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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
If 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.