Should Cops Be Compassionate?

This week, James E. Causey, a columnist with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote about an interview he had with a retired Milwaukee detective entitled, “When Cops Become Jaded.” It was refreshing to read that Causey had brought to the public’s attention a problem that I think besets most of our nation’s police and needs some action.

The problem is this: Someone dies in the custody of, or being apprehended by, police. The public questions the police. The police claim (and that claim is often supported by the district attorney and eventually the court) that police acted legally and properly.

During this time, police often resist releasing reports of the incident and refuse to talk to media representatives. Rumors abound. And the affected community and others become outraged as to what they believe to be the uncaring response of the police. After all, a person has died! Doesn’t anyone care? And when one part of the community is mistrusting and suspicious of the police, angry rhetoric is often followed by protests and acts of violence in which the police have to step in and use force again. The cycle repeats.

What is missing from this scenario is what both Causey and I know — compassion is the real issue. So, why can’t our public agencies, especially the police, show compassion and sorrow when someone dies as a result of their actions – whether proper or not? I think it would go a long way if they could.

Perhaps you are thinking that cops need to be firm, not compassionate. But can they be both? I think they can. And every one of us who has raised children knows this to be true. Both are achievable.

A number of years ago, I wrote a chapter in the book, Exploring Forgiveness, edited by Robert Enright and Joanna North. In it, I made the argument that institutions can both be forgiven and seek forgiveness – that is, they can demonstrate compassion. The story I told in the book was personal. It was about an officer of mine who made an insensitive remark about a fire at a housing project. The media found out about it. The housing project was the location of many police calls and confrontations there. This remark was made even more volatile when it turned out that a number of children had died in the fire.

As the chief of police, what was I to do? Many elected officials in the community, including the mayor, called for her dismissal. People were outraged. I knew the officer, had hired her, and knew that although she had made a terrible mistake, she was worth trying to save. And she was deeply sorry for what she had said.

The plan which I worked out with the officer and her union representatives, was for the two of us to make a public apology. Leaders from the affected community agreed to meet with us and later a number of them publicly assembled to hear our apology. They listened to us and had questioneds. We worked out an offer for her to make restitution through service to the community and, in turn, the community representatives accepted our apology. They believed we were genuinely sorrowful (showed compassion) and we all moved forward without that violence that usually follows such an incident in many of our cities.

Now could that have happened without my department having deep and lasting roots within the community? A policing style that involved a strong affirmative action and hands-on neighborhood foot beats? Could this have happened without there being a large bank account in the community called “trust?” Probably not. But I maintain that compassion is worth exercising for all involved. It is worth doing and a police department will not get there unless they start right now overcoming their obstacles and working to listen to their communities and continuously improving that which they do.

Police leaders and their officers need to be integrated strongly with the community. Police cannot be seen as an outside para-military force to keep community members in line. Police officers need to police with consent of those affected if we are to ever have peace and safety in our cities. This begins when police are seen as compassionate and thoughtful actors in our urban landscape. When police overcome the four obstacles I identify in my book (see below): anti-intellectualism, violence, corruption, and discourtesy, they will then be able to move forward.

Today’s police officers must be educated, well-trained, restrained in their use of force, honest, and respectful to everyone they encounter. Their leaders must listen to and respectfully collaborate with them. That’s the bottom line. And citizens should not accept anything less. Building trust means to know what it is to walk in the shoes of another, to be thoughtful and compassionate to other human beings that we encounter in our daily work.

If we cannot achieve this, we are doomed to repeat our past mistakes again and again to the detriment of all of us.

[For more about what I am talking about read my new book Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police.]