Why Today’s Cops Need to Know What Other Cops Have Learned

Now in my 80th year, I have tried to off-load the accumulated burdens of police-related matters. It has not been easy as it appears that a constant stream of unsettling police incidents continues (most recently Elkhart, Indiana and Richmond, California) to draw me back into the fray.

And a fray it is as many of us who are retired from policing are getting older each day and are puzzled about what has happened since that Golden Age of Policing — change and reform in the late 60s and into the 90s.

In response to this, Chuck Gruber and I have been working finding a way to bring together leading police chiefs of that era in order to collect (before it is too late) their collective wisdom.

Why do I say, ‘Golden Age of Policing’? Because it was the time of demands for civil rights and ending a most complicated and unpopular war in Southeast Asia. It was also the time post-1967 President’s Commission, the Kerner Report, and bringing women and minorities into the ranks of our departments. It was a time in which we tried new methods of responding to public protest without pitting our officers against the protesters; realizing, perhaps for the first time, the exercise of protest is a constitutional right of an American. It was also a time when researchers were active and welcome among us and we took their findings as rationale for many of the improvements we wished to make in our ranks.

After being a street cop, detective, and chief of police during my 33-year career, the closely observing police during my years after retirement, writing a book on what I had learned leading reform in Madison, and maintaining an active blog on police issues for 8 more years, I have come to some conclusions and it has to do with attitude, call it a pervasive subculture if you will.

American Policing has since the terrifying and angry days following September 11, 2001 acquired some negative attitudes toward community members (especially those poor and of color), the role of police in a free and democratic society, and how and when physical force should be used. None of these attitudes are compatible with the values we profess in America.

These attitudes result in a community whose members do not always trust, respect, or support their police. For without respect, trust, and support no police department in the world would be able to be effectively do its job.

I have argued throughout on my blog that the answer to the critical problem of building trust in African-American communities, is to apologize Chief Kevin Murphy did to Congressman John Lewis, a freedom rider who was assaulted and beaten by Montgomery police years before Chief Murphy was born!

But I have also argued there is more that needs to be done. Yes, police need to apologize for the past (as I have) – but also for now; for what currently is being done that results in disparate treatment between whites and blacks. And then to stop acting in ways that perpetuate that disparate treatment. Police today must realize many things they do today; how present systems and policies of policing are doing just this; being vestiges of the old Jim Crow system– a system that Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow” in her new book by that name.

As chief in Madison with a population of ten percent black residents, I noticed a glaring difference in rates of arrest between whites and blacks, African-Americans accounted for 40% of our arrests. Today, 25 years later, the same disparity exists.

When we talk about crime why don’t we also talk about better control of firearms? Since the 60s, I have pointed out that guns kill cops. Last year, 65 police officers died in the line of duty (15 more than the previous year), 26 were killed in traffic accidents, 23 were killed by firearms and 16 died from other causes. Sound police leadership would be to work for better control of firearms and to make sure officers are wearing body armor and seatbelts. Guns also kill people who are not police and, all too frequently, young black men. So why do so many police not see this deadly relationship and stand up for reasonable and sound gun control? We are never going to get reduce violence in America without putting reasonable controls on who can possess and carry a handgun concealed and in public.

Here’s the problem. If police-community interactions were like flying commercial aircraft, we would have the best police in the world. Why? Because most all of us depend on and expect our air transportation system to be safe. When an accident happens, it is investigated by a federal agency with direction to fix the failed systems or procedures that caused the accident. The objective is safety, not the punishment of those who may have made a mistake or failed to follow a procedure. Airline safety matters to each one of us. And we see this in our nation’s airline safety record. Not so with deadly police-citizen encounters.

Those of us who are white and of economic means (including our children) have, most likely, little to no negative contacts with police. If we did, we would demand and expect improvements in their behavior.

Therefore, most whites in America report they have confidence in their police and that is commendable, but not so among those who have had an actual police contact. A report year from the Pew Center found that “while a large majority of Americans rate police officers positively… whites and blacks differed widely in their views…. About two-thirds of the public (64%) give officers a warm rating… including 45% who rate them very warmly… and just 18% give a cold rating. But while a clear majority of whites give law enforcement warm ratings (74%), black and Hispanic views of police are more mixed. Just three-in-ten black Americans (30%) express warm attitudes about police officers, while 28% offer a neutral rating. Another 38% give a cold rating, including 30% who give a very cold rating [to police].”

Police must, however, have high levels of trust (warm ratings) in order to properly and effectively do their important and difficult work; that is the core of community-oriented policing – to build community trust and solve community-identified problems. If policing was a for-profit business and had to compete with private security agencies, they could find themselves out of business if their primary “customers/consumers” had a continuing low level of trust in them and how they performed their duties.

That is how I see the playing field today. Most city police departments have highly disparate arrest rates involving people of color; add those who are homeless or mentally ill and one can come to the opinion that policing in America appears to be overly focused on controlling these demographics even to the point of using deadly force in questionable situations as part of that control.

Since Ferguson, many Americans started worrying about the low trust level their police among their black neighbors. I wonder why the focus of our nation’s police has not been more focused on developing ways to restore that trust across their community’s demographics. Assessing the trustworthiness and support a community has of their police needs to be a top priority in our country.

That would give police leaders the data they need to start working on effective ways to raise community trust and support. Doing so is not just a “feel-good” measure but will result in more peaceful and livable communities. Police today know they can never arrest their way out of a community problem, only by enlisting community help, can they do just that.

Years ago, I created a leadership workbook for department leaders and those officers who wished to be leaders. In it I noted what needed to happen for us to create an organization focused on continuous improvement of all that we did; to make improvement and citizen satisfaction a “way of doing business” (see below). Years later, outside research funded by the National Institute of Justice proved that we did just that.

  1. Recognize that change is inevitable. Effective police organizations must adapt in order to meet society’s needs. The failure to adapt will result in a lack of confidence in the police.
  2. The pressure to change will come from citizen-customers and elected officials as well as police employees.
  3. The positive result of the pressure for change will be workplaces that empower employees and meet their needs.
  4. The goal for police organizations will be to seek and maintain long-term, total citizen satisfaction and consider citizens as “customers.”
  5. Attention to citizen-customers will result in a more effective police department through increased cooperation, information and respect for police.
  6. This will require a significant change in the structure, relationships and leadership of police organizations.
  7. These changes will not happen overnight. They will take five to seven years of leadership commitment in a good police department.

Implementing change in a police agency is difficult, contentious, and often unrewarding work. For a leader to lead reform, he or she must be passionate, persistent, and patient. For a city to see its police operations improved it will take longer than 5-7 years if the department is in crisis. Even then, it is very questionable as to whether these improvements will last beyond the tenure of the police chief who led them.

Recently, I have become wary of the higher educational system in which produces many of our police. Since the 1960s, when I first made a baccalaureate degree an entry requirement for my officers in Burnsville, Minnesota, I have expected our higher educational system to provide broadly educated men and women whom I could train to be police officers who understood the social systems in which they would soon work, the history of race and racism in our nation, and the importance of experimentation and research. Still today, even after a Presidential commission recommended this back in 1967, only 1% of our nation’s police agencies require a 4-year degree entrance requirement. I sense today is what Prof. Gary Cordner did a few years ago when, in an academic article, he identified criminal justice “the monster that ate police education.”  Today, many of our CJ students who wish to become police officers know a little about a lot of things in the system, but not enough about the role, practice, and ethics of policing a free society in our modern world.

In order to turn this around, police must develop on-going relationships with local colleges and universities much the same as the business world has been doing. Police leaders need to monitor and advise educators of their needs; that is, what a modern police agency needs in terms of applicants and that they are academically prepared (police will teach the “how to,” the University needs to teach “why it is done this way.” This is not unlike the relationships that business and industry leaders have with universities and colleges).

I still think about the possibilities of a truly national, academic academy to prepare police leaders (like West Point or Annapolis), but at the same time I worry about what that curriculum would look like, the power of today’s police culture, and the “anti-intellectualism” that has pervaded among police for years and which I identify in Arrested Development.

I first spoke about the “Seven Seeds of Policing” at the annual PERF meeting in Washington, DC in 1993 shortly before my retirement.  My remarks were subsequently published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, March 1994.  The “seven seeds” that needed to be sowed then (and now) were the seeds to grow leadership, knowledge, creativity, problem solving, diversity, force control, and community policing. I submit they are just as valid today as they were a quarter of a century ago. That remains a problem in and of itself.

Peter Drucker, the “father of modern management,” once said, “An organization begins to die the day it begins to be run for the benefit of the insiders and not for the benefit of the outsiders.” Isn’t this part of today’s problem? Do police agencies run on behalf of the citizens they serve? Isn’t there more talk more about the officers and what they need rather than what the community might need? These two interests do not have to be mutually excluded.

So, what does every person need to know who has the lawful power to arrest another person and authorized to use force in doing so?

I would submit that every police officer must know the foundational values for policing a democracy and the philosophic values that influenced and moved our Founders to write a Declaration of Independence, the Constitution (including the first ten amendments, our Bill of Rights), and to remember that policing is not solely the business of enforcing laws. If law enforcement is the primary job of police, then this function can more effectively be done by a robot! Within the next decade we (or the Chinese) will have created artificially intelligent robots to do just that.  A robot that will have the capacity to view and respond to a public offense, identify the offender, and take enforcement action such as warn, cite, or arrest. We should expect our police officers to be much more than this; to explain, inform, protect, and counsel — actions that I hope remain far beyond that which a machine can do.

So, what do we need to teach our police? What foundational knowledge do they need to operate fairly and effectively in free country such as ours?

  1. Defend and know our Constitution and our founding values as a nation. Ensure those rights to each and every person.
  2. Understand the uniqueness of policing a democracy and why Sir Robert Peel issued the following Nine Principles to the first governmental police in a free society more than 150 years ago. And especially, why these Principles are still vitally important (not just the “what” of the principles, but the “why”).
  3. Be honest, fair, just, respectful and emotionally controlled while carrying out police duties.
  4. Practice Procedural Justice to a high degree in all interactions with others (including how administrative actions taken within the police agency).
  5. Thorough implementation and practice of community-oriented and problem-oriented policing department wide. No exceptions. No programs. No special officers. Just do it!
  6. Implement the practice of Peer Intervention and create a new subculture so that good officers no longer have to stand by and watch other officers do bad things. No more letting bad cops act in ways that violate the law and/or department policy; the behaviors that tarnish the badge of all police).
  7. Abile to work with community members on a thorough and agreed-upon use of force policy that also addresses use of physical force in situations which require responding to persons who are mentally ill or emotionally disturbed, but do not possess a firearm.
  8. Develop police leaders who are collaborative, trained in systems improvement, and are effective “servant leaders” committed to the growth of their employees in accordance with the Principles of Quality Leadership or its equivalent. [See also “Quality Leadership: The First Step Toward Quality Policing” and this checklist, “Are You a Quality Leader?”]

The Question before is how do we capture the policing knowledge of an era that soon will be lost? (We have already seen the deaths of Chiefs Joe McNamara and Bob DiGrazia and Gary Hayes, the first executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.)

I hope and pray that a national forum gets organized and those of us who led police reform during the critical, “Golden Years” will be able to share what we learned with each other and then share it with today’s and tomorrow’s police leaders.

This could be an important contribution to a much-needed body of knowledge.

Stay tuned…