An Unnecessary Harshness


If you were to ask me what is different from my time in policing compared with that of today I would say that today’s policing appears to be more harsh and stringent; that is, “unpleasantly rough or jarring to the senses.”

Permit me first a disclaimer. It is probably not the actual state of American policing but rather one that is sensed by far too many of our citizens through various police images, actions and statements.

Is it necessary for police to be harsh? I don’t think so. I say this having survived many years on the street during two major social conflicts in our country: assuring the civil rights of all citizens and protests against the Vietnam War.

I say this also having been a chief of police for many of those years. It is simply not true that police officers, in order to do their job well, have to be harsh, stringent, officious or uncaring. In reality, I the opposite is true – fair and respectful policing involves care and compassion from others. This also involves an herculean control of how one uses force is in achieving the police mission.

Now if I, with over 30 years police experience and another two decades watching and writing about police, have come to this observation, how about others? Especially those who have the most contacts with police: the poor and those of color.

images-2And is this not the “trust” problem? And does not the failure in many citizen’s eyes of the inability of their police to control use of deadly force, a big part of the problem and the feeling in the community that police are overly harsh and uncaring?

In order to field a more compassionate and caring police will take at least as long as it took to morph into what we have today — and that will take at least ten years. But if the change is ever to happen, it must begin now — with all of us.

imagesIf we look at how this came about we can trace it to the development of SWAT and drug and anti-violence street crime teams and what many of us call today as the militarization of our nation’s police. We also cannot overlook the overall arming of America, our collective disinterest in controlling firearms, and the most unsettling recent event of “stand your ground” legislation.

We are becoming a harsh people by ignoring the plight of the others among us: immigrants, homeless, and the chemically addicted along with those among us without health care. Among our fellow citizens (and often family members), we have failed to effectively respond to these social problems without resorting to public sanction, arrest and imprisonment; that is, harshness.

downloadThis is a time to re-assess our founding and governing values and to educate, train, and develop a police service that models these values and reinforces them with each and every contact they have with fellow citizens. Press on!


  1. In my own work as a behavioral psychologist, it feels like an insurmountable task to get chiefs to buy into a stress reduction program which is custom made for police. If the helpers want to give up we are in serious trouble. I believe most officers want to improve policing from a personal and professional level. How do we convert the School of Hard Knocks harshness in training and daily execution? Any new insight is very welcome.


    1. In my experience, changing a top-down, coercive Police leadership style took years of teaching, storytelling, and personal modeling by a committed group of leaders including me as their chief. I had to be vulnerable, admit my frequent mistakes and be open and visible. Passion, persistence and patience ruled those days. I am told a great deal of it remains in the Culture decades later.


  2. In my experience of growing up in a predominately African American community, I have seen the harshness of some police officers just based on the area we were in. Many police officers were very judgemental and sometimes would profile innocent individuals just because of where they lived. I do agree with you Chief that the communities in which these police officers do tend to ignore the “plight of the others among us: immigrants, homeless, and the chemically addicted along with those among us without health care.” I saw this exact idea happening almost on a daily basis, Now this was all unnecessary due to the fact that most of the times the police were in the area, they were called for a specific reason. I think the problem needs to be addressed at the top of the chain in which it would trickle down into the officers in which are using the unnecessary harshness.


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