Points of Light

images-1In this weblog I have tried to set the stage for things necessary to build and maintain a democratic police. We do have a choice, we can continue along the path of militarization, polarization, and exclusion or we can begin to turn it around. A free and democratic nation that prizes education and personal development needs a police who are also free, democratic, education and committed to improving that which they do; that is, a police who reflect our nation’s values and its people.

I have attempted to discuss the need for reconciliation here (or as my friend and former colleague, Chief Noble Wray reminds me), we really need  to develop a process for redemption; that is, a way in which those who have offended may be forgiven and helped to move forward in their lives. Those of us who are a people of faith are familiar with the theology of redemption, but when it comes to our day-to-day lives, race relations, and politics, it is glaringly absent.

I don’t know how all this will work itself out. What I do know is that we need to bring together key police, civic, labor, and governmental leaders along with academicians to listen to one another and forge a way forward.

In the meantime, I was impressed by a couple of things I found in my quest for finding “points of light;” that is, examples of how we are already attempting to move forward to re-establish trust among police and people of color. Here’s three such points. And for those of you who follow this weblog, let me know about other places and events where you see this happening.


image“Since the Michael Brown shooting in August, [retired police chief] Noble Wray has traveled to Ferguson, Mo., several times as a member of a Justice COPS consulting team. They have worked with law enforcement personnel on the issue of implicit bias.

“’We were there to work with top command staff for the four agencies: Ferguson Police Department, the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department, State Patrol and the St. Louis Police Department,’ Wray said. ‘We had a group of them as well as citizen members. They were civil rights leaders, members of religious groups and others. They were in the room. Our goal was to, number one, start talking about what implicit bias is, what does it mean and how does it impact in the world of policing. Number two, we had them start working out a comprehensive plan as police and community as to how do you start working toward dealing with these directly’…

“‘This is not just a phenomenon with Ferguson,’ Wray emphasized. ‘One of the back stories with Ferguson is something that has taken place nationwide. In most metropolitan areas, you usually pay attention to the largest law enforcement agency. They get the attention in terms of recruitment and hiring and what are the policies and procedures regarding relations with the community. And the suburban agencies oftentimes go unnoticed… If you are in a uniform, [those stopped by police] are experiencing a law enforcement officer. I think what took place and is happening in Ferguson is they have been allowed to go under the radar. No one really focused on them.’

The time to focus on building relationships between the community and law enforcement is not during a crisis. It is when the relationship building is the only thing on the table.

“’Now, building relationships is expensive at times because you have to have officers out there willing to go to community meetings,’ Wray said. ‘But you also have to have officers who genuinely want to be there. People pick up on authenticity. They know who wants to be out there…

And with the relationship building comes empathy.

“’Part of what you learn and understand in policing is this idea of empathy,’ Wray said. ‘You must come with it to the job. And that takes understanding someone from their perspective. A lot of times in policing, we get so caught up in trying to do a very difficult job, be talk-oriented and focused on the investigation, that we will lose sight on our empathy. Do I understand what this woman is going through from her perspective? Those are the things that you do to build trust, to garner trust and build relationships, when you open yourself up to what that person is feeling and thinking and then you act on it. You can’t not act on it.’

“'[Ferguson is] going to have to start with new leadership as a chief of police,’ Wray emphasized. ‘As you watched during a time of crisis, you have to have the person in charge visible and there. He’s not visible. He’s not there… Number two, in terms of their political leadership, they are not active enough’…

“’I think the racial make-up of the department has been so prominent in the media, that is one of the first things that they are going to have to lay out and address… But they have to believe in this for the long haul. They’ve got to continue to remove the defensiveness. They have to be willing to take some risks. And like most of America, we’ve got to stop talking to be understood and start listening to understand.’

And most importantly, the African-American citizens of Ferguson are going to have to become civically engaged so that this doesn’t happen again.

“‘Anytime you have 67 percent of the population being African-American and 12 percent African-American voter turnout, that indictment took place years ago. You have to be more involved than that. Sixty-seven percent of the population and only 12 percent voter turnout? You have to get involved and engaged. You have to be politically involved. If there had been African-Americans on the city council, they would have actively been working on these issues…”

[Jonathan Gramling is editor and publisher of The Capital City Hues, where this column first appeared. It was reprinted Dec. 17, 2014 in Madison’s daily newspaper, The Capital Times.]

Read more HERE.


Another former Madison police leader, Cameron McLay recently was appointed to head the Pittsburgh Police Department. Here is an editorial: “Redefining police presence in Pittsburgh” from The Pitt News,the daily student newspaper of the University of Pittsburgh on Jan. 27, 2015 which addresses things Pittsburgh is trying to accomplish.


image“After a controversial 2014, the New Year reminded us that good cops are on our side. This realization came in the form of a simple cardboard poster held by Pittsburgh police chief Cameron McLay during Pittsburgh’s First Night parade. The sign read, ‘I resolve to challenge racism @ work. #EndWhiteSilence.’

“For his resolution, McLay received an unprecedented volume of backlash for his display. When the photo went viral, Howard McQuillan, Pittsburgh police union president, sent McLay an email voicing dissatisfaction, accusing McLay of calling the whole department racist, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

However, we should not misconstrue McLay’s speech as negative. The End White Silence group on Twitter originated to ‘create a world that is free of destructive white privilege and oppression,’ as CBS Pittsburgh reported. There is more to hail in McLay’s solidarity than to critique. His voice on institutional racism mirrors his noble mission as a police chief — namely, his focus on accountability…

“McLay noted that the ‘disparities in police arrest and incarceration rates that follow are not by design, but they can feel that way to some people in those communities.’ To negate this, McLay hopes to utilize surveys and other forms of research to document and reverse trends in disparate treatment of black citizens. ‘My job will be to close the gap between the police and the community,’ McLay said as he met the press.

“The main tenets of his platform as police chief, set in September, include restoring accountability, dispersing leadership, conducting community surveys and rebuilding confidence and pride in the police bureau…

“In the last two months, the compliance of police during multiple protests in Pittsburgh have highlighted officers’ tolerance and understanding. Rather than taking violent measures, they gave peaceful protesters the space they needed to express their viewpoints and exercise their First Amendment rights…

“So, McLay’s actions resonate as loudly as his words. Transparency in government should not be limited to politicians — police should be just as visible in community conversations.If the Pittsburgh police continue to exhibit growth as a bureau, it will strengthen ties between civilians and authority…”

Read the full editorial HERE.


The third point of light comes from the pen of Karl Bickel, a retired senior policy analyst within the Department of Justice’s COPS Office. Karl wrote an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun on Jan, 15, 2015 in which he identifies a major problem and a possible solution.


image“Restoration of a previous COPS Office training and technical assistance program conceived in the last century could advance the [President Obama’s] Task Force’s goal of building trust and confidence in our local police for the 21st century. We need to bring back the nationwide network of Regional Community Policing Institutes (RCPI).

“Developed in 1997, each RCPI was a partnership between the police, academia and a community based nonprofit organization. An atmosphere of trust and respect came naturally as the partners collaborated in their efforts to develop best practices and provide training and technical assistance to state, local and tribal law enforcement. But the RCPIs faded away one by one as COPS office budgets shrank and funding priorities changed.

“Today, the growing mistrust of local police in many of our communities calls for a restoration of the RCPIs, which are uniquely suited to address trust and confidence in police as a national priority… a wave of mistrust in our police has been sweeping the nation…

“While a wide variety of reforms are being for,, few mention the elephant in the room: a police subculture predicated on violence and the use of force. At a time when violent crime has been trending downward for decades and fewer officers have been feloniously killed, a hyper vigilance over officer safety and increased militarization of police departments have become prominent parts of the subculture.

“The number of officers feloniously killed in the line of duty has been in decline since the 1990s. The 27 officers feloniously killed in 2013 represent the lowest annual number since the 1960s. Though 2014 represented an increase, it will still be below the 10-year average.

The society we recruit our police officers from feeds on a steady diet of violence, in the news media, in crime dramas on TV, even children’s video games. Police recruits are trained in academies patterned after military boot camps, having been hired in the spirit of adventure instead of the spirit of service. They are indoctrinated into a subculture that sees itself at odds with the community it serves. Society characterizes their role in terms of fighting the war on crime, the war on drugs and now the war on terrorism.

“This has all contributed to a worsening of the negative aspects of the police subculture and widening the gulf between our police and the citizens they protect and serve…

“RCPIs were successful in bridging the gap between police and communities using collaborative training and technical assistance partnerships to address sensitive issues like racial profiling, ethics and integrity, cultural diversity and a variety of others while softening the rough edges of the police subculture.

Until we acknowledge and address the negative aspects of the police subculture, little substantive progress will be made in improving police community relations. The RCPIs can bring communities and their police together to solve problems and address quality of life issues while improving overall police community relations. It is time to bring back the RCPIs to help in the restoration of trust and confidence in our police.”

Read the entire op-ed HERE.



  1. Thanks David. Noble’s insights are so good, but I wanted to take issue with one aspect of his interview, in which he puts part of the Ferguson explanation on the fact that they’re not the big agency in the area and therefore went under the radar. I just read the long article in the New Yorker about Albuquerque, and one of their officers involved in shootings had been rejected by a neighboring smaller agency. Similarly, as I recall, one of the Cleveland officers in their recent tragic shooting of the 12-year-old had previously been let go by a neighboring smaller agency during probation because he just wasn’t performing well. And there’s all the chokehold business from the NYPD, our largest agency. So while it’s certainly true that a small suburban agency might fly under the radar and not be following best practices in any number of ways, I’m not sure it isn’t equally likely that the big agency in a metro area can get away with poor performance for years, maybe just because they’re bigger organizations that are harder to manage and lead.


    1. While I think we had the best officers when I was in Madison — that is; most applicants wanted to come first with us and then would take a suburban job if we didn’t hire them. Yet looking back, to my experience in the Minneapolis/St Paul area, the suburban departments often hired the best candidates… Certainly, Burnseville and Edina, and others in that are were prime examples.


      1. My experience too. Sometimes the big PD pays more than the suburban ones, but sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes the big PD has a poor reputation that drives really good candidates elsewhere. Sometimes the big PD’s civil service system is so slow and rigid that smaller agencies that are more agile can grab the better candidates quicker. I think it does vary regionally (and also over time) based on local factors. My pet peeve is the assumption or belief that bigger departments must be better — if that was true, NYPD would be the best, but …


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