There’s an old saying, “What goes around comes around.” Fifty years ago, our nation was engaged in a great struggle to force us to live up to our pledge of equality and rights for everyone. Sounds currently familiar?
I was a young police officer on the streets in Minneapolis during that great struggle. Those of us new to policing quickly learned on our beats that things needed to change; that we could no longer be Jim Crow in the north. Then there was the President’s Commission recommending community relations councils in which police and minority citizens would interact with one another and to establish police-community relations units. And, yes, there was their recommendation that all police have 4-year college degrees.
Race was a big issue in my city and among my police recruit class in which resided only the second police officer in city history who was not white. Many of us had to decide – would we be part of the problem or part of the solution? We chose the latter – we could no longer be silent. We could not longer engage in a system that was serving white people in our city at the expense of other city residents. Thanks to new legislation and Federal grants, we went to college. It changed our lives and the way we policed.
We banded together and formed a chapter of the national law enforcement fraternity, Lambda Alpha Epsilon, today it is called the American Criminal Justice Association. Many in that initial group got their degrees and went on to be police chiefs who were change agents. We started community projects with black youth. And we spoke out. We did not remain silent.
While doing an interview recently with Sam Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia and weekly columnist for The New York Times, I recalled the day I was called into the chief’s office after I had spoken out. I was about to get disciplined for a letter to the editor I had written about the race in Minneapolis.
Thankfully, my professors at the University of Minnesota came to my defense and the charges were dropped. The letter which my leaders thought was so volatile contained a pledge from my police fraternity brothers to “equal, fair law enforcement regardless of… race, color, or creed.”
This pledge is not unlike that which i call for in my recent blog “The Case For Apology.”
Looking back, I read what I had written in1967. Yes, it has all come around again. But will today’s police speak out. Could they make the same pledge?
Here is the text of that letter I wrote so many years ago. It was published in the Jan. 1, 1968 edition:
“To the editor: There has been much discussion of the presentation of police-Negro (sic) community relations on the Public Broadcasting Laboratory of KTCA_TV, channel 2, on Dec. 17.
“The program was designed to explore police-Negro relationships in a number of major American cities. However, the program more clearly illustrated the sociological process called ‘polarization,’ in which two major opposing factions in society draw and split into two separate camps.
“The danger lies in that there remains no choice of a neutral middle ground for a person to objectively explore the situation. Everyone is forced to make a choice, either ‘them’ or ‘us.’ This impending polarization of our society is a threatening sign and indicative of the many complex social problems we have. They can be considered warning signs to a democratic government.
“Within this entanglement of social problems stand the nation’s police. However, the men who represent law enforcement that Sunday were, as a group, much to be desired and were not representative of today’s young, professional police officer. It is this police officer who will be making the important command decisions in the very near future.
“Those of us who consider ourselves as professional law enforcement officers are very disturbed by the impending polarization of society. We recognize our role as representatives of government, but we also realize we have a duty to represent the Constitution of the United States. We recognize our fundamental duty is to serve mankind as set forth in our Code of Ethics.
“We recognized and understand the Negro’s struggle through history, his emergence today, and his longtime distrust of the police. We suggest that police officers and Negroes might change their attitudes by first changing their behavior towards one another. We are all slaves of our ignorance and prejudices , but racism, prejudicial attitudes, or even stereotypes have no place in any American community.
“Today’s police hope that the Negro community realizes that the police are professionalizing, particularly through college and technical training programs. We realize that education is the key to our advancement. We have not been the cause of poverty, housing segregation, educational problems, or occupational difficulties that has plagued the Negro. However, we professional police officers can pledge equal, fair law enforcement regardless of a man’s race, color, or creed. May this be a public pledge of good law enforcement to our community, Minneapolis.”
- What do you stand for?
- For what are you willing to speak out?