“Mediocre: of only ordinary or moderate quality; neither good nor bad; barely adequate.”
When I retired, I sincerely thought that my generation had left behind a system of policing a that would continuously improve and sustain itself over the years and would come to bridge that gap.
I was wrong.
When I witnessed the lack of enthusiasm among my 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 the following year, I thought my fellow officers’ negatively could be overcome and we would become a New Breed of police officers and overcome the old and tired police thinking in which we worked. I had hoped that we would move the field of policing forward with our education, creativity, 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 or racial animosity, we thought that we could learn to do better.
We knew we had to work closely with our communities, and, while we were solidly white and male then, we were determined to change this untenable situation. What initially moved us was the reports of those two national commissions.
My generation’s attempt to solve these problems put us on track, good and bad, to where most of policing is today: better able to handle crowds and protest, pursuing community-oriented policing, and fielding police who are educated, better trained, and more diverse and no so good at controlling use of force, doing REAL community-oriented policing, and bridging the gap.
Where I hope today to find progress, continuous improvement, respect for the dignity and worth of all people, restraint in using force, and collaboration with citizens in solving problems, I find a lack of approachability and buy-in among our nation’s police leaders. As for today’s New Breed, I do not hear their voices — yet.
This silence and inaction can result in a dangerous laissez-faire police attitude sustained by isolation, secrecy, opaqueness, and avoidance of accountability. It is also can create an attitude of maintaining, at all costs, the status quo – “if it was good enough yesterday, it’s good enough today… What is, is good enough!”
For all the acts of self-sacrifice police are capable of, their fear of change and its future fossilizes these old, tired attitudes and keeps the police service from getting better — the dis-ease of mediocrity.
The end of the 1960s was a time for President Johnson’s vison of the Great Society; a society in which America’s treasured civil rights would be enjoyed by all, regardless of the color of their skin. There was still a war going on in Vietnam, and many asked, “Could we have both ‘guns and butter?” “Could we wage a foreign war and have the money repair centuries of inequality and racism?”
Nevertheless, the anti-war movement set the stage to pit ill-prepared police against violent protesters with mostly bad results. Yet many of us new to police leadership took this to be a challenge – an opportunity to get better and do better — police can and will protect individual civil rights like the right to protest — and when talking replaced fighting, good results occurred.
When we completed our “tour of duty,” the torch we hoped to pass seemingly lost its brightness and went out. Some would say it got misplaced. This occurred not because what we were doing didn’t work, but because it had worked too well — that is until September 11, 2001.
Until this time, life in policing was good and new police technologies made it look even better without anyone feeling thneed for public accountability – after all, no one was asking, right?
This period was an advent of personal radios, high-capacity firearms, body armor, enhanced communications, and few, if any, challenges. Crime was dropping at a staggering rate, weren’t we all getting along better and the, albeit, lip-service to “community policing” working?
In short, the doldrums of the 1980s and 90s enabled police to put a great amount of trust-currency in the bank.
After September 11, 2001, following by a decade-long war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a slow, but dramatic shift occurred in the attitude of our police. Some have called it a shift from thinking and acting like “guardians” to that of “warriors.” It was a particular “attitude.” How that happened may be debatable; that it occurred cannot.
So police began to strengthen and demonstrate this “attitude’ – military dress, tactics, and armament. Shouldn’t a warring nation, beset by the daily threat of terrorism, have a warrior police?
More militarization was to come: anti-terrorism training, increasing armament, more use of SWAT in day to day operations, and the warrior-like training with regard to firearms and use of force and not much on avoiding conflict and ways to de-escalate.
Within a decade, American police moved from being Sheriff Andy of Mayberry to Robocop. Then came Ferguson in the summer of 2014 and America woke up asking as they continue to ask, “What’s happened to our police?”
This was answered by a flood (tsunami may be a better word) of cellphone videos which captured the most questionable and egregious of police behaviors – Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Laquan McDonald became shared experiences across the nation.
Although the nation did not see the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the after-event images of his body lying in the street, and the pointed rifles of the county SWAT team, soon became part of this shared experience along with another question – Why don’t black lives matter?
When the Ferguson story began, there were a few police-involved shooting videos on YouTube. Two years later, there are thousands upon thousands of them with many having over a million views. We were truly in a new era.
This new era can be described as imaging police in America as racist, militarized, disrespectful, quick to use force against people of color, and unaccountable – and on top of that they were unpredictable and untrustworthy!
Week after week, and now year after year, thousands of videos exist on line which verifies this new image. In many regions of the country, and especially among young blacks, there is little or no trust in police.
All of a sudden, the public began asking questions about the number of deaths caused by police and they found there was no such repository. A nation that daily tracks its economy and job creation was unable to track deaths at the hands of their police. This resulted in citizen and media groups independently counting these deaths and they far-exceeded what police were reporting.
Today, there are still no mandatory reporting requirements. We have no national baseline or specific information as to who is being shot, when, and under what circumstances.
Our nation attempted to respond to this national crisis as it has done in the past; that is, a Presidential commission or task force to investigate, report, and make recommendations.
Shortly after Michael Brown’s death, President Obama did just that. He called together police and community experts and asked them to investigate. Within a year, the report was published and, soon after, it addressed the specific problems being raised by citizens, especially those of color. Concurrently, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a group of leading police chiefs from our nation’s larger cities, issued their recommended guidelines on police use of deadly force. Police needed to do better and listed specific guidelines for them to do so.
The President’s Task Force asked for input as they began their work, I complied and listed a number of areas I believed they needed to address. When their report was issued, I was pleased to see they had tackled most of what I had recommended (giving me some hope at the time that many others saw things the way I did).
I am pleased to report that three, possibly four, of my recommendations, made it into the final report. [Not that I influenced the report, but that I was not alone in the recommendations I made.]
Now a year has passed, the Task Force, under the auspices of the COPS program in the Department of Justice (DOJ), issued a report on their progress.
Reading the report left me nearly depressed because it appeared that so little that had been accomplished.
If the recommendations of the task force and PERF reports are not actively implemented on a wide-spread basis, I fear policing will remain in its state of mediocrity well into the future.
I say this from a 50 year perspective of leading police and commenting on them as a writer and active blogger.
There are only a few of us from my generation who are still engaged in actively seeking the improvement of policing in America. That is a troubling statistic.