I’m getting fed up with timid leaders, aggressive police unions, and the four obstacles I listed in Arrested Development that prevent police improvement: anti-intellectualism, violence, corruption and discourtesy – examples of each obstacle in our current news are all too familiar.
If we all agreed with what police should be and do, improving police would be a slam-dunk. But it’s not. Mostly because bad police are experts in carefully choosing who gets abused and who doesn’t. That leaves a large proportion of our population with little to no contact with police except what they see on television and in the movies.
We in America are going to have to make a big decision about who we want to police our communities. In the high-rent district, it’s simple: be nice and deferent and keep outsiders out so we high-renters can go about our daily lives forgetting what goes on in the low-rent district. You don’t have to be highly skilled to do this part of police work – just remember to be courteous and helpful to the high-renters.
In the low-rent district it’s another matter. This is a job for skilled men and women. They must possess the combined knowledge and skills of a psychologist, martial artist, and social worker. Yet in many cities, we neither recruit nor train our police in these necessary skills. Instead, the message we give them is to keep the low-rent folks in line by whatever means necessary — and don’t bother high-renters.
This works pretty well in a totalitarian society; after all, they don’t claim they value treating folks justly or fairly. They don’t have operating constitutional values like life, liberty, due process, fairness and equality. They just expect their citizens to shut up and stay in line – or else. And the “or else” is their police.
Policing in America is unique. We are a democracry. A free society. And policing herer is local. There are no standard rules and practices except the law and its interpretation. There are 18,000 police departments in our nation (90% of them very small, employing around 25 officers).
Let’s face it. We have a police crisis in our nation, but its solution is local; depending on how each community responds to the crisis and how they go about correcting police behaviors that do not meet their expectations.
Every citizen in America has a right to be treated fairly and respectfully by police. They also have the right not to be physically abused in anyway when approached or contacted by them – even if they, themselves, are uncooperative, sassy, angry, or disrespectful.
Police have a lot of authority in our society. They carry weapons, They can take away a person’s movement and freedom. But when encountering citizens, they are to be the adults in conflict situations; even when those whom they police do not act like adults.
In a democracy, police must always be well-educated and trained, controlled in their use of force, honest, diverse, respectful, and willing to work closely with community members. If police do not like the terms of this arrangement, then, perhaps, they should seek other employment.
An uncontrolled, unmanaged, left-to-themselves police is a dangerous police. You know what really peeves me? It’s when some of our mayors, police chiefs, and community leaders do nothing, day after day, about recurring police problems, excessive use of force, disrespectful language, and unequal law enforcement. Worse yet, they defend bad police behavior, and pay huge settlements out of taxpayer monies to those whom police have abused rather than correct the problem; they are like the three little monkeys who neither see, hear nor speak of the evil which surrounds them.
Year after year, these urban leaders short-change not only community residents, but the good men and women who serve as police officers. With no one leading, no one improving things, anything goes on the street. Juking the crime stats and labeling a population as “a bunch of criminals” becomes the new currency — justice be damned.
So now, after years of building resistance to change we are going to try to improve our nation’s police. Good luck. I have had some experience in changing police, it’s not for the faint-hearted, timid, or short-termers. Few reformers have done it and have been able to sustain improvements they instituted.
On top of this, our nation’s justice department has had little impact on improving policing in spite of forcing leaders in many of our large cities to grudgingly sign legally-binding “consent decrees.” So far, their track record is not encouraging. But remember, we decided early-on that all policing is to be local.
One might ask, is this what leadership in America has come to? To wait until a flood of local plaintiffs get the attention of Washington and then reluctantly agree to the changes they order?
But policing being local is not to look the other way, ignore or castigate victims of police violence; certainly not until cops are charged with murder. Is this fair to the police? To let them operate without direction, good-training, adequate equipment, and close leadership?
There may be a special place in hell for leaders who love the trappings of their office, the pensions that await them, and shut their eyes and ears to the cries of the poor and oppressed in our cities; those without housing, jobs, adequate nutrition, and medical care. In a democracy, a free society, those are also worthy of protection and decent treatment. Isn’t that who we as Americans are?
I just hope it’s not too late. We should have been reforming police since the findings of the 1967 President’s commission “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society” and surely by the following year after the Kerner Commission reported the causes of violence in our nation’s cities. But we didn’t. And now we have work to do — and it’s not going to be easy.
Nevertheless, we can start in each and every city by the mayor and police chief standing up and using the findings and recommendations of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing as a template for dialogue and action.
Each city should go through these recommendations and assess their police. In areas in which police are doing a good job and in compliance with the report they should be congratulated and reinforced.
But in areas in which improvement is needed, police reform should be demanded and assisted. Police should be given a date in which they will be expected to be in compliance. No exceptions. No excuses.
But we all know, this is not just a police problem. The same kind of community assessment, led by our leaders, should also occur in other vital areas of our life together: education, housing, jobs, and medical care.
- The American dream only works when it works for each and every one of us.
- Police have a major role in our society in making that dream work.
- Let’s get to work!