What If It’s the Barrel and Not the Apples?

Unknown-1With regard to the often criminal use of deadly force by police we hear that the cause is “bad apples” and not widespread abuse by police officers.

But what if it’s not bad apples? What if the problem is the barrel; the training and work environment of American policing? What if it is not a matter of having hired some bad cops, but rather the system itself that is the problem? Worse yet, what if our current system of policing is designed and intended to produce a high probability of bad outcomes?

I have either been working with or observing police for over 50 years. And this is what I have concluded: there has been a slow but steady ramping up of police firearms training. There are a lot of reasons for this — the stress on “officer safety” over protection of others; a culture that says it is better for me to be judged by twelve than buried by six – indicating a jury experience is better than a funeral. On top of this there has been a SWAT mentality in responding to crisis situations that has been strongly influenced by military tactics and equipment, engaging and hurriedly  neutralizing the “enemy,” and the presence of armored military vehicles in many police garages.

You might ask what happened to the direction police were going with regard to community and problem oriented policing? The problem is it never got started. It got a lot of talk but not much in action.

Federal money was there to hire “community cops”  but few police organizations were about to make the internal. changes necessary. Community policing never took root in most of our nation’s cities.

Instead, it had to compete with the hard police tactics that went along with a “war” being conducted on crime and drugs. Unfortunately, flying  in the face of data, the war zone became neighborhoods populated by citizens who were primarily poor and of color.

Then came 9/11 and our fear of terrorism and terrorists. What we ended up doing in response to it was a lot like we did internationally — we invade. Just as we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan we invaded our cities. We soon found out we didn’t solve the problem but, instead, alienated those we now depend on. who live in these neighborhoods.

If we are concerned about crime (including terrorism) I suggest the best response is to get closer to those who are most affected by it and not conduct ourselves as an occupying army. That’s what true community policing does, it works with people, not against them. We have drifted so far away from that idea it is almost impossible to to now talk about real community policing to those who see police as invaders, not guardians.

We now hear from many affected citizens (especially after Ferguson) that the way out of this dilemma is for there to be community control of police — which is not a new subject if you follow urban politics in America. It was first a demand from the Black Panther Party in the 1960s.

But how would that work? Could it be possible to have community control of police? I mean isn’t that what private security does in corporate America? Security officers are hired to protect corporate owners not those who work or shop in it – corporate control of police. (An aside: How many citizens have been killed by private police? Not many. Why is this? Might we say that to do so would be bad for business? Shooting shoplifters in a major shopping center like Walmart would not be received very well by their customers.)

What if we had neighborhood police councils that directed how police resources would be used, gave primary input on the mission of the police in their community, and determined how police were selected, trained and led? What would that be like? Could we ever be bold enough to try it out and see how it might work? (Another aside: Isn’t that how private police operate in wealthy “gated” communities?)

Because if we were really concerned about crime and the threat of terrorism why wouldn’t try to literally win the “hearts and minds” of the people, the body politic? Why would it be more effective and smarter to work this way with our Muslim communities  than spying on them?

I say this because I am beginning to think that the problem is the barrel, the system, and not individual officers. Years ago, my mentor on quality policing, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, taught me an important concept about a work system. He told me that if I was not happy with the performance of my officers, the worse thing I could do was to fire that officer. Because if I didn’t “work upstream;” fix the system, the next officer I hired to replace the one I fired would soon perform just as poorly..  And unless I took action, gathered data, and began to fix.  the systems or which I was responsible it would continue to produce problem officers.

If we keep putting good men and women into the police system and do not change how they are trained and led, we will keep producing bad apples. That means we must change the barrel.

I can tell you from my long experience that most every man or woman coming into policing comes with a strong desire to help and serve others.

But when they have been in the system for awhile, when they have been in the barrel, many of them turn sour because they have not been trained adequately to handle distressed persons, have not been led by positive leaders who are committed to seeing them thrive and grow, and they have been restrained from acting on their initial desire which was to help and serve others.

What to do? This is not the time for slow, incremental change but for total reform. In my book and on this blog, I outline how reform can happen and what needs to be done.

We are a large nation with 17,000 police agencies and 600,000 police officers. Reform cannot and will not come from the top down because we are much too localized for that to happen. So reform won’t come from Washington, but it could come from your town or city.

As an American, you have an inalienable right to be respectfully and fairly policed and as a police officer you have a right to do your best work. Both of you have a right to be secure and your body to be safe from violence.