A Letter to Police (a reprise)

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[Last week I wrote to police chiefs about the need for a virtual reformation in policing. I will be a long, difficult road. But, never forget, it is a necessary route. Today, I am re-posting an open letter I sent to police officers who are in the midst of this crisis and these needed changes. This is NOT the time to give up on your communities or those of color within them that are very grieved and angry about what is happening. This is the time for good cops to ascend and to lead. Blessings on your journey!]

Dear Police Officers,

I know you feel anxious today. Perhaps even wondering why you took the job.

I remember a similar time during the riots of 1967-68; particularly what was going on in Detroit. I was working as a police officer a few hundred miles west of that city in Minneapolis. I was a street cop, walking a beat in a predominately black district (I worked out of the same precinct station that is experiencing protest and picketing as a result of the shooting of Jamar Clark). As a young officer working out of that same station, I heard police in Detroit were being shot at, injured, and some killed. It was a tense time. I have to admit it raised my wariness and anxiety level as my city was also experiencing racial violence and tension. Back then, it was a tough time to be a cop, too.

On one hand, I could think of myself as a potential victim in a city not too unlike Detroit; a city with African-Americans just as concerned and angry about their lack of civil rights and victims of systematic unfairness. After all, any police officer, then or now, is an easy target. There was little I could do hide, I wore a visible uniform. On the other hand, if I let my fear determine my behavior, I would end up doing as little as possible or quitting. I knew that was wrong thinking. I was not going to give up.

What I chose to do, however, kept me safe during those tumultous times and positively influenced the rest of my 30+ year police career: I decided to connect; to get closer — not further away — to those whom I was serving. I knew I had to reinforce the fact on my beat that I was a cop who was fair, respectful, and controlled if I had to use force. I had to remind folks that on my beat they could count on me — regardless of what was happening in other parts of our city or across the country.

I was not going to let myself get into a “war;” or into a defensive mode, with the people I swore to serve and protect. When the going seemed to be getting tough, I ramped up my contacts on my beat and in the community center which was the hub of my precinct. It worked. It worked then and I can confidentially assure you it will work for you today. The worst thing you can do is to “hunker down,” limit your community contacts, police from a distance, or let fear drive you. That’s very dangerous.

“Closer” helped me solve the crime and conflicts I came across, but it also resulted in my feeling much safer. On my beat, we came to know and understand one another regardless of the color of our skin.

I knew the cultural gap in America between those of us who were white and those who were of color was enormous, but I saw it can be overcome. While most of my life was spent in white neighborhoods and schools, four years of my life wasn’t – that was my active duty time with the U.S. Marines. Thanks to Pres. Harry Truman, the Marines I joined were quite different than the Marines of yesterday. They were integrated.

You see, when I joined them and went off to boot camp, I was no longer the majority. I had to learn to get along or fail. The Marine Corps in 1955 was a cultural melting pot; a “Berlitz-style” immersion experience. And I got immersed and blended. Diversity matters in the military and matters in our police ranks.

While I will argue against the militarism I see creeping into police today, my military experience actually helped me when I found myself in a police uniform working in a predominately black neighborhood. When we attempt to bridge the cultural gap between races things seem less scary. When we experience diversity, everything doesn’t seem so frightening. But it has to begin with us and maintained by us.

Later in my career when I became a police leader, the same technique worked for me when I was called upon the handle protests and demonstrations – closer is better; closer means dialoging, working things out, trying to understand one another, determine what our mutual goals and objectives are, and always being restrained in our use of force. My experience in these matters also helped when I went out and recruited police officers to diversify my department in terms of gender and color. When I said I needed the community’s help; that we can’t do this without them they believed me and responded postively.

Connecting with today’s widespread and continuous media output and listening to what some police and politicians are saying is déjà vu to me. I’ve heard it all before, I’ve been there!

So when I hear emotionally-laden statements with little or no data to back what is being said, I get uncomfortable. If we as police let these reports of so-called targeted police killings drive us away from those whom we serve, it will take decades to recover — if we ever will. Yes, it’s that important. There have always been crazy people out there who may want to kill us. We knew that when we pinned on that badge.

Looking back over 50 years since I first pinned that badge on my blue shirt, working during the Civil Rights Movement, sit-ins, and anti-war protests, leading organizational change, and continuing to study police after my retirement, I have learned some things that I hope can be helpful for you.

You must be getting the picture — policing is overwhelmingly relational; in order to be an effective police officer in the past, present, or future requires you to be an expert in that field – able to listen well, communicate effectively, continue your learning, be respectful regardless of provocation, fair, trustworthy, honest in your dealings, and able to use force carefully, even surgically. (As Sociologist Egon Bittner once reminded us, force is the core of the police role — therefore it must be applied properly and legally.)

If you can hone yourself into being that kind of police officer, work to maintain not only physical, but mental/emotional fitness, you will survive – in fact, you will thrive and, in turn, so will those whom you serve. You will be respected and counted upon. Policing is an honorable profession that calls us to be men and women of the highest integrity. Never forget that.

As that kind of police officer, you will come to understand the causes of the problems you encounter and will work with members of your community and elected officials to solve them. They are problems of disparate educational outcomes in your schools, race and classism, the need for economic development, jobs, and healthcare for neighborhood residents and their children as well as for those addicted to alcohol and other drugs; in short, helping craft together a positive future for those who live on your beat and whom you are privileged to serve.

  • This is what professional policing is. 
  • Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. 
  • Be the kind of police officer you once dreamed to be.