Changing the Police

UnknownIs Changing Our Police Possible?

One of the questions that was asked of me by one young criminal justice student in Platteville was if I believed changing the police was possible? Being a hopeful person yet having some personal experience with implementing change during my tenure in Madison, I replied, “Yes, but…”

I have watched Madison politics and efforts to implement social change for over 40 years. Yet racial disparities and police arrests continue year after year after year. Those of us who are white and progressive are good at talk. We listen, we are compassionate, we groan with the oppressed – and then we hold study groups and meetings and talk and talk and talk. What doesn’t often happen is change. The years go by, we forget about the disparities thinking that our city is one of the best and things are certainly better for poor people and people of color than they are in nearby Milwaukee and Chicago. So little changes. We understand the issue. We talked about it and now we’re done.

Two recent important calls for change may be going the same way – the stunning and shameful “Race to Equity” report on the racial disparities in our own city and county, and a discussion of “justified anger” with regard to being black and living in Madison (by the way, you can most likely substitute your city here).

During the past four decades, I have witnessed at least three major efforts to “organize” Madison – all seemed to fail. Saul Alinksy no doubt weeps in his grave. I think I remember at least one community organizer lamenting that trying to organize Madison was like herding marshmallows – soft, mushy, and quick to agree with you. (See Alinsky’s “12 Rules for Radicals.”)

Brandi Grayson the co-founder of Madison’s “Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition” (YGB) may be getting it right. In a recent interview in “Madison Magazine,” Grayson tells us,“The point for YGB is to shake things up. To make people aware, to start the dialogue.” She may be getting it right because agitation, in her term, “active disruption,” seems to work. It’s irritating to the community and even has biblical roots in its success (see below).

“Every revolutionary movement that affected change came from… people who were not afraid to shake things up,” she said. “I don’t have time to continue the same conversation we have had for thirty years.” So the YGB movement is now putting tension (disruption) on Madison such as the city had not experienced since the anti-war days in which protestors used a tactic of continuous agitation until the government fixed itself by ending the Vietnam war.

Now to the police. Throughout the country I sense police are hunkering down; that is, laying-low, unsure of what to do, and make no comment that might somehow validate the crisis in which they now find themselves. What we might hear on occasion from police leaders is that when a deadly shooting occurs involving an unarmed person, they respond with legal boilerplate defense given them by the USSC in Graham v. Connor. That decision basically said that an outsider cannot evaluate what is going through the mind of a police officer. So if that officer feared for his or her life, the use of deadly force is justified. They called it “objective reasonableness.” This may be what police can legally do, but should they? Is it a moral choice?

On the other hand, what I hear is that various communities representing the mentally ill, people of color, and other advocates for civil rights is that the current practice is unacceptable and police must find other ways to respond and stop killing unarmed persons.

What the police are defending is their system of using deadly force based on Graham v. Connor, not on the wishes of the community.

When this sort of impasse occurs between police and the community, I immediately recall what Sir Robert Peel said 150 years ago when he and others formed the first democratic police force in London and issued nine principles of policing for their officers.

Principles two through four are certainly relevant to today’s argument:

  1. The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions.
  1. Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observation of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
  1. The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force (my emphases.)

To me, it is crystal clear what must happen — and happen NOW. Our nation’s police must look to their use of force system and change it so that it no longer produces deaths of unarmed persons. Period.

Police can no longer fall back on Graham v. Connor as their LEGAL defense in using deadly force. Instead, they must do the right thing which is to operate morally. And that means CHANGING THE SYSTEM because it is no longer acceptable to blame police officers who are, unfortunately, only following how they have been trained and led.

If this is not done, then citizens should take action and that action may very well be what Toni Grayson is calling for, “active disruption” and agitation of the community until the system is changed and the killing stops.

By the way, this is not just about Madison, it is about America itself.


* Parable of the Persistent Widow. In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!” (Luke 18:2-5).