The 400th Post: Too Big to Solve?

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On this, my 400th blog, and the week in which the President’s task force on policing is meeting, I ask the question: Is improving our nation’s police a problem too big to solve?

I hope not, but it is not going to be easy because what we have to confront is the  power of an historical subculture — how police see themselves and how they think they should do their work. Over and against this is how others see police. And that’s when it gets difficult.

Over the years, citizens have gotten their ideas about how police work should be conducted from the media more than from their local police department, and so there are a lot myths out there about police work. For example. I identified four of them in “How to Rate Your Local Police:

  • Low crime rates show that a police agency is efficient and effective.
  • A high arrest rate shows that the police are doing a good job.
  • A high ratio of police officers to citizens means high quality police services.
  • Responding quickly to citizens’ calls for services shows that a police agency is efficient.

The impression the media give about the nature of police work is its more sensational aspects. Most police never solve a major crime, or shoot a suspect, but what they do is solve disagreements, break up disputes, give advice, protect those who cannot care for themselves, and solve neighborhood problems, Every police officer performs a great symbolic national service of protection, service, and safety under the umbrella of fairness, equality, and protecting the rights we all have as American citizens.

The job of a police officer in a free society is primarily relational; good cops are level-headed people-persons that know the law, civil rights, and keep a cool head when everyone else is unable to.

I have written extensively about how to attract, select, train and lead police because if we are serious about improving them, that’s where it can happen. And the people that can make it happen with the best outcome are leaders. Leaders are very important. That’s what I wrote to Pres. Obama’s “21st Century Task Force on Policing:” our nation needs to focus on developing and maintaining high quality police leadership.

If we don’t improve our top leadership we will never improve police service. It is police leaders who determine who gets hired, the way they are trained, and how they are supervised. Right action begins at the top of the organization.

Now here’s the rub. I sense today a great chasm between progressive police leaders and rank and file officers. Maybe it’s just the nature of policing and its subculture, but it could cause big problems down the road. A couple of recent situations come to mind: a police leader resolves to publicly challenge racism at work and his union responds with anger thinking their chief is calling them racists, and police officers turn their backs on their mayor (their elected head) at a public event because they believe his support of protesters means he doesn’t support them.

We are at a tipping point. It is a time when police, all police, have to step up and be part of the solution. I would hope that if I asked any police officer in America today whether or not we need to one day address  and reconcile the present and historical mistrust existing between police and African-Americans that officer would agree with me. So, why not now? Next, I would make the point to that officer that if you are working in a neighborhood in which the majority of the people there mistrusts you and avoids supporting you (withholding information, refusing to be a witness, etc.), it makes your job difficult if not ineffective .

But there’s more to that scenario, in an environment of mistrust, an officer’s personal safety is in jeopardy.  Working in a community that mistrusts you is  dangerous.

That’s why things must change. Our nation must take bold steps forward to restore trust of its police among communities of color, For when trust exists between police and the community, police officers who work there are both  effective and safe.

If police treat people with respect and are fair in the decisions they make, people will come to trust them. It’s that simple (and also that difficult).

It is simple because most of us, including police officers, learn early in our lives that solid relationships are built on respect and fair treatment — which leads to trust.

It is difficult because once trust is broken in a relationship, it takes time for it to be restored, but it can be done. We see collective and individual examples of that in South Africa, and in the work of marriage counselors.

What we need now is a common, national dialogue and understanding of WHAT we expect police to do, and HOW they are to do it.

When we do that, life will be a lot easier and safer for all of us.

In the 399 posts I have previously made over the past three years are ways in which police can move forward.

I invite you to take a look at them. Use the search engine on this site to review these ideas and suggestions:

Values, Ethics, Force, Respect, Trust, Subculture, Education, Training, Courtesy, Good police, Corruption, Racism, Reconciliation, Leadership, Principles, Standards, Function, Community-oriented, Shooting, Problem-oriented, Rate, Protest, Mental illness, Obstacles, Seven steps, Improvement — and more.