Is Improving Police an Impossible Task?

Scan-3.BMP            In 1960,  when I first pinned on a badge, I was a “college cop”—on the beat at night and in class during the day. That experience changed my life. By the end of the decade, I was chosen to lead the police department in Madison, Wisc.—a cultural epicenter of that time. For over 20 years, I worked to make sure the department would help lead the change that I was sure was going to happen in America. I brought college-educated women and minorities into a police department consisting primarily of high-school-educated white males, dismantled an extensive police spying system, and repaired the acrimony between students, the minority community and my officers. Soon, over half of the department had college degrees, one-quarter of the department was female, and over 10 percent were officers of color. Along the way, we developed a method to respond to hundreds of public protests without resorting to violence.

            Today, most police seem to be ignoring the vast racial and cultural changes that occurred in our nation and what has been learned. Since September 11, 2001, we have been a nation gripped in fear. The shooting death of Trayvon Martin and surveillance of Muslim-Americans are two sad examples along with the growing militarization of our nation’s police before our very eyes.

The stop and frisk and racial profiling controversies ought to be in themselves enough to make my point. But there are other more discomforting police matters at hand—corruption, excessive use of force, manipulating crime statistics, mishandling those who choose to publicly dissent, and stonewalling the media. The list continues as our nation’s police chiefs fail to lead their officers and citizens out of this morass.

Our nation does not need police with a military mindset. That is not the way forward. I spent four years on active duty in the Marines, and I can tell you that I had to change my thinking when I joined the police—soldiers protect nations, police protect rights. There’s a big difference. In fact, close police-military relationships can quickly divert police from their mission of peacekeeping and rights protection. This is obvious when we account for the equipment our police possess today— masks that hide identity, fully-automatic weapons, grenade launchers, and armored personnel carriers.

The job of our police is to gain both our respect and support. And that is what assures safe streets. But as Robert Peel, who established the founding principles of democratic policing over 150 years ago, wryly noted, the level of public support of the police is inversely related to the amount of force they use.

The lesson to be learned is that physical force by police in a democracy must always be used cautiously and minimally—even on the bad guys. This has recently been highlighted by the way in which many of our nation’s police departments have responded to the Occupy protesters. How well (and restrained) police handle Constitutionally-protected protest is really the hallmark of police in any democratic society. On top of all this there is the seemingly never-ending problem of police corruption. Police have been reluctant or unable to police themselves and are overly resistant to transparency and openness with citizens and media who serve as our watchdogs. Whether the corrupt act in question is to get a bad guy off the street or to line their own pockets it is still corruption by police and must never be tolerated.

What needs to be done? Four major and historical obstacles exist today which prevent our police from getting better. Each one needs to be dismantled. The first is the attitude of anti-intellectualism; from the failure to require police applicants to have a broad, four-year liberal arts education to distaining research. The second is the haste to use force when trying to solve a problem. The third is on-going personal and systemic corruption. The fourth obstacle is blatant discourtesy towards not only toward persons arrested, but also those who are victims, witnesses, members of the media, and bystanders.

Police can be improved. Here’s how: overcome the four obstacles, select the best and brightest to serve, listen to what they and the community have to say, train and lead them collaboratively and respectfully, continuously improve all systems of work, honestly survey “citizen-customers,” evaluate progress, and work to sustain the effort. In less than a decade, the Madison department was transformed into an organization which became more diverse, competent, restrained, and community-oriented. It remains so today.

It’s about time we in America started thinking about what’s happening to our nation’s police and do something about it. If you’re white, middle class and don’t drive a car, the likelihood of meeting police face-to-face is slim. But when you do, or your children are confronted, don’t you expect police to be law-abiding, well-trained, restrained, respectful? If we don’t do something soon, there is more at stake than losing our dignity.