Where We’re At – Where We Need to Go!

unknown-1Do we care more for our proficiency in waging war abroad than keeping peace at home?

Affected citizens, most of whom are of color, try to get the police to listen only to be put off by a lengthy investigation which is often prefaced with the comment, “Videos aren’t really what they appear to be – just one angle. So don’t rush to judgment even if what you see upsets you.” Yes, justice delayed is justice denied.

So the voices of those who are upset feel they must now raise their voices in volume and tone. The result is that police often retreat, dis-engage, use the cover of liability and officer safety concerns, as they feel they come under criticism.

While I have now retired from leading police, I have not ceased from trying to listen and make some semblance of the post-Ferguson world in which we all now live. I also, from time to time, suggest some solutions.

What I sense today is that trust of police is at an all-time low. We don’t have the data to prove it one way or another. But if I was in practice today, I would make sure I had up-to-date surveys, input from the community, on this matter and, if what I thought was true, to take action!

Maybe the broken trust that exists today between police and their communities is not unlike when infidelity happens in a marriage. If the offending spouse wishes to maintain the relationship several things must happen – and happen quickly. (After all, in my my role as a pastor, I have helped a number of marriages get through this damage-control.)

First, there must always be a sincere, heart-felt apology, then a visible change in behavior. This change must be felt and experienced by the offended party. No longer are words enough, action is needed and accountability must be offered to the offended spouse – this usually means cell phone and credit card management; this being the most frequent actions toward repairing the relationship. Most of all, the relationship-breaking behavior must stop.

So why cannot police do this after they have offended a member of the community? Is this not basic to repairing a relationship? It seems police are often not only hesitant but unwilling to say ”We’re sorry, so sorry.” But even if police were collectively able to say they’re sorry, the big work, reparation, comes after “sorry!”

After a 30 plus year career as a police leader and two decades as a pastor, I think I know what I would do today (after all, it worked for me in the past as a police chief when we individually and collectively apologized after an officer for made a big mistake, an inappropriate comment after a troublesome low-income housing project caught fire and six black children died.)

More recently, I have watched my former department, along with many others across the nation, struggle with deadly force incidents; questionable shootings in which someone was killed by police. The deceased were often young, black, or experiencing a mental health crisis. And many were unarmed.

Initially, most police departments try to take positive steps, but then fail to follow through with acts of reparation. I sensed African-Americans, and many whites as well, are looking for more than comfortable words. I think they want two things – for the department to say they were truly and deeply sorry, and, most importantly, a pledge: “We will not do this again, here’s how we are going to fix this, and you can hold us accountable that we will do what we say we are going to do!”

Here’s a way forward in today’s post-Ferguson world:

  1. Significant changes must be made in how and when police use deadly force to resolve a conflict situation. I am not talking about situations in which police are faced with a firearm, but those situations in which a suspect has a sharp or blunt instrument and is in a stand-off situation with police. Other methods than using a volley of gunshots to “resolve” the situation must be created and implemented. This involves de-escalation, taking cover, backing off, using long wodden staffs, throwing nets, using shields, and “less-than-deadly” firearms use as some European police do; that is, do whatever is necessary to preserve life — the life of a person who is more often than not emotionally distraught or in a mental health crisis. The police should do this because they are in the lifesaving and peacekeeping business. The sanctity of human life should be at the core of all they do.
  2. The next step is the practice of Procedural Justice. In short, it is being respectful to all people at all times, having the ability to deeply listen to another person, making fair and understandable decisions, and using force as a last resort to resolve situations.
  3. The third step is real, actual, believable Community Policing, and I will add “oriented” to this term. Community-Oriented Policing is serving the community, being oriented towards them, knowing what needs to be done by active and generous listening, and using Herman Goldstein’s Problem-Oriented Policing as a method to collaboratively work with citizens to fix their problems.

images-3If American police and their leaders were able to do this in a restorative sense – to apologize that they haven’t always had the community’s interests in mind, to ask for forgiveness, and to commit to a new and energized community orientation, a modern miracle would surely happen over the few years. But will they?

In order to do this, citizens must be willing to pay for better police wages in order to attract the kind of police that is needed today: college educated, mature and trained for at least two years before they step out into the community as a police officer. And then they need to be brought back into a high-level leadership college before promotion.

This should sound familiar, because in many respects it is how we prepare leaders in our nation’s military. So when I talk about the problem of police militarization it’s not about education, training, or leadership development, it’s about them acting too much like soldiers facing an enemy. Do we care more for our proficiency in waging war abroad than keeping peace at home?

I think many of us are beginning to come to an understanding about what needs to be done. Now all we have to do is to make sure it happens.


  1. Yesterday I spoke with an academy director who told me that the state police training board is “shocked” by a lack of applicants to their academies. Speak with any police chief and they will tell you how difficult it is to find qualified recruit officers today. Our best young people simply have no interest in police service today and current police officers are jumping-ship early with those who remain increasingly unwilling to engage. Take a look at the Charlotte riot videos where cops, who only wish to use “minimal” as opposed to “reasonable” force are dragged into the crowd and beaten. Do we really want our police to submit themselves to the whims of rioting criminals?

    This morning I heard about the City of Chicago’s plan to add 1000 police to combat the out-of-control violence. Where are these people going to come from? Are they likely to be more or less qualified than those who have left the job, more or less qualified than the educated and wise young people who want to serve but now see the futility of it, more or less qualified than those individuals willing to put themselves at risk to defend our values as Americans? After a quarter century of Community Oriented Policing, I have to ask “Where is the community in this supposed partnership?”


    1. I will first respond frivolously by quoting Gilbert and Sullivan: “The policeman’s (sic) life is not a happy one…” But it can be one of great satisfaction and of great community worth. In the 70’s in the midst of the War and Civil Rights, few wanted to join the police (and some of those who did should not have been hired). Maybe that’s the case today. No applications? Perhaps you are seeking the wrong candidates. In the early 70’s we advertised: “Join the Police, the Other Peace Corps!” [That was still in the Peace Corps Era, still resounding with Pres. Kennedy’s call.] Let’s face it, we may need an entire new kind of police applicant to help repair our rendered social fabric: highly educated, mature, high E.Q. and the ability to have great emotional control in the face of conflict. As I have found over the years, you can’t attract that kind of man or woman without making some big changes in what has become a para-military bureaucracy that runs on fear and threats. I am not worried about the shortfall in applicants unless police leaders don’t help create innovative, problem-solving, collaborative work atmospheres.


      1. The human is an input into the system and that system will be no more effective than the quality of the human inputs into that system. We should be very troubled with a shortfall in police applicants. For the last 15 years we have only been selecting out not selecting in. Essentially if you pass all the minimum requirements you are selected. In the past we were selecting in – choosing the best of those who met minimum selection criteria. Much of that phenomenon in past was driven by labor force demographics and economic expansion.

        Interest in serving in all forms of government has been dropping in the last decade. I agree that police organizations need to change, but our current crisis will likely even further reduce the number of people interested in becoming police officers. In North Carolina the number of applicants for Basic Law Enforcement Training in 2016 is on track to be about fifty percent that of 2013. The number of courses cancelled due to low enrollment will most likely be about twice the number cancelled in 2013.


  2. How would you counsel a couple where one incorrectly believed that the other spouse had been unfaithful? To exacerbate the situation friends and neighbors are continually spreading rumors of infidelity through social media.

    Infidelity is not a mistake. The number of police shootings where the officer’s actions would be the moral equivalent of infidelity is infinitesimally small. We have reached a point where facts have become irrelevant and only the narrative matters.

    Humans do make mistakes, and we can improve human performance in dangerous environments. The path to that end must be based on facts not narrative.


    1. I certainly support the importance of facts. Even if an infidelity is wrongly perceived, and the suspected offender is innocent, work needs to be done to save the relationship. Are some of these shootings mistakes? Yes, but some also are the result of a bad system or a good system in which training and re-training are absent?. But is Charlotte about facts or something else like historical stuff that has seeped into the bones of black communities? Could we be moving as a nation beyond facts and into a situation in which perceptions/feelings determines actions? It seems that both our local as well as national dialogue about key issues in American life is more about one’s emotions about it than about whether or not it is true. This concerns me.


  3. I think it’s past time to fundamentally rethink why we have our current police force(s) and what we expect them to do. As a society, we’re fundamentally lazy. Instead of committing resource to dealing with homelessness and mental illness, we expect our police to deal with those problems. But police lack both the skills and institutional infrastructure to deal with those issues. They have one recourse which is lock ’em up and shove them through the justice system. This does nothing to help the citizen or contribute to the safety of police. It’s past time to apply the Georgian experiment here in the USA. I wish just one police force would try a radical solution instead of perpetuating the failing status quo.

    P.S. Just found your blog and have been devouring the articles for the last two days. Keep up the good work.


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