A Most Hopeful Gathering

“Even if you are 100% right, democracy requires compromise.” — Barack Obama

The Public are the Police and the Police Are the Public: Bridging the Gap

A Police-Community Gathering at Grace Episcopal Church                      Silver Springs, MD

Saturday, April 1, 2017

I want to begin with a video that greatly moved me during this conference.

On Saturday, April 1st (no foolin’) I was part of a gathering that should occur in every American community; bringing together police and people of color to talk about “bridging the gap” and reminding each other of Sir Robert Peel’s primary principle from 1829 – “The police are the pubic and the public are the police.”

Yes, we are all into this together and we, together, can find a way to bridge the gap between us.

We were hosted by the Center for the Study of Faith in Justice at Calvary Episcopal Church and the conference site was Grace Episcopal Church which is just outside of the District of Columbia in nearby Silver Spring, MD.  The conference was funded by Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street through its justice initiative.  There is a theological theme here and it is that the faith community has a role to play in improving policing and the conference provided opportunity to discover what that role might be.

The organizer of the conference was the Rev. Dr. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, now at Calvary Episcopal in D.C., who, like me, is a retired police leader. Rev. Gayle is a woman of color and a retired as a captain with the D.C. Metro Police Department. We, of course, have a lot in common. (She has an article coming out in the Anglican Theological Review titled “A Theological Reflection on American Policing.”

What the folks in Montgomery County in the D.C. Metro area did is what we at UW-Platteville have been advocating for the past two years in our series of 21st century policing conferences; getting cops and citizens to sit down and honestly talk together about the issues. We hoped the individual communities would then do it. (The 3rd Annual 21st Century Policing Conference will again be held at the University of Wisconsin at Platteville on October 18th. You can find reviews of the conferences on this blog — use the search tool.)

Whenever I go to a conference I like to sit down a day or two later and reflect on what I heard and what I experienced. But first, here was the lineup (below). So here goes…

Left to right: Chief McSwain, Lt. McMillan, Rev. Dr. Fisher-Stewart, Capt. Collington, Me, Rev. Dr. Brown-Douglas, and Mr. Lowery.

My first impression was of a knowledgeable, concerned, and diverse assembly of concerned citizens and police leaders from the area. It was a highly educated group both politically and theologically. It was pleasing to attend a conference where I, as a white male, was NOT the majority.

From local police, we had Darryl McSwain, assistant chief of the Montgomery County (MD) PD, along with an impressive lieutenant, and police officer from his department; Brian Jordan, chief of the Howard University PD, formerly asst. chief of the DC Metro PD; and Tyron Collington, Sr. operations division commander, Takoma Park (MD) PD.

The only other non-black presenter (beside me) was Tim McMillan, a current shift lieutenant from Garden Grove, GA (a suburb of Savannah) who posted a piece on Facebook last year that went viral. (He is currently preparing a TED Talk on this topic). See the post HERE and his website.

Other non-police, but community activists consisted primarily of people of color: the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, author, and professor of religion and Wesley Lowery, a journalist from the Washington Post who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for researching and reporting on the heretofore unknown number of persons killed by police in our country. The number he found turned out to be 50% greater than the FBI had reported. Read about this HERE.

Some more thoughts…

The video with parents talking to their children about police encounters was a real tear-jerker. The second opening video was from the Gandhi Brigade which those of us in my small group collectively said, “So what’s new? Didn’t Malcolm say it long ago?”

Lt. Tim McMillan and I had a lot to share before, during and after the conference as cops who “went against the grain;” who had an epiphany at one time or another in our career. In addition to the many praises McMillan received for his viral FB post, he had an equal number of bad cops and racist citizens revile him for speaking out. McMillan knows, as a practicing Jew, this was not totally unexpected. His FB post of his encounter with a young black man was shared over 70K times and within six hours had a million hits. That’s viral!

Brian Jordan, came out of the Chicago projects and rose to be asst. chief of the DC Metro PD, he gave a exemplary talk on police culture, when “injuries turn to infections,” also talked about “noble cause corruption;” situations in which false testimonies, untrue reports, and excessive uses of force become common practice because everyone knows the individual is a “bad guy” and deserved what he or she got.

I also have in my notes a quote he from Barack Obama, “Even if you are 100% right, democracy requires compromise.” Something to think of when we think our position is the correct one. Sometimes both sides need to move to compromise.

Kelly Brown Douglas cast a vision for us to consider that we all would be able “to survive and thrive with dignity.”

She asked a question an 8 yr. old black girl once asked her, “Why do police treat us so badly?” What is the answer? Is it because they can?

The image of blackness has been seared into the consciousness of America; “The violence that violence created.” She told us white supremacy/superiority can be traced back to Tacitus and Rome, moved on into Western Europe as Anglo-Saxon superiority, then to Puritans, Pilgrims, and our nation’s Founders.

The concept was that of “cherished whiteness” which resulted in the idea of “Blacks as chattel.”

What is the answer? The way forward for us? Two objectives:

  • Dismantle violent systems and structures.
  • Disrupt anti-Black attitudes.

Wesley Lowery from the Washington Post talked about his efforts to find the “real number” of persons killed by police. This was generated by Lowery’s experience in Ferguson and his book, They Can’t Kill Us All

While Blacks consist of 12% of our population they contribute to 24% of killings by police and while Black males while only 6% of our population they are the victims of 40% of fatal police shootings.

Mental illness, along with race, contributes to a great number of those killed by police: 25-50%. We still don’t know the specific information surrounding police shootings – such as age, situation, armed or unarmed, etc. More data is need so this problem of national concern can be studied and fixed.

There is also another set of data that need to be opened and researched — whether or not police departments have internal warnings such as patterns of violence by their officers that needs to be monitored. Lowery suggested that too many police who have been involved in fatal shootings have prior disciplinary actions surrounding poor decisions in their use of force. That needs to be looked at by both police leaders and concerned citizens. Inquiries need to be made. (Shouldn’t the FBI be doing this?)

Rev. Fisher-Stewart provided a more complete history of American policing; that it was not formed as a crime prevention entity as we are led to believe.  Rather, beginning in the 1840s, modern policing was formed to protect the property interests of the industrialists in the north and the slave owners in the south.  The legacy of that beginning remains with us today.

I did the wrap-up and talked about the experience of nations like South Africa, Rwanda, Northern Ireland and Bosnia to engage in forgiveness and reconciliation efforts. We also have examples in our own country — members of the African-American church in Charleston and Amish at Nickel Mine, PA.

I told them that within policing we are beginning to have examples of apology by police chiefs with examples from Montgomery, AL, LaGrange, GA, and from the president of the International Chiefs of Police. But all of these apologies were for the past for acts of racial violence that occurred before these police chiefs were even born.

So, my question was “what about NOW?”

Can we as police leaders identify and apologize for the systems in which we have participated which have worked against people of color? Can we have our own “truth and reconciliation” commissions operating in cities throughout our country which will help “bridge the gap” and restore the trust that has been lost between police and people of color? Can we, who are police, see how we have participated in a system that has not worked for everyone? (For example, see my past apology HERE.)

I also invited you to read my blogpost on the subject of apology. And news article.

The power of any teaching or gathering always seems to lie in the stories that are told:

I heard a middle-aged black man talk about a boyhood experience with a police officer. He and a friend were playing basketball in a park late one night. The officer drove up and told them that the park was closed. They said they would leave when the officer threw a bottle in front of them and demanded, “Pick it all up now!” It was now decades later, yet I could hear and see that this affront still burned in the man. I thought, what would be his next encounter with a police officer be like?

Chief McSwain noted the efforts his department was making by attending, literally, thousands of community meetings. The rule is anytime, anywhere, with anyone. He sees this as a way to build trust and respect in the community. His lieutenant shared efforts they were making to diversify the department and practice policing that is truly community-oriented.

One of Chief McSwain’s lieutenants spoke up about what he and his staff were doing about recruitment and their mission to serve the community. Later, I told him I was greatly impressed by what he said and would certainly have tried to recruit both him and the sergeant with him!

While I have been “preaching” since Ferguson that police can improve, can learn to save lives and de-escalate tense and even dangerous situations, I often get a lot of push-back.

So I was pleased to read on the way home that fellow Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) member Scott Tomson, chief of the newly organized Camden County Police Department, was the subject of an excellent article in the New York Times about how the police department had reduced it uses of deadly force.

He said writing tickets to poorer members of the city was no longer a priority and his officers were working more towards using warnings than burdening poor, single mothers with $300 traffic tickets. Another policy mentioned was that police were now required to immediately transport any victim of a police shooting directly to the closest hospital. The objective being to save lives rather than wait for an ambulance. See the NYT article HERE.

While I am often discouraged by the slowness of progress in American policing I still remain encouraged. We shall overcome. We shall bridge the gap.

Remember to:

  • Dismantle violent systems and structures.
  • Disrupt anti-Black attitudes.
The people assemble.


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