A City, Police, and a Treacherous River

drowning hazardA Tale of a City, Police, and a Treacherous River

When I speak to groups about leadership and improvement methods I often use Don Ardell’s popular story “Upstream/Downstream: A Fable for Our Times” [i] to begin a discussion. It got me thinking again about our nation’s cities.

     Once upon a time, there was a city called Downstream. One day, Downstream came to realize that a number of people from Upstream were falling into the river and needed to be rescued. Now Downstreamers were kind and compassionate people. At first individual city residents would swim out and attempt to make a rescue, but they soon realized more needed to be done given the number of people now falling into the river. So the Downstreamers organized emergency teams, purchased fast rescue boats, constructed a tower to spot those coming down the river needing help, and built a hospital that was a leader in treating the respiratory problems of those rescued.

     Sadly, no matter what Downstreamers did, many of those who came from Upstream were lost. Then one day, a young man came into town and observed one of the Downstream emergency teams making a successful rescue. City residents told him about the kind and committed work they have done over the years. But sadly, in spite of their boats, the tower, and the hospital, many from Upstream were lost. Not all could be saved.

     That night the Downstream city council met and the young man attended. He had a question, “Why don’t you send someone Upstream to find out why so many people are falling into the river?” They wearily replied, “Yes, we have heard this question raised from time to time, but most folks around here show little interest in what’s happening Upstream. After all, there’s so much to do to help those in the river. No one’s got time to check out why those bodies are falling into the river up there.”

Are we Downstreamers? What is our river? Who is falling into it? What is preventing us from venturing Upstream? These are tough questions. But they are the ones we need to ask and resolve in our cities today.

The river I would like to address is racism. And it is deeply embedded, almost invisible, to those of us in the majority. After all, we are a kind, caring people aren’t we? Racism is terribly pernicious. It causes children to fall into rivers.

We are not racist? Well, here are the stunning facts: year after year only one-half of our black students graduate from high school and, for those that do, less than 10 percent of them are ready for college.

Add to this the growing and disproportionate rate of our mass incarceration of black youth in our nation’s prison systems. It makes me ashamed.

This has gone on far too long so that today most majority citizens expect and accept these tragic numbers. We say, “It’s just the way it is.” It may be, but it simply is not acceptable to me, nor should it be to you.

Let’s get real, sub-standard education plus absent (imprisoned?) fathers, and lack of necessary job skills result in little hope for the future. And the absence of hope and full participation in our society soon leads to deep emotional pain, a sense of worthlessness, depression, drug use, and, inevitably, contact with our criminal justice system.

Without a high school education and post-high school skills – trade or academic – youth of color are doomed to a life of under or unemployment; a life without hope, opportunity or dignity. In such a life, the seeds of crime are quickly sown and take root.

Years ago, I questioned our growing arrest rate of blacks in my city as well as their failure in our schools. I remember saying that one day we, as a society, will be held accountable for this. We can no longer arrest our way out of the social and educational problems in which we find ourselves nor ignore them.

We need to go Upstream and start trying out new, innovative, creative, and even experimental, risky ideas like the Chicago academy which has graduated from high school and sent to college 100 percent of its students during each of the past four years, intensive community-based corrections, and more restorative justice strategies.

I am now retired from policing. Yet I remain unsettled, even angry, about having done this “rescue work.” What if the mission of our cities and counties was clearly to go Upstream, find out why children were falling into the river, and then, together, doing something about it?

And by together I mean city, county, and school district elected officials, police chief, sheriff, superintendent of schools, other city and county department heads, rank and file practitioners, non-governmental leaders, and caring citizens from the community. All of us – together.

Not being able to save those children, I arrested them and put them in prison. That’s not right. It is time to fix the system and do it now.


[Note: a similar op-ed oriented to my city,Madison, Wisc. was published in The Captital Times on April 11, 2014. ]


[i] “Upstream/Downstream: A Fable for Our Times,” Don Ardell, 1975.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.