As baseball legend Yogi Berra once declared, “It’s deja vu all over again.” I am feeling the same thing — it IS deju vu all over!
The deja vu for me is this: It’s time for police to change. I say this having now over a half-century of working in and observing police in America. You may not agree with me, but you should listen and decide whether what I have to say it helpful or not.
In Arrested Development, I tell the story of the wagon masters who led our nation’s settlers west. It was a mid-career time for me, in which I was trying to determine which way the department needed to go — where was I going to lead them?
“During this time, an image came to me. It was that of the wagon trains which carried homesteaders west during the 19th century. On their journey, they had to cross oceans of virgin prairie. When approaching this sea of grass, the wagon master would intentionally stop the wagon train, stand on top of one of the wagons, then look, and listen. He would scan the horizon, then get down and put his ear on the ground. He looked and listened for signs of danger. He looked for telltale smoke of a deadly prairie fire raging through the high grass. He listened for the sound of a stampeding herd of bison that could capsize and crush the wagon train and cause injury or even death to those in his care. Good wagon masters did this because they needed information in order protect those who followed him. I found myself in the same place mid-career…”
In the 60s, I thought the handwriting was on the wall for police was to open up our ranks to women and minorities, improve our training, and move closer to the people we served. As a new chief, I wanted to make the changes and not have them forced upon me by either a disgruntled community or the courts. So, I listened and together we decided to make changes. And, looking back, they were all for the good.
I see the same thing going on today 50 years later: the need for organizational diversity and real community-oriented policing. But there’s now an additional and highly emotional issue: we need to stop the killing. There is no way I can play-down this important need today within our nation’s police.
Again, the hand-writing is on the wall: in the recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, in the numerous and tragic YouTube videos, and in the anger and grief we hear from black America.
Now you can hunker-down, hope the crisis blows over and wait. But if you do, you will be at the mercy of an angrier community who will eventually force you to change. Perhaps they will force changes upon you that you will not like and will negatively affect your relationship with those you serve for years to come — perhaps you will be never be trusted again. This is not a preferable future.
Here’s my prescription for you:
- Listen to those whom you serve — all of them.
- Make a commitment to review and restrict your use of force — and most especially deadly force.
- Tell the community what and why you are doing it.
- Ask their support and help.
- Practice restraint, control your biases, de-militarize, teach your officers de-escalation and other methods of managing conflict, and
- Start policing at the neighborhood level – get closer, much closer, to those you serve.
Will this not create a more preferable future for you and those whom you lead?
- As a leader, your job is to be the wagon master: deeply listen, anticipate needed changes, make them, and lead the men and women you are privileged to lead into a safer and more preferable future.