Is it All About a Kind of Attitude?

“The effectiveness and safety of police depends on them being fair, respectful, close, and collaborative with everyone they contact — even to those who may not at first welcome them. That’s the challenge and the grace of policing a free society.”

Maybe you can help me on this. I don’t want to over-simplify the problem before us of re-building the trust and support of police… but, is the problem about a kind of attitude?

What do I mean? The ways in which the job, the people, the bosses, are negatively internalized into “them versus us” and become a certain kind of “attitude;” a way of thinking and acting that is highly damaging and corrosive to policing a democracy based on the rule of law.

I have felt this way for some time now. It comes to me when community people talk about bad cops, unclear policies, or poor training and police respond defensively. When that happens I find myself saying, “No, it’s not about bad cops, policies, or poor training, it’s about this negative attitude that infects almost everything police do and continues to exist unchallenged by poor leaders who don’t work to counter it — that’s the problem.”

When you have poor leaders, you have the potential for those whom they are supposed to encourage, coach, and lead, of taking on that attitude which sees themselves not as part of the community but apart from it.

By this attitude I mean those negative subcultural aspects of policing: “Everyone hates us, no one supports us, we only can look to ourselves for protection, there’s a war going on out there, the black community (in which we primarily operate and those who we primarily arrest) doesn’t help us, and don’t blue lives matter, too?”… and so on.

This is not unfamiliar. I heard enough of it within the ranks of a department in which I served in the tumultuous and racially-charged late 1960s: “Blacks hate us, the students and hippies do, too. Thankfully, we have each other — and even if we make a mistake, we will never give up a brother!” We continued to parrot the past — we were isolated, defensive, and unconnected with the black community.  And, yes, that left us vulnerable and in danger each time we put that uniform on.

But some of us saw a way out. It was the 1967 President’s Commission on policing. It made sense. It talked about the police-community divide and the need for better relations with our communities. Just like the 1967 report, the President Obama’s Task Force on 21st century policing can be a way forward for today’s police.

Back in my day (like today!) we knew we could either go tactical or go community. We chose the latter — if me and my partners were worried each day about snipers and riots, the best way forward, we decided, was not to hunker down and gear-up — it was to connect; to get closer to the community and improve relations between us and, especially, the black community.

I found the same practices and relational tactics I developed early in my career in Minneapolis worked when I came to Madison towards the end of the Vietnam War. I quickly encountered angry, hostile young people who were tired of the war, racial injustice and brutal cops.

When I came to Madison, the department had hunkered-down and geared up for what was later called the “War at Home.” It took some time to lead them forward and out of that old thinking, to engage in listening sessions, and change how we responded to marches and protests; to move from preventing public protests to facilitating them. It wasn’t easy and it took many years, after all, I had officers in the ranks that had been assaulted and injured during these protests. Their attitude then was not to accommodate and manage conflicts, but to get even! [The record during that time, however, speaks for itself — we never lost control of a protest action during a 20-year period.]

So when I see and hear police leaders today who advocate gearing-up to respond to protest groups, or talk about we are engaging in a “war” against the community, I just shake my head in dismay.

We all know that’s not how it’s to be done in America. We are a free society and, as John Adams reminded us, “a government of laws, not of men.” When officers are thinking more about a SWAT response than taking the time to talk, dialogue, and de-escalate, I get even more worried.

We need to help police become the important members of society that we need them to be: smart, well-trained and educated, self-controlled, respectful, good listeners, adequately compensated, and ready and willing to work together with community members in creating safe neighborhoods free of crime and disorder.

In order to be able to do this, those we choose to be police leaders must be able to model these behaviors and help officers understand their broad role in society. The effectiveness and safety of police depends on them always being fair, respectful, close, and collaborative with everyone they contact — even to those who may not at first welcome them. That’s the challenge and the grace of policing a free society.