where to start? Read my book, Arrested Development and follow the seven steps!