The Passing of Police Reformers: “Where have all the flowers gone?”

“Unless the mission of our police is re-defined to be that of a ‘servant leader,’ ‘life saver,’ or ‘champion of civil rights,’ we will continue this downward spiral and erosion of trust and support of our nation’s police.”

Police Commissioner Robert DiGrazia and police Superintendent Joseph Jordan confer on police strategy in front of Hyde Park High School today.


“Former Boston police Commissioner Robert J. di Grazia died suddenly yesterday at his home office in Fort Myers, Fla. He was 90.

“Mr. di Grazia was a native of San Francisco, the son of immigrants from the Tuscany region of Italy. He was a graduate of Galileo High School in San Francisco and later graduated from Boston College with a bachelor’s degree..

“Mr. di Grazia served as Boston police commissioner from 1972 to 1977, under Mayor Kevin White and oversaw the police handling of the busing crisis. He was credited at the time with helping to prevent violence.

“At the time he left the post of commissioner, Mr. di Grazia reflected on his experience, saying, ‘there is more to the job than crook-catching’…

“Mr. di Grazia had previously served as an officer, sergeant and ultimately chief of the Novato, Calif., Police Department in the 1960s. He then led the St. Louis County Police Department from 1970 to 1972. After Boston, he served as superintendent of the Montgomery County Police Department. He later became a law enforcement consultant and an expert witness in police practice and procedure…” — Boston Herald

Bob di Grazia’s death this week caused me to think about the arc of American policing over the past 60 years and the fact that there will soon be only a few of “old flowers” left around the country that have the experience of leading police reform and having the additional knowledge of having watched the development (or lack of development) in policing since retirement. Bob di Grazia, along with the late Joe McNamara (former NYPD captain and reform chief in Kansas City and San Jose, and a few others who have also departed this life, would have been great companions to bring into this a most needed conversation about what they have learned along the way.
Bob di Grazia was one of the original members of the Police Executive Research Forum along with Police Superintendent Allen Andrews (Peoria) and Police Chiefs Bruce Baker (Portland), Hugo Masini (Hartford), Roy McLaren (Arlington County, VA), Joseph McNamara (Kansas City), James Parson (Birmingham), Wesley Pomeroy (Berkeley), Philip Tannian (Detroit) and Police Director Hubert Williams (Newark).
I think I was in the second or third wave of chiefs invited to join the Forum which was put together by former NYPD Commissioner Pat Murphy who was then heading up the Police Foundation.
Gary Hayes was PERF’s first executive director and became a dear friend of mine until his cancer-related death in 1985 at 40 years of age. (Chuck Wexler holds this position today.)
I remember working with Bob di Grazia when he was serving in Boston and the city was about to integrate it’s school system under a federal court order. In the mid-70s, Gary Hayes and I went to Boston to help train station lieutenants who were, for the first time, going to be assigned as field commanders for what many expected would be a very difficult job. I was sharing the effective approach we used to handle protest which soon began to be called ‘The Madison Model.
Unfortunately, our students were not interested in learning methods of de-escalation and protecting the First Amendment rights of protestors (who would be Boston whites not in favor of having their schools integrated by busing blacks to “their” schools in “Southy” — a predominant Irish-American section of Boston).
These lieutenants were not interested in what Gary or I had to say. Their response was this was Boston and there would be no trouble so why are we wasting their time in this training? Basically, they were angry about having to leave their desks and having to go out on the street.
Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way as the protest against integration of Boston schools was quite tumultuous — “It was a war zone!” (See HERE)
This was not my first nor my last effort to try and share what I and others had learned in policing. It has been a continuing struggle for many of us to try and build a “body of knowledge” within our chosen profession.
In a recent talk with another experienced ally for reform, Chuck Gruber, we highlighted the need to share what we had learned over the past half-century. Chuck was chief of police in a number of Illinois cities. In the 1980s he was a “yankee chief” in Shreveport, LA and effectively dealt with racial tensions after police killed a black man in that city.
In the meantime, I have been thinking of what I would say beyond what I have already written in How to Rate Your Local Police, The Quality Leadership Workbook, Arrested Development and on this blog.
To me, the problems facing police today present themselves on a number of fronts: selection, training, leadership, and attitude. I have written fairly extensively about the first three — not so much about attitude. But attitude matters and it matters greatly.
Cynicism leads to a frozen heart and cynicism is what I sense in a number of today’s police. Cynicism is a bad attitude about life and people. It is cynicism that comes from not having a strong liberal education (not liberal as in politics, but liberal in terms of empowering individuals and preparing them to deal with complexity, diversity, change, and having a broad knowledge of the wider world). A liberal education approaches life as a journey which seeks self  and continuous improvement. Without this type of education and orientation, it is just about impossible to understand, let along practice, the mission of police in a free society.
We have come close defining this mission in the work of the 21st Century Task Force on Policing during the Obama administration. It identified the “warrior-guardian” conflict among many of our police. Unfortunately, for well over 20 years police candidates have been selected, trained and led under that false assumption. This has led to a lot of the conflict we see between police and those whom they are to serve.
Unless the mission of our police is re-defined to be that of a “servant leader,” “life saver,” or “champion of civil rights,” we will continue this downward spiral and erosion of trust and support of our nation’s police.
The way back, and I do say “back” as this is not a new mission, but rather a mission that has crept away from its original direction because of racial bias, “wars” (drugs and crime), and an attitude shift that crept into the ranks of policing that they were not “public servants” but rather “community controllers,” “enforcers;” and that somehow the idea of serving others was beneath them.
Years ago, I wrote about police being “social workers in blue;” that police had a moral obligation and unique leadership position in American society — to model the values we collectively held as a nation — lawfulness, fairness, honesty, self-control, and collaborative community problem-solving, to name a few.
The men and women who police a free society must be special because it is one of the most difficult, yet necessary and vital, functions in our society. What could be more important than securing a willing, shared compliance with our social rules and laws without having to resort to inflicting harm on others?
There are those of us who are still alive today that remember this kind of policing. We, like today’s police, made mistakes and learned from them. We learned how to attract and select the right people and effectively trained and lead them through their careers. It is possible to do the work of a police officer with a minimum amount of force and maximum amount of emotional intelligence and, yes, kindness.
Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to call these senior police reformers together and collect what they learned and then share it with the men in women in today’s ranks and their leaders?



    1. Lynn, one of the obstacles — “anti-intellectualism.” It continue to arrest police development! We press on. Maybe PERF will put together a summit meeting (accessible, of course!)


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