Stuck in the Trap: A Way Out

What is the trap?… It is the lack of academic preparation, the inability to learn from experience and research. It is pure and simple “anti-intellectualism.”

It’s difficult to observe the trap which holds police captive in my country. It saddens me.

What is the trap? It is one of the obstacles to police improvement that I identify in Arrested Development. It is the lack of academic preparation, the inability to learn from experience and research. It is pure and simple “anti-intellectualism.”

Since 2011, I have maintained this blog which is focused on how to improve our nation’s police. It has had nearly 500,000 visits to its 1200+ posts. It is international in its scope with viewers coming from over 100 countries around the world.

Upon my retirement, I went into the ministry (not too unlike how I see policing). I continued to watch and comment on an important governmental function that I dearly loved and respected. I wrote four books on policing; two while I was in their ranks and two more when I retired.

Suddenly, an aging 1989 Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Connor, was dusted off and used as the justification for police taking the lives of suspects in the most questionable of circumstances. It seemed that police could merely articulate they “feared” for their life at the time they used deadly force. No need to wait, take cover, assess, or seek alternatives. Our nation saw police officers blunder into situations and quickly resolve them by taking the life of the suspect — “it looked like he had a gun.”

In 2015, Ferguson, Missouri should have been a wake-up call. At the time, there were no national data on how many citizens were killed by police each year (the answer: around 900. Ferguson resulted in a Presidential Task Force (2015) and much discussion in the media and urban protests (see “Black Lives Matter“). I have yet to see now, after years of collecting data by the Washington Post and Guardian newspapers, the killing of young, black men by police restrained (However, on a more positive note, this year’s trend appears to reduce the average number by, perhaps, 200!).

The nation continues to be concerned about what their police were doing and how they were using physical force. During this period, we struggled to understand police “guardian” and “warrior” mindsets and how a free and democratic society requires the former.

Prior to this time, police in European Union countries had already agreed to limit their use of deadly force to situations when it was “absolutely necessary” and as a “last resort.” Not so in America. Yet today many of us outside of policing argue that a higher police standard of force than Graham’s “reasonable objectiveness” was needed.

I served as a leader for most of my three decades as a police officer in four Midwest cities. I wrote, taught and lectured about leadership, community-oriented policing, and the handling of public protest. I was considered to be one of leading poilce chiefs in America.

When I retired, I received the national police leadership award from my colleagues in the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF); a professional organization of college educated police chiefs from large to medium cities. I was an active member and continue so today.

Looking back, now in my eighth decade, I am saddened by what I see happening — police trapped, stuck, and unable to solve the problems and situations which beset them. Maybe I should have expected this to occur after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and seventeen years of war in the Middle East. Such events can change and harden a nation. It can even militarize police in their cities.

Instead of compassionately listening to grieving family members and concerned community activists about their use of force, most of them retreated; unwilling to engage in a most needed dialogue about how they and their officers were using deadly force. The police station became a fortress where those who took refuge there found understanding and comfort among themselves and demonized those who protested and sought change.

Even when national polls showed that trust of police among people of color was at an all-time low few police leaders took action. What should they have done? Shown a willingness to review policies and training regarding use of force and report back to the community, admit their mistakes and apologize and seek forgiveness from those whom they have harmed. That is the way forward. That is the way to get “un-stuck.”

Parallel to this has been a continuing march toward militarization. It can be seen in police uniforms, weaponry, and supportive equipment. In most of our cities, today’s police look more like SWAT team officers from two decades earlier than a friendly neighborhood officer. Appearances make a difference. They speak loudly. We cannot assign police dressed in battle fatigues, exposed weaponry, and external body armor with four-inch POLICE letters and expect students will believe they are in the school to help, support, and keep them out of the criminal justice system. Historically, we know fear is ineffective in maintaining social control.

It has been a slow, slippery, and excruciating slide away from the important role police must play in a free society; that is, to be on-the-street protectors of our Constitution and its Bill of Rights, to protect those most vulnerable in our society, and to work closely with citizens to help them create and maintain safe and peaceful neighborhoods.

It’s a terrible burden to care for men and women with whom you have worked with and loved and see them unable or unwilling to be this kind of police officer. Nevertheless, it is a role that they have the ability to perform and one that will get them what they desire — trust, respect and support.

What prevents this from happening is an overwhelming, oppressive subculture that is on one hand supportive and the other damaging. Police need one another and to work together — but they also need the trust and support of those whom they police; otherwise, they are, bluntly, ineffective. You cannot police a community with fear, nor can police leaders effectively lead their officers in such a climate (which may be part of the problem today of why police are resigning and educated young men and women are not joining them).

What bonds police (subculture) also makes them unwilling to listen to the community, tell another officer to behave, or admit they make mistakes. When citizens see these behaviors they are turned off and turn away.

The Police College at Bramshill, England

If the current situation will ever change and improve will be dependent upon a new generation of police leaders. Men and women who are highly educated, ethical, creative, curious, visionary, and persistent. It is unrealistic to think that these new leaders will come from within today’s ranks and from thousands of police training academies and colleges across our nation. Instead, we must select, train, cultivate and assign them similarly to how police are trained in other democratic countries, Bramshill in the U.k. and how we train our nation’s top military leaders — through a West Point. And here I will talk about positive things that can be learned from our nation’s military — the central development of a leadership model which calls the “best and brightest” to their ranks; young, trained leaders who laterally enter their ranks. Twenty-something second lieutenants have, year after year, been assigned to lead men and women older and more experienced than they are. But they are called to carry forth the Army’s fundamental values year after year.

So we could do also. We could assign police lieutenants who have also been centrally trained and ethically and morally prepared to lead in our nation’s police agencies and experience the most competent of them become our chiefs of police.

West Point, Class of 2019

Like the Army, whose diversity was so strongly exemplified by the large group of black women graduating as second lieutenants and whom we recently saw in our national news. Army and police graduates should be a symbol of our great diversity as a nation — to be representative of our county as a whole. This means that those graduating from our national police college must look like the America they are about to serve in both race and gender

Is this a big order? Of course it is —and it will take all of our nation’s abilities, efforts, and resources to make it happen. Not doing this means that our nation’s police will continue in its mediocrity. This can be an opportunity to achieve excellence in democratic policing and with it a major contribution to assuring all Americans live in safe and peaceful neighborhoods. 

As a nation, we know that we have the ability to put humans into outer space and on our moon. We have set a goal to stand on Mars. If we desire, we can reach the same heights in our police services and field police organizations worthy of our trust and support and of whom we can be proud as a nation.