Learning From #TonyRobinson

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Robinson’s memorial service at East High School, March 14, 2015

In my 30+ year police career I attended my share of police funerals. Many times, when I saw the wife and children of the slain officer walk up the aisle in the church my heart was in my throat. Could this be my family one day? Yet, in an unnerving way, it tended to make me think.

  • What I had never attended was the funeral of a person killed by police. I should have. I think it would have made me a deeper thinker and better leader.

Last Saturday, I went to East Hight School in Madison to attend the memorial service for Tony Robinson, a 19-year black youth recently shot and killed by a Madison police officer.

Thankfully, things have been calm in Madison since that tragic night as the Madison community awaits answers from community leaders when the investigatory report is release by the outside by the Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI). In the meantime, there’s been a lot of community work going on. Chief Koval has put himself into the community and making himself available and have many other community leaders, both white and black. The Robinson family and black leaders have called for restraint. Everyone is suffering.

During the memorial service, I sat between two black men I knew, one a retired chief like me, the other man in charge of assisting the re-entry of prisoners into the community. Their pain was obvious; their tears visible. It wasn’t easy being here.

I know that many police will see my presence as having taken a side. I was nervous because I remembered my friend, the late Joe McNamara telling me when he was chief in Kansas City, one of his officer’s shot and killed a black youth. Joe went to the funeral and his officers never forgave him for doing it. He soon had to leave and finished his career in California. That’s the negative side of the “thin blue line.” Yet, I knew I had to be there regardless of the consequences. I am not taking sides. I just want to offer my help and see things get fixed.

Unknown-2At the service, I began to have the scales peeled off my eyes as to the emotional impact of a police shooting, I was surrounded and overwhelmed by the pain and agony of the family and younger and older members of the community — both white and black. My years out of uniform had given me a new perspective — and an aching heart.

My sense is that we all grieve together, the family, the community, elected officials, and the police. No one cannot be untouched by this event. It is what many of us have feared for years.

I knew that when I showed up I may loose whatever credibility or affection I had among police. I hope police understand and can benefit from what I have learned after three decades inside the police and now two decades on the outside.

Because of what appears to be a rash of shootings throughout the nation involving unarmed persons, many of whom were mentally ill, I have strongly urged that police look at these events as a system problem and make needed repairs. My mentor in the 80s, Dr. W. Edwards Deming would say, “don’t blame people when things go wrong — fix the system.”

  • The American policing system of using deadly force needs fixing.

I urge our nation’s police to review their policies, their training, their instrumentality (their weapons), their attitudes, and fix or improve them, That’s what professionals do, when things go wrong, they look upstream, find the cause, and take action.

  • When unarmed persons are shot and killed by police it should be seen an error and demands rethinking and restructuring police policy, training, tactics, instrumentality, and attitudes.

If I were a chief of police today, I would require every recruit officer to view an account of a police funeral along with one involving a person killed by police. They both have tragic ramifications in the community. I would remind them that the taking of life, any life, is a major career decision that should never be taken lightly. I would tell them that just because police can use deadly force in certain situations, it doesn’t mean it is always the right thing to do — not always the best, not always a moral decision. And I would order that the system be fixed in order to prevent these events from happening in the future and then tell my community what we, the police, are going to do to prevent these deaths from happening in the future.

When police shoot and kill, it always leaves a deep, emotional wound in the community and within the police department itself.

It is the responsibility of community leaders, including police, to take immediate steps to begin the healing and reassure the community that police are there to save lives, not to take them.