Talking to Police

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WE ARE IN A CRISIS.

Maybe you don’t think so if you are white and able to pay your bills.

Maybe not if you are a police officer who tries to be fair, honest, and do a good job.

Maybe yes if you are poor, a person of color, or a white police officer who works predominately in a poor, minority neighborhood.

And therein lies the problem. A lot of Americans are simply puzzled by what’s going on. They don’t believe we are in a crisis because it hasn’t touched them or their children. They cannot understand what black America is saying or why they are saying it. We are in the midst of a great chasm of misunderstanding.

Our present crisis is fed by the disparity in who gets arrested, convicted, and put in prison. The statistics are more than troubling. It is also the growing belief in our communities of color that men of color are the ones who get shot and killed by police.

I have to say this: if a significant number of people (mostly those who have had contact with police say that they no longer trust you, we have a crisis at hand, a national problem. If we ignore the present situation, I can assure you it will not get better — it will get worse.

Yes, this is a BIG problem and how it will get solved can lead us to despair. In a journey of a thousand miles, the ancients tell us that whatever its length, it beings with a single step. With that in mind, what right now is the “single step” police can take?

I suggest that there are some things you, as a police officer, could do help our nation come out of the crisis. I sense that the change that is needed will most probably come down what individual police officers do, and not the result of a national commission telling them what to do and how to do it.

So, the question before us is this: What is YOUR street behavior like? Do you need to re-evaluate your presence, attitudes, and the decisions you make?

In Steven Covey’s highly-popular book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” he tells us that one of the habits is “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Today’s police officer must first try to understand what is happening, what is going on in this matter of race in America. This involves developing listening skills. Your effectiveness (and even physical safety) is dependent upon your relationship and communication skills — your ability to understand and be understood — to generously listen. Policing today is developing life-long learning skills that involve many of the skills of social and mental health workers.

For example, a police officer seeking to understand would be aware of a reports such as that recently issued by the Washington-based and highly-regarded “Sentencing Project.” It has to do with racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

As a police officer who works in a free society you not only have to be well-informed, you must also be well-trained, competent, and tactically proficient; up to date having honed your police skills to a high level.

Being well-trained and competent in emergency and conflict situations will go a great way to reducing the natural fear and adrenaline rush we all experience in these situations. How you manage your fear, your emotions, in these situations is critical. This is very important because working in fear-producing situations without being able to effectively manage your fear and being confident in your policing skills is very detrimental to your effectiveness. Remember, about 80% of your communication to another person is non-verbal — it’s true, your body talks.

One of the most important abilities of being an effective police officer is not losing your head when everyone else seems to be — the ability to bring to conflict scenes a calm, respectful, and non-anxious presence.

Maybe someone erroneously told you early in your career that to be effective is to be hard and unfeeling. That’s simply wrong. When you give respect to others, most of them return the favor. And when they don’t, you have a better understanding of the situation you are in; that is, what is happening is not a result of your behavior, but of others; your behavior has not provoked or inflamed the situation. Continuous improvement is not just for organizations but also for those who work in them.

Now for the matter of using force. Sociologist Egon Bittner once described “non-negotiated force” as the core of our role as police. To me, this makes it a public trust. If the use of force is a trust, then attention must paid as to why, when and how we use it.

When community members judge us as having used force improperly, trouble is close behind. Therefore, we, as police officers, need to take a deep look into the circumstances we will use force; especially deadly force. And it may not be in every instance that the LAW permits, but in situations in which we deem to be MORAL. How and when we use force matters not only to those who receive it, but also to those who apply it.

In short, that’s what I have to say in a police and observatory perspective that now spans over 50 years. I have a passion about policing and its importance to our society. I want police in America to be knowledgeable, able to act with competence, respect, and even compassion. In turn, I want Americans, all of us, to be able to trust and support their police. When that happens we all win.

If every police officer, through word and deed, were able to communicate the following, verbally and/or with their body language in every contact, I believe it would begin to make a great difference.

The road to building trust will be long and difficult. But it can begin now, with you.

  • I understand the historical and present nature of race in our society and its impacts today. I understand that in the past, police in our nation enforced unconstitutional laws and did not applied the law fairly and equitably to people of color. This has resulted in great disparities in our society and in our system of justice. I am not one of those officers.
  • I pledge to be fair, honest, and equitable in my work decisions regardless of your race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or station in life. If, at a point in carrying out my duties, I have to use force I will do so in a controlled and legal manner.
  • I have a fundamental duty to be a peacekeeper, protector of others, and to always treat people with respect and safeguard their civil rights, I will fulfill that duty.