Let’s Get Real About Police Reform

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Reforming our nation’s police will not come about through new hardware or technologies, creative policies, revised training, federal consent decrees, or even citizen oversight. Instead, police reform will happen when we are able to change the overall ethos of today’s police; the characteristic spirit of their culture — its beliefs, aspirations, customs, and practices.

And the only way to change an ethos is by positive, committed, passionate leaders and a supportive community. So, let’s look at the cold, hard facts about police reform. Changing the ethos any organization is difficult at best. But for the police, a virtual closed society, it is an endeavor that will take a generation because police reform is about people, not technologies.

The ethos of policing a society such as ours is this: Police are to come from the “best and brightest” among us. They are to be well-trained and work closely with us in identifying and solving community crime and disorder problems. In doing this, they are to be honest, respectful, competent, fair and controlled in their use of force – especially deadly force. They are to be the guardians of our civil rights. They are to protect us; especially those among us who cannot care for themselves. They are to be the “glue” within our communities who model the great values of our society: such fairness, equality, and respect for life.

I think it’s safe to say that I know something about police reform and the ethos that I am proposing. It took me 20 years with a core of committed, supportive allies, but it was done in Madison, Wisc. We changed the beliefs, aspirations, customs, and practices of the police department.

Before I came to the city there was only one black officer in a department of nearly 300. No women served in uniform. And the women already on the department were unarmed youth officers with no chance for advancement. Add to this a tense relationship with the students at the University of Wisconsin concerning protest and our African-American community’s desire to see more police who looked like them.

This was a big change agenda and it took a decade before we could visibly see the results. But looking back it was all about leadership, not just mine, but all department leaders. How leaders through the organization acted and talked about our beliefs about policing and its aspirations matters.

Let me give you an example: In March of 1991, when the police beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police went viral, I was the chief of police in Madison. The national outcry was due to a video of the assault taken by a person with a personal camera. Sound familiar? Without that documentary of King’s beating, one can guess what would, or would not have, happened.

But the very next day, a number of officers came to me and were obviously upset by how police were being characterized as a result of that beating.

They requested that I say something on their behalf. I told the media what they told me: if that started to happen in our city one of them would step in and stop regardless of their rank. “That beating,“ is not us. That’s not who we are!” This must be the dominant ethos in policing today.

Fast forward three decades: our nation and its police experience the terrorist attacks in 2001, over two decades of war go on in the Middle East, questionable police strategies are implemented (like “Broken Windows” and CompStat which stress numbers over people), a growing and failing “war” on drugs is in full swing, and more use of SWAT teams on the streets in America.

Put them all together and we have the “perfect storm” which slowly, but surely, changes the ethos of our nation’s police from community worker and neighborhood guardian to that of soldiers during the occupation of a foreign country. And that foreign country is the neighborhoods of citizens who are poor and of color.

This style, of course, was not universal. The guardian style still could be found in white, upper-class neighborhoods. Police still waved back when they greeted them. Police were “one of us” and they continued to be respected and treated fairly by police. Not so in poor communities of color.

In thirty years we have moved from the batons that pummeled Rodney King to the bullets that have taken the lives of too many men of color. The difference is that Rodney King lived to tell his story. Not so for many who resist or threaten police today.

I am concerned about this because trust and support of police are essential in a free society. It is also something I have practiced, taught others, and commented on during the past 50 years. I have always believed that trust and support are necessary in order for police to be effective in their communities and safe in their jobs. When that doesn’t happen, policing becomes a dangerous job and police sensing that danger, understandably distance themselves from those communities that exacerbates the problem even more.

I am worried because the very nature of a democratic society such as ours is that it must work for everyone, not just a few of us. The hallmark of a free society is that it cares for those of us who are most vulnerable – those who are poor, homeless, mentally ill, or without a job. Dr. King reminded us, “No man is free until all men are free.” This freedom of which King spoke occurs when America works for all of us. The danger is this fabric can easily be ripped apart by our failure to understand and act on this.

This is precisely why “black lives matter.” It is blacks who disproportionately have contact with our nation’s police. They are the ones being stopped, arrested, or experience physical abuse by police. The quality of police-citizen contacts matters to all of us.

So when I hear “White lives matter, too!” I can agree; all lives matter. But it is not whites who are being disproportionately contacted, arrested, and abused by police – it is blacks. I would suggest that should it not be the case, we whites would not stand for it.

An authentic dialogue about these matters is far overdue. It’s not about who is factually right or wrong. It’s far beyond that. We are dealing with perceptions, some of which have persisted for generations; one side feels oppressed and the other unfairly criticized.

But where to from here? I believe the leaders of our nation’s police must be the ones who stand up and agree to generously listen (even to accusations which they may feel is unfair). But by generously and empathically listening, police leaders should be able to come to understand what needs to be done.

What I learned about conflict and its management is not trying to find out who is right and who is wrong, but for the conflicting parties to sit down together and listen to each other’s story. Deeply listening to one another’s story is an essential ingredient to all of this.

After all, that’s what effective leaders do; they facilitate needed conversations, and, afterwards, address the fear and misunderstanding, and, together with those who feel they have been treated unfairly, create a new tomorrow – a new way forward.

And tomorrow can begin today. Let’s talk. Let’s fix it. And let’s move forward.

In fact, it can begin right now, today, in the ranks of police in their daily contacts with people of color; building trust one day at a time, one respectful contact after another. I would like to hear the impassioned pledge I heard from police officers so long ago, “That is not us! That’s not who we are!”