My Vision: What I See

“Each day I came home from work, I sensed I had done some good in the community and the negative contacts were few in comparison. I had made a positive impact in many people’s lives…”

“Seek first to understand – then to be understood.” This is one of Steven Covey’s seven habits of highly effective people. Along with this statement should follow the questions, “Do we understand one another?” “Do you see what I see — this vision of mine?” “Do you hear what I hear — the voices of those we serve?”

It isn’t easy or comfortable to talk about improving police because it is often becomes labeled as “criticism,” not “backing the blue,” and even more pejorative responses. Why does this occur?

It’s too easy for police to become separated from the community they serve. So persons labeled as “outsiders,” who make critical comments are told that they do not understand the job of policing and, therefore, what they have to say has no merit. But what about those of who have worked the job and make comments or suggestions some label as criticism and not helpful?

I want to understand this defensiveness, and I think I do. Policing is a difficult job. Police depend on each other for their personal safety and support. There are many varied voices in the community. There are those who criticize what police do – from elected officials, community activists, “liberals,” people with authority problems, and, I suggest former cops like me who see things differently — things that could be improved.

I know the job. I worked eight years in a large urban area which included the inner-city tactical squad work and I trained police recruits in defensive tactics. Unfortunately, I also had to work with a lot of uneducated, opinionated, racist, dishonest, and alcoholic cops who did not hold my high vision of how to police a democracy. Bad apples in the barrel!

I decided early-on, as much as I loved being a cop, I did not want to become a bad apple; I did not want to lose my vision and so I began a process of stepping out and away from what I saw as pervasive, toxic, and illegal. I came to learn how bad cops thought, what they were thinking, and why they thought as they did. They told and showed me — again and again.

Stepping away from this toxicity meant getting a university education and trying to understand (and relate to and with) others – those we were swore on oath to help and serve; the homeless, poor, and addicted. They were the primary clientele with whom I worked. From that multi-cultural urban experience I formed a vision that sustained me as a police leader for over 25 years.

Here’s what I came to “see”— my vision. Municipal policing is a great job. Sure, there are negative occurrences and encounters, but overall, each day I came home from work, I sensed I had done some good in the community and the negative contacts were few in comparison. I had made a positive impact in many people’s lives. I saw myself as a helper and I had the authority (given to me by those very folks I served) to do good, not evil. This vision energized and sustained me.

When I came to see myself as a helper, I also came too see myself as a guardian of our Constitution, our way of life, and especially that unique Bill of Rights. From that position, seeing, and understanding, I came to understand that policing was a noble cause — a sacred trust. The community expected and trusted me to do the right thing for them, their loved ones, and others in the community. And doing the right thing was being fair, honest, controlled, unbiased and respectful.

I know this is a high-bar; a lofty standard. Unfortunately, the bar has always been too low; cops can do better, much better. And citizens have the right to demand and expect this kind of behavior from their police.

Some say we shouldn’t expect much of a cop who has only 12 years of formal education. For most of my career, I worked with high-school educated cops and many of them did just fine.

Many of them shared my vision of policing. I began the job as a recently discharged marine with a high school education. I knew I needed more education to do this job well. I knew I had to be able to relate to the many age-groups, classes, life-styles and interest groups that made up my city and its residents. I have always felt from my first year on the job that cops could do and be much better. I think it’s time we raised the bar.

It is because I love this work that I have spoken out so directly, and yes, often critically, of what I have seen police do. When I wrote “Arrested Development” eight years ago, I tried to identify what was arresting the development and improvement of police. I came up with the “four obstacles” of anti-intellectualism, violence, corruption, and discourtesy.

A lot of police didn’t like what I had to say. I was not asked to come into the classrooms to explain myself (or the premise of my book discussed and why I thought this way). But I have to say that what I said is exactly what holds policing back – low educational requirements, distaining research and outside opinion, overuse of physical force, lying, making false reports, and out-and-out disrespectful behavior toward citizens. The four obstacles continue to restrain the development, improvement, and trust of our nation’s police. It is time to raise the bar to overcome these obstacles.

I have been often questioned since my retirement as to why I went back to school and joined the clergy. The question being that the two jobs must be different. Actually, the two are quite similar – to be a pastor is to have the primary responsibility for the “cure” of souls; being a “curate.” As a police officer, I saw my responsibility being the protection of people — their bodies. In both instances, it is being a responsible caretaker. (“Curate” comes from Middle English; a person charged with the care of souls and borrowed from Medieval Latin cūrātus, “to have spiritual charge of.”)

On this blog, I have tried to identify what I call a “negative attitude” about the work of police that involves feeling persecuted, untrusted, and apart from the community served. This attitude has always been there but now seems to have taken on a life of its own. I see this in how many police disrespect citizens and how they outfit themselves with more and more military dress and hardware. Policing in a democracy should never be “them” against “us.” Robert Peel reminded us of this over 150 years ago – the police are the people and the people are the police!

That’s what we sought to overcome, the feeling in the ranks that there was a difference, when we developed Community-Oriented Policing – “closer to the people we serve.” And it is we, together, that bring about safe and orderly neighborhoods in our cities. Together, not apart from.

So, my vision involves the most open and collaborative relationship between those who police and those who received police “services.” It is trust-building and community-connection in its highest sense.

I love the practice of municipal policing. Done well, it is critical to the success of our free and democratic society. It should be performed only by the best and brightest among us. That takes work — higher education, high-level training and re-training, and a corps of leaders who are committed to “growing” their people, deeply listening to them, and incorporating their ideas.

This vision needs leaders who are close to those who are doing the job, who lead by example, and most of all “walk their talk.” That will make this vision a reality. Leaders who nurture and support the great cops this vision calls for!

Officers, leaders, you can do this. You can be the actualizers of this dream. Speak out! Lead forward — and try to understand why I write and speak as I do, why I have held this vision for over a half-century. Together we can make this happen. It is time to raise the bar.