I am usually a happy and hopeful person. I tried to demonstrate enthusiasm and a hopeful spirit during my life and leadership. When I retired from policing, I sincerely thought my generation had left behind a system of policing that would continuously improve and sustain itself over the years – that excellence was in our cross-hairs!
I was wrong.
When I witnessed the lack of enthusiasm among my older colleagues following the release of President Johnson’s Task Force on Police in 1967, and the Kerner Commission’s stinging analysis of crime and violence in America a year later, I thought the negativity of those with whom I worked could be overcome and we, new to policing — a New Breed — would overcome the old and tired organizational thinking that enveloped us. We believed we could move the practice of policing forward with our education and enthusiasm.
In my early days (just like today), relations with people of color were at best poor, even in the northern cities where many of us worked. While we didn’t know what to do about public protest, we knew that what we were doing was not working. When we became leaders, we thought we could do better. But we knew that in order to do this we had to work very closely with the community — everyone in the community. While we were solidly white and male we were determined to change this untenable situation and the driving force behind this “radical” thinking was the reports of those two national commissions in the late 1960s.
My generation’s attempt to solve these problems put us on the improvement track: we became better able to handle crowds and protest, brought women into the ranks, pursued community-oriented policing, and were committed to fielding a police organization that was better educated, highly trained, diverse, and able to continually improve.
And yet some things still are not working.
Where I hope to find progress, continuous improvement, respect for the dignity and worth of all people, restraint in using force, collaboration with citizens in solving problems, and mature police leaders, I find many departments and police leaders still not on board — some police and union leaders even resist these improvements.
I fear it is a dangerous laissez-faire attitude in many police agencies that has been sustained by isolation, secrecy, and a history of avoiding accountability. It is an attitude of maintaining, at all costs, the status quo – “if it was good enough yesterday, it’s good enough for today.” For all the acts of which heroic self-sacrifice police are capable, their fear of change and the future freezes mediocrity in place.
What can we learn from the past? The latter 1960s was a time of President Johnson’s vison of a Great Society; a society in which America’s treasured civil rights would be enjoyed by those who have been historically excluded — African-Americans.
At the same time there was this matter of an unpopular war in Vietnam fed by a military draft. We were told we could we have both “guns and butter;” fight a war and expand civil rights. The war and the struggle for civil rights at home pitted ill-prepared police against often violent protesters. Yet many of us new to police leadership saw this as a challenge – an opportunity to be better and do better.
When age caught up with us, when we “ended our watch,” the torch we hoped to pass was not well-received. Other matters became more important – that fateful day in September, 2001 and a decade-long war.
Life in policing became too simple, new police technologies, armament and firepower made it look even easier. The community, frightened by the prospect of another terrorist attack, was not asking for police transparency or accountability.
It now was an age of high tech policing — personal radios, high-capacity firearms, electronic control devices, body armor, enhanced communications, and few, if any, challenges to the direction police were headed.
Up until the event at Ferguson, police had a lot of trust-currency in their bank account. Life was good for police. Crime was down. Police use of deadly force was always justified by local prosecutors working with investigators from the officer’s agency.
During this period, a slow, but dramatic shift occurred in the attitude of our police. Some have called it a shift from being guardians to that of being military-like warriors. How that happened can be debatable — that it occurred, the militarization of our nation’s police, cannot.
So police began to strengthen and demonstrate their warrior image – military dress and armament. Shouldn’t a warring nation, beset by the threat of terrorists, have a warrior police? Then came anti-terrorism training, increased armament, armored personnel carriers, more use of SWAT in daily police operations, and a focus on resolving all threatening acts with firearms, and putting de-escalation and conflict management training on the back shelf.
Within a decade, American police moved from being like Sheriff Andy of Mayberry to Robocop. That is, until the summer of 2014 in a suburb of St. Louis called Ferguson.
That week, a nation woke up and queried on the internet and national news sources, “What happened to our police?”
This question was loudly answered by a flood (tsunami may be a better word) of cellphone videos posted on the internet. To most observers, they were shocking. To those among us who were of color, it was terrifying. Did Jim Crow rise from the dead?
There was the deaths of Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Laquan McDonald by police. To many viewers, they were crimes. Although the nation did not see the actual death of Michael Brown, the after-event images of him lying in the street, blood ebbing into pavement and the response of the St. Louis County SWAT team became a part of our history.
And it picked away at our racial past. “Don’t the lives of black people matter?
When the Ferguson story began to unwind, there were a few police-involved shooting videos on YouTube. Two years later, there were thousands with many of them viewed over a million times!
The impact of this created a new public image of police in America — that police were racist, overly militarized, disrespectful, quick to use force, and lied in their reports – in short, police were beginning to be seen as violent, unpredictable and untrustworthy! Too many police dash and body cameras along with citizen videos of these uncomfortable events cemented this image image in the minds of many in America.
All of a sudden, the public started asking questions about the number of deaths caused by police. They found there was no such national collection or repository. A nation that daily tracks the performance of its economy was not able to track citizen deaths at the hands of their police. Then citizen groups independently started counting these deaths and they far-exceeded what police were reporting which added more fuel to a growing fire.
Today, there are still no mandatory reporting requirements for police homicides. We have no national baseline, specific accounts, or information as to who is being shot and killed, when, and under what circumstances. How can we ever know if we are improving if we never know where the starting line is?
Our nation attempted to respond to this crisis as we have done in the past; that is, the President calls for an inquiry to investigate and make recommendations. President Obama did just that. He called together a task force of police and community experts and asked them to investigate and report. Within a year, a report was published. Soon after, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a group of educated police chiefs from our nation’s larger cities, addressed a very specific problem in their guidelines on the use of police deadly force.
Now a year has passed, the task force, under the auspices of the federal COPS program in the Department of Justice (DOJ), issued a report on the progress that occurred the initial recommendations were made.
Reading this report left me nearly depressed. Remember, I am basically a happy and hopeful person, because it appeared to me that so little that has been accomplished. I had expected much more.
If the recommendations of the task force, and those recommended by PERF, are not fully and actively implemented on a national basis in the very near future, I fear policing will remain in its state of mediocrity with occasional sluggish, begrudged, and unsustained improvements.
I write this from a long perspective; a perspective of five decades of either leading police or discerning and commenting on them. There are only a few of us from my generation still engaged in actively seeking the improvement of policing in America.
So let me say this to young, aspiring police leaders: I ask you to lead with your values and do the right things for the right reasons. People matter and what you do is essential to a free society. Godspeed.
Wonderful article but when it comes to supporting police they will do it even when its wrong and murder is involved… I feel your disappointments and add them to the many I have experienced, seeking a positive change for the officer in uniform and for the public safety & security.
When, if we haven’t got there yet, the people loose confidence in police officers and police forces there will be a war in our streets.
Police officers think by hurting people to get their way in controlling all situations will be publicly to their advantages forever but that is not really the truth is it.
This was an excellent post very insightful.
Thanks, trying to get a handle on what’s happened to our police and a way forward.
I absolutely love reading what you write.
You are a very good researcher and a very concerned caring former Police Officer and Police Chief who really doesn’t half to write but who wants to better of society. You are the real thing.
In your work remember one thing.
You are not responsible for the outcome, just the message.
The Moses of the Bible went to the greatest leader of the known world with a simple message, that never changed, “let my people go” and Jeremiah went to the King of Israel with a similar message to do something about what was going on in Israel at the time or God would punish them but in both cases the leaders did not obey the cautions or the warnings to do what was right in God’s sight so judgement followed.
The upper class were held at a higher level of accountability but in both cases the poor were spared…. which brings us to Jesus, Martin Luther King, Gandhi and etc. and etc. and etc…
For those of us who remember these stories know what happened in the end God always wind’s.
Your time and work is greatly appreciated, is needed and will surely live on….
John Bradshaw who wrote on the Family years ago said one thing that stuck with me; It’s possible that all the birds are flying in the wrong direction. In Moses time, in Jeremiah’s time, in Jesus’ time, in Gandhi’s time and in Martin Luther King’s time all the birds were flying in the wrong direction as is the case today. They believed they were right and failed to heave the warning to change but change came anyways at they own perils…. keep plowing the message, sow those mercy seeds and the harvest/victory will surely happen… okay!
Police recruiting/hiring, academy training, field training and supervision appear to have largely failed to evolve in a manner consistent with developing constitutionally-centered critical thinking officers. This pervasive culture may be organizationally generational in nature which may only delay the implementation of new strategies for years.
“It is not necessary to have hope in order to undertake an endeavor, nor to be successful in order to persevere.” William of Orange
Much has been written about the converging roles of military and police. The topic is more widely written about in the professional military and international affairs literature. There seems to be a higher level of discomfort over this phenomenon in policing spheres than in the military. I believe the military’s greater comfort comes from a more highly developed organizational capacity for adaptation, which has evolved to its current state due to a higher quality of leadership. Police organizations in America are at most only superficially like America’s military, and that is perhaps the real problem. Rather than pull away we need to draw more closely to America’s military organizational model.
Police do not know how to “do” military and thus is appears as an uncomfortable parody to many citizens.
It’s not really “do” military. Both are hierarchical organizations – vestiges of the industrial revolution/scientific management. The military has been able to refine that model better than any other type of organization. Most police organizations are incapable of cascading values, purpose, and mission from the top to the bottom.
In my classes I often ask police leaders this question: “If I encounter one of your officers today at the convenience store and ask that officer, ‘what is your mission today?’ what will I hear?” The odds are good I won’t hear a response like this: “Well sir ,as you can see I have a bike on the rear of my patrol car. I’m grabbing some Gatorade before I get on my bike. We have a day time residential burglary problem in a nearby subdivision and I’ll be riding my bike around looking for a list of truants from a nearby middle school who might be involved.” Or is the truth that the officer is just “answering calls and staying out of trouble.”
Mark. I have military background also — Marines for 10 yrs of active and reserve. What I was trying to say was this: I noticed over the years with my officers was that although they too have served, they know little or nothing about how the military was currently operating — particularly with regard to diversity, higher education and mission-drive. So what I tended to see was an old military model indelibly printed which was not that day’s military, but one they experienced years ago had little knowledge of with which they had not kept up.
Here something you should have a look at;
Nice site. And some very good leadership advice. Thanks!
You’re reference to Ferguson as the beginning of the flood of police brutality/murder videos on YouTube is wrong, in 2011 after the murder of Kelly Thomas by “Officer” Ramos and 5 other cops I found literally thousands of videos by searching “police brutality”. I do agree that at the time of Ferguson more people, all kinds of people, became aware of the problem. But the real problem, is accountability, until we get rid of POBAR, and treat all cops that commit crimes, or are suspected of crimes, the same as the average citizen, until all cops stop protecting other cops, i.e. give them the traffic tickets, arrest them for DUI don’t drive them home, arrest them for spousal or child abuse don’t ignore it, don’t assume they’re innocent and ignore or round file a citizens complaint of brutality, nothing is going to change. Until departments start hiring the brightest and best rather than claiming they do, nothing is going to change. Get rid of nepotism. Get politics out of the process.