Conversing with Cops

“Today’s police need to be in conversation with their harshest critics — it’s called Community Oriented Policing.”

Last week I posted a piece on an attitude I see in policing. It isn’t something new — and that’s what worries me, it’s something that exists from my early days on the beat and persists today.

I was recently talking with a young police officer whom I could sense was not particularly happy with me. He said that I was out of date, too critical, and while he respected my work in the past, I was simply out of touch with policing.

I agreed, some things have changed. However, 90 percent of the job is still the same – it’s about people; about practicing Emotional Intelligence when you contact them. E.I. is the ability to self-assess, self-control, show empathy, be motivated, and have a high degree of relationship skill. That’s what police work has been about since its origins and that will not change until robots take over the policing function (which I will strongly argue against!).

If a cop has high E.I., plus good job skills, he or she is most likely going to be a pretty effective police officer. And, as Sir Robert Peel stated over 150 years ago in his Principles, the more force police use to get the job done the less public support they have. He also told fledgling cops to seek the willing cooperation of the public, and do so with impartiality, courtesy, and “friendly good humor” — that’s Emotional Intelligence from the 1830s!. (And when Procedural Justice is added as additional job skills, “magic” happens.)

In our conversation, I sensed an underlying “them v. us” attitude and his feeling of being under siege. While I do not discount that policing can be dangerous, it is simply not as dangerous as some would portray. [In the 1970s, more police were killed in the line of duty than today. These were also tense racial and generational conflict with active civil rights and anti-war movements. The worst year for police deaths was in 1930 during Prohibition.]

But what disturbed me most about our conversation was that while he said he occasionally read my blog, he simply did not agree with me – no, not at all. We had nothing that we could agree upon. Some things, I queried? No, everything!

Now that bothers me because it’s the old obstacle of anti-intellectualism rearing its ugly head again. It goes like this: “You either are with me 100% or not at all. Not much can be learned from your past. And you will never catch me criticizing another officer — even if he’s wrong!” This is not professional thinking — anti-intellectual behavior, along with the other three I cite in my book — violence, corruption, and disrespect — have prevented police from solving their most persistent and pressing problems.

The young officer told me I needed to write more about the good things police do, not what they do wrong. I replied that I do note and highlight needed improvements, positive changes, and forward-thinking leaders.

As a profession, police will improve when they can openly engage those who question them and discuss, together with their critics, better ways of doing things. I am not a media relations person. But I do believe police need to be more active in putting their best foot forward (mainly by increasing their use of social media); something I have not seen many of them do. I am, however, continue to be impressed by the work of the Peel Regional Police. They Tweet at @PeelPoliceMedia. And, to me, their 8 minute recruiting video is par excellence:

Not calling out bad conduct or practices works against the “attitude” that is needed in police ranks today. When police can say that in everything they do, every action they take, they will look to ways it can be improved, they will attain the high community status in which I believe they are capable.

If “good cops” will not call out “bad cops,” then the “good cops” are part of the problem; that’s what professionals do, they seek to improve, to be better. Professionals are committed to continuous improvement, transparency, and high accountability in all that they do.

He, a white officer, related to me how the “Black Lives Matter” movement hurts police. (You might want to hear this conversation about the movement from its co-founder.) His anger about “Black Lives Matter” was quite apparent. He also demonstrated a lack of understanding as to why BLM exists and what their objectives were.

Today’s police need to be in conversation with their harshest critics — it’s called Community Oriented Policing. Being angry at protestors and other activists without studying what they have to say and engaging in a dialogue with them is quite unproductive and will never lead to understanding (or better policing practices).

For me, it has always been that the job of police is to listen and keep cool during trying and painful times and try to work out solutions that both police and their critics can agree.

I have discussed some of the attitudes I have encountered as I work to help police and their communities to come together. These are not new attitudes. I have encountered them throughout my police career and into the present. How pervasive are they? I really don’t know. But I do know they are attitudes of those who cannot or will not see the “big picture,” who ignore history and the role of race in America.

What I suggest on this website will help police to become more trusted and supported by those whom they serve. This will lead to improved and safer policing and that will be good for everyone.

Our nation is becoming more and more diverse. Add to this the growing gap between rich and poor, a proliferation of firearms, and its result is tensions within our communities. It is within those tensions that police engage, serve, protect, and seek solutions. This is the kind of challenge that should energize good police, not discourage them.

I have a high regard for policing and its ability to solve community problems. This high regard energized me through a three-decade career. It’s what still drives me today.

Though, from time to time, I find its practitioners wanting, I am still proud of our police. That’s why I continue to speak out, write, and teach that police officers should be a walking image of our Constitution and its Bill of Rights. They are our most visible symbol of American values and justice. It is a high bar to reach — yet all police should strive to become that image. It is in striving that this will be accomplished.

[The conversation above is a composite of a number of recent conversations I have had with police officers and leaders.]

  • For a more detailed description of the problem of change and anti-intellectualism in policing, read what a British constable has to say about his experience trying to improve his field of work.



  1. Thanks David, great post. You mentioned police fatalities peaking in the 1990s, but I think you meant the 1970s. The 1920s was also a very deadly decade, and the one year in our history with the most police fatalities was 1930.


    1. Yes, thanks, Gary… the 1970s it was with anti-war, civil rights, and the press for equality from many groups made this era a trying time (for those of us still able to remember it!).


  2. Perhaps it’s time for that officer and others with the same attitude to look into a different profession, what happens is the same as a spoiled apple in the basket he influences other officers to have the same attitude.


  3. Very well said and so true chief; I read somewhere in one of my books on leadership that you should seek first to understand before you are understood. Too many police officers are not wiling to empathize and listen to others’ points of views.


    1. Here this is an important part of Tom Tyler’s work on “Procedural Justice.” See:
      1. Voice (the perception that your side of the story has been heard);
      2. Respect (your perception that system players treat you with dignity and respect);
      3. Neutrality (your perception that the decision-making process is unbiased and trustworthy);
      4. Understanding (your comprehension of the process and how decisions are made); and
      5. Helpfulness (your perception that system players are interested in your personal situation to the extent that the law allows).

      ref: T. R. Tyler, Why People Obey the Law. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990).


  4. Excellent post, thanks. I can certainly understand being frustrated that people assume the worst about you based on their impression of your profession. But the job of policing requires dealing with the public in a way that makes society better. We need to make sure we support policies and practices that give police officers the opportunity to do that and have policies and practices that prevent actions that harm society (which sadly are far too common now).

    John Hunter


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