A Letter to Young Cops


“My understanding of policing a free, democratic society is that we make it work from the bottom up. If police are disrespectful to others, mean-spirited, un-just, cut corners, issue false reports, engage in “testi-lying,” or are quick to use physical force, we rip the fabric which is America. We make our nation and way of life much smaller when we fail to “practice what we preach…”


downloadAs many of you know who follow this blog, I was a cop for over 30 years — including the tumultuous late 60s and into the early 90s. I try and think back, would I be interested in what I have to say? For what I have to say not only involves the years I wore a badge, but the decades afterwards, after I “retired,” and then watched and listened as to what was happening in policing.

Over the years, I was called a “reformer,” police leader who was committed to improving things. A lot of my fellow officers didn’t like my ideas on how to do that, or what I had to say. More often than not, they disparaged me rather than engage my ideas — why I thought the way I did. The commentary was “He’s too young,” “Not enough time on the job,” and “He’s not in touch with policing today.”

What I didn’t get from those upset with my ideas was an intellectual engagement, a dialogue, about why I held these beliefs and proposed these ideas. Instead, attacks became personal, “He’s an asshole!” Leadership is often a lonely experience and to be the kind of police officer I am suggesting takes courage — courage at the highest level because those with whom you work, whom you depend on, may not agree with you.

What I am asking you to consider today is that new ways are unsettling because they challenge us to think and act differently, and they often clash with what i call “cop thought” which is various mutations of “We’ve always done it this way!” If policing never changes, it will never improve. Few institutions and those who work within them today can afford not to be open to new ideas and subsequent improvements. Developing new ideas, being creative and innovative has been the core of our society and will have to be the future of policing.

I proposed and implemented many changes in the police departments I led. Some of them stuck and some did not. But my goal was that we needed to improve all that we did — continuous improvement — always, and have data to support our improvements.

After I retired, I was invited to attend a Police Executive Research Forum meeting in Washington, DC at the turn of this century. Soon after, the Occupy Movement exploded, and then the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. There was no video account of that fatal encounter, but soon afterward policing in America went under a video microscope which continues today.

But it was the police response to Ferguson that really crystalized “practice plus reflection” for me. And from that, you know, cellphone video and police body cameras took center stage along with an actual, real-time count of suspects killed by police. Trust in our nation’s police had dropped, particularly in communities of color. And you and I know that without community trust, policing is nearly impossible.

As a young white boy growing up in the Midwest, I struggled with, tried to study and understand, race in America — and how it influenced and impacted me as a white police officer.

One of the things that kept me on an even keel after Dr. King was assassinated was the experience of being a cop and university student at the same time as there were upheavals in many of our cities – I was in Minneapolis, and many of my fellow officers felt we were in a time of insurrection, if not revolution. We knew something had to change.

My studies in sociology put much of this in perspective for me. As a beat cop, working a predominately black district, I came to understand what I needed to do; to do my job and be safe at the same time. It meant I had to change much of my thinking, attitude, and behavior.

This was the time before what is now called the “militarization” of our nation’s police. In my era, we had tactical teams, back-up weaponry, and even had an armored car (however, whenever we had to use it we had to re-charge the battery because it was used so infrequently). While many of us were military veterans, we only saw our weaponry training and marksmanship as being related to our job as police officers.

My initial police training was more like a college classroom than the boot camp the marines had sent me to a number of years earlier. We didn’t have to salute, nor did we call senior officers, “sir.” We made the transition from military to civilian life. If you asked me whether I was a warrior or a guardian, I would most certainly have affirmed the latter.

Walking a foot beat alone, in a black neighborhood, taught me to treat those who lived there with dignity and respect; to be fair, to be very restrained in how I used force. Fundamental to American policing is the belief that every person should be treated as you and I would want to be treated. When I did this, I found that I was, in turn, respected (even trusted) and this made me an effective police officer. And it also insured that I would be able to return home at the end of a shift to my loved ones.

When I walked that beat I had no portable radio, no direct communication with other officers except by a telephone or corner call box. If I got in trouble, I would have to depend on those who lived on my beat to help me. I also didn’t have the protection of body armor nor a weapon that fired more than six rounds. That changed the equation for me as to how I was going to approach people, how they were treated, when force would be used, and what my relationship would be with that community.

It is imperative that you get your mind around the problem surrounding race in our society. You cannot talk about improving police-community relations without knowing our racial history — all of it. You need to know why people of color do not trust you, because how people of color are treated is the essential factor as to whether or not you will be trusted and, therefore, be an effective police officer today.

download-1What is an “effective” police officer? Effective police officers see themselves as primarily serving others. Within that service orientation must be a blend of behaviors that ensure everyone has the benefits and protections of our nation’s laws. There must also be a mix of social worker, conflict manager, relationship advisor, and guardian-protector especially to those in our society who are most vulnerable -– children, the emotionally distraught or mentally ill, the poor, sick, and homeless. Your honesty and integrity is vitally important as you carry out these responsibilities — this must be evident in your reports and testimony. And a rule never to break the law in order to enforce it regardless of the circumstances.

Years ago, the sociologist and lawyer Jerome Skolnick helped me think through the anger I often experienced after I had one of my arrests dismissed or the suspect found not guilty. The anger came from the fact I knew without a doubt this person committed this crime. However, Skolnick observed there are two kinds of guilt in these situations — factual and legal. The job of the police and prosecutor is to make sure that a suspect’s legal guilt is proved — what I knew didn’t matter; it’s what I could prove to others.

For the most part, downtrodden and vulnerable citizens become your “clients;” those whom you promised to serve. When you do this well you actually make the values of who we are as Americans become a reality.

My understanding of policing a free, democratic society is that you make it work from the bottom up. If you are disrespectful to others, mean-spirited, un-just, cut corners, issue false reports, engage in “testi-lying,” or are quick to use physical force, you rip the fabric which is America. When a single police fails to “practice what our nation preaches,” it makes a mockery of our system of justice and way of life.

Good policing matters. That belief came out of my university education, and eight years as a street cop. It was then that I sought to be a chief of police. I went on to lead police in two cities: four years in a suburban department (Burnsville, Minn.) and over 20 years in Madison, Wisconsin. In each assignment, I tried to apply what I had learned on the street and in the classroom.

The first thing I learned as a police chief was that if I was to be effective, I needed to wear two hats – I was, of course, the leader of the police, BUT I also was the city’s police leader. I represented both police and citizens. Those two roles don’t always exist harmoniously. Sometimes I had to make a call supporting what a particular police officer had done to an angry community; other times, I had to make the call that we had been wrong, that we needed to apologize, and needed to fix what happened so that we did not make the same mistake again. Police chiefs have two difficult, sometimes conflicting jobs – to serve their officers and to serve the community.

I have to tell you that I see a lot of “one-hatted” police leadership which is characterized by always denying culpability, never apologizing, “bunkering-in,” and hoping the crisis at hand will blow over. Most of the time it doesn’t. It may seem like the trouble has past, but the community has a sharp memory – and not to deal with a police-related community problem will, in the future, put your officers in jeopardy and impact your department’s overall effectiveness.

Concurrently, the practice of real Community-Oriented Policing needs to be the way you — and, hopefully, your entire police organization works. COP is not a program, it is the best and most effective method to police our communities. I see it underplayed and short-changed city after city, leader after leader.

All has not been without progress, however, during the past 50 years. Policing has come a long way. Today’s cops are better educated, trained and equipped. There has been growth and improvement in the color and gender of American police officers.  But what has been slow to improve are the organizational structures in which many police officers work. This lagging improvement, compared to other organizations in our society, has restrained the development of policing in our nation.

It has resulted in far too many police organizations being overly hierarchical when they need to be collaborative, both within their ranks and with the communities they serve. Hierarchies are not very good at listening and considering new ideas. They are even less likely to implement good ideas that present themselves from outside their organization or from those within its ranks.

In Arrested Development, I wrote about my vision for police (as well as identifying the obstacles to continuous police improvement). As I said, it is not that American police has not improved, it is that their rate of improvement has been “arrested;” hindered and restrained.

“The future of our great democracy rests on how well local police departments in multi-cultural urban areas develop and sustain close, intimate relationship between police officers and those whom they police.  This means that police officers of the future will, in effect, have to be effective community organizers.”

To keep up and grow with the rapidly changing global, inter-connected world in which you serve, I suggest you consider the following:


  1. EDUCATION. Possess a 4-year college degree or be working on one. Be a lifelong learner throughout your career.
  2. VOICE. Speak up and require your police organization to set professional standards for pre- and in-service training and officer conduct.
  3. INTERVENE. Be a “peer intervener.” Give permission to those with whom you work to actively  intervene if you are about to do something that will embarrass you or your family; something that could cost you your job or your freedom. Ask them to give you this permission.
  4. ETHICS. Act impeccably and ethically in all situations. Require the same for those with whom you work.
  5. RACE. If you are white, be an anti-racism advocate and ally for people of color. Confront racist behaviors and speech. Speak out, you can make a difference by acting respectfully and fairly whenever dealing with persons of color. This can be contagious.
  6. LEADERSHIP. Think about becoming a future leader to help improve what you do. Start now: cultivate the art of listening, share information, collaborate with others inside and outside your organization, always be kind and respectful, and strive to improve the systems in which you and others work – that’s what a 21st century leader does.

I have always stressed the importance of treating people fairly and kindly; most of the people who need your help and assistance will most likely not be white, older, mentally or emotionally sound, or financially stable. Most likely, not be like you; different — therefore, it takes character and courage to listen and be kind to them. Acts of kindness never go unrewarded in the long run.

Policing our society is not about “them v. us,” it must always be about “us – together” — we the people, all of us.

Mahatma Ghandi reminds us, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” A great share of the quality of that national treatment rests in the hands of its police. You, as a police officer, have the ability to contribute to our nation’s greatness.

I may have presented some ideas and attitudes about the art of policing that are new to you; perhaps even difficult. Try them. Give them a test. They worked for me for my entire career, and they may work for you.

Nevertheless, remember you can make a difference. One human contact at a time.

Never forget this.

Have a wonderful career in one of the most fulfilling, inspiring, and important jobs in America.




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