Years ago, I walked a beat in a large Midwestern city. It was the time of anti-war protests and a challenging civil rights movement. At night I worked as a cop, during the day I was a university student. My experience and education told me that an effective police department needed police officers who were smart, college educated, from diverse backgrounds, and who were willing to work and connect with those whom they served. That realization spurred me on. I finished my degree and went on to graduate school while I continued serving as a police officer.
I started thinking about how poor and conflicting our relations were with our communities of color. I came to the conclusion that I could do better. So, I became a chief of police, integrated and diversified my department, reached out to my community, implemented restrictive policies on deadly force, and responded to public protest in a new and effective way. I saw that things began to change and my approach resulted in fielding smarter, well-trained officers who saw their job as connecting with the community and protecting everyone’s rights.
Our mission was straightforward with this opening statement:
- We believe in the dignity and worth of all people.
It was followed by our commitment to:
- High-quality, community-oriented police services,
- Protect constitutional rights,
- Plan for the future,
- Continuously improve, and
- Provide leadership to the police profession.
It took two decades in that department to set in place a work and service delivery system that could sustain itself into the future.
Some would say that my 20+ year tenure was a success. After all, I led an integration of the department, brought women into the patrol force, hired primarily college-educated officers, required officers to be restrained in their use of force, and limited high-speed chases.
Yet, in many areas, I failed. As I look back and see things today, apologies are in order.
I dismantled part of the domination system with regard to the handling of public protest, but I did not dismantle all of it. For this I apologize.
I questioned why in my city of less than 10 percent racial minorities, one-half of my department’s arrests were people of color. I never worked upstream to find the cause of this disparity and do something about it. For this I apologize.
I read the reports each year regarding our city’s educational system and how it was failing black students. Each year, students of color fell behind in reading comprehension and half of them did not graduate high school on time. I did not more strongly speak out. For this I apologize.
Having said this, what am I prepared to do about it? I am committed to continue to speak out and write about my concerns about our nation’s police, their lack of improvement, and what I believe needs to be done.
Today, our problem is not crime, but mistrust of our police. Sadly, we are now reaping the products of a system of policing based more on domination than collaboration. It is a system that has produced mistrust, anger and lack of support for our police from a large segment in our population.
What we have today is an ineffective system of social control. It is a system that not only puts citizens in jeopardy, but also one that also puts our police in peril because of mistrust and lack of support. In a free society, a condition like this is toxic and must immediately be rectified.
We must demand and require those who police our towns and cities are educated and hold a broad view of our world. We must require our police departments to diversify in terms of race and gender and be willing to collaborate with those whom they serve, particularly those who are poor and racial minorities.
But at this point in our history, after slavery, Jim Crow, social and economic discrimination, and far too many deadly encounters of our police with blacks, I am talking not just about a few changes, and certainly not about body cameras or other technology to shortcut what is needed, but about transformation – real transformation to a new respectful and collaborative system of policing.
But first things first. In every city in America, police leaders at all levels must stand up before their communities and disclaim the present system of domination in which they work. It was an error. It was a mistake. I believe apologies are in order, it must be given so that we all can move forward into what our President is calling “21st Century Policing” — but 21st Century has to be a new style of policing, it cannot be 19th or 20th century policing.
Secondly, our police leaders must pledge to re-examine their current policies and practices regarding the use of force — especially deadly force. They must reaffirm an important American value — respect for human life. They must reduce the number of lives their police officers taking.
Thirdly, our police leaders must pledge to be active and forward thinking in the necessary task of working upstream to address the causes mistrust. Why blacks are so widely represented in our arrests and prison incarcerations? This means that our police will have to collaborate with teachers and social service providers along with prosecutors, judges, and prison administrators in order to make our system of justice work.
I expect what I have proposed will anger many police. I am sorry for that, but they must realize that this the only way forward. It is the only way to gain trust and support. The alternative is unacceptable — to continue what they are doing now — working in, and maintaining, a system that is unfair, ineffective, and mistrusted to a great number of our citizens. It has not worked and it will not work.
Domination can no longer be a description of America’s criminal justice system, nor can mistrust and lack of community support. We in America can do much better.
We must expect and require our nation’s leaders of police to take these first steps and lead the way forward. It is up to the rest of us to encourage and support their efforts.
From apology can come forgiveness. Being forgiven, can lead to reconciliation.
This must be done. It is that important we do it now.
[CLICK HERE for more on the domination system.]