Talking to Future Cops

UnknownWhat are criminal justice students thinking about today?

Here are some question I received from students attending the 4-year degree program at the University of Wisconsin in Platteville yesterday. I have inserted my abridged responses. (Thanks to my friend, Nino Amato for asking me to discuss modern policing with his students):

  • Trust has been broken. Is it too late to resolve mistrust issues in our society? Can we honestly rebuild lost trust in our neighborhoods? No, it’s not too late. It will take honesty, transparency and time, but trust can be regained with a recommitment to protect and safeguard lives – all lives. This is what police must do and do now.
  • How do police regain respect and trust after all the deadly force incidents that have taken place across the country? As I said, it will be slow and hard work. One police contact at a time that reinforces eac citizen’s belief that police are controlled, respectful, and competent can make a huge difference if done day after day after day.
  • Is there room for improving the police use of force model currently being used? Yes. But therein lies the problem. It is extremely difficult to look outside the systems in which a person works.  The current practice must be replaced by a questioning attitude of “how can this system be  improved?” Police must work with the community to put policies and practices in place that reduce significantly or eliminate the use of deadly force — that is, improve things. Not to do so as soon as possible will be a disaster in which our nation’s police may never recover. What we will be left with is a police seen as not being for the people, but only for those who have status and wealth.
  • What training is not being made available for police that should? Training should be more strongly focused on managing and reducing conflict, having a better response to those mentally ill without having to use deadly force, higher development of inter-personal relational skills, and how to gain support of, and work with, community members.
  • Why do your believe that “community policing” has been hijacked? Why is “neighborhood policing” better? Few departments totally practice community-oriented policing (I will add that additional term, “oriented”). Instead, it has been a program — not a way of doing business. I chose the term “neighborhood policing” because it is at that level that police should begin to deliver collaborative services. Smaller and closer are better.
  • How will police academies and departments train officers to become closer to the people? It must begin with recruitment and selection; that is to find and hire smart, educated, mature men and women who have an understanding that the job of police in a modern society is to serve, to respect others, to be controlled in the use of force, and to guard and protect lives.
  • How did you get the people inside the police department to go along with the reform you were trying to put in place? What were your major challenges? How did you handle them? A big question (have you read Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off..? It’s all there). But, in short, changing police is all about having a vision of excellence, passion, persistence, involving others, listening, and understanding that change takes a long time and that if you, as a leader, “walk your talk,” are honest and authentic with your employees, people will follow.
  • Do you believe that the Madison police have the opportunity to lead the country in policy reform in order to combat the rampant use of deadly force? The Madison tradition is that we teach other police agencies what we have learned; that we pursue excellence. Just as Madison showed police throughout the country how to respond to protest in The Madison Method, the department today can show how others how to reform police policy, training and use of deadly force. That should be their mission.
  • Does this reform offer an opportunity for women police to play a larger role? Looking at the data (and what you see on YouTube and see in the news), few women police are involved in using deadly force. Why is that? What can we learn organizationally from them? Why do women seem to be more effective in handling aggressive and unruly persons? What do they do that men don’t? We men must realize that testosterone is an internal drug whose reaction is more often than not in need of careful monitoring and control.
  • How do police emotionally handle what they see and do on a day-to-day basis? This is something I have been greatly concerned about – the emotional life of police. After I left policing, I had a year residency in Clinical Pastoral Education in which I worked in a small therapy group processing my past and what I was experiencing in the hospital in which I worked as a chaplain.  A  hospital  is a setting in which there is a lot of pain, loss and death. For me, my police past consisted of decades of shutting down emotionally and burying the grief I experienced (particularly during my time in Minneapolis when I was a member of an underwater recovery unit and recovered far too many drowned children). Police need healthy opportunities to process their grief and fears – going to a bar after work is not one of them. Police need hobbies, friends who are not cops, a quest for self-improvement, and being able to accept that going to therapy or counseling is okay. Police leaders must be concerned about the mental health of their officers and be openly supportive of counseling and therapy in times of stress, loss and grief. Cops need to be healthy in body, mind, and spirit in order to do the best job and still have a life outside police and be effective spouses, parents, friends and members of the community.
  • Should cops have 4-year college degrees and why? Forty-six years ago, I was chief of a suburban city south of Minneapolis. The city manager and I implemented a 4-year, baccalaureate degree requirement. It is still in effect today and Burnsville, Minn. is one of the “one-percenters” in American policing — those cities that require a baccalaureate degree. In Madison, I strongly suggested applicants have such a degree, but we had an educational incentive program that paid 18% on top of their salary for a 4-year degree and 21% for a master’s degree. That’s incentive and today almost every Madison officer has at least a 4-year degree. I have always championed for increased educational requirements for police. It simply made sense to me. Personally, with a college education, I think I became a better cop and leader. Policing is a difficult and demanding job that needs smart, educated men and women to do it. They need to know the “big picture;” who we are as a people and how we got here. They have to be educated because they have to lead, understand research, and most of all, understand, and have a heart for, people.

Thanks for inviting me today. You have asked me some good questions. It shows you are thinking. It is a tough time now for the nation’s police. Real change only comes from the inside out — leaders who improve things. Each one of you can be that kind of leader. Good luck — study hard — serve honorably!


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