If You Ask Me: Straight Talk About Police and Policing

No! This is NOT my recruit graduation photo!

A Self-Interview

This spring I will note and celebrate the 60th anniversary of my entry into policing — a 33-year career that took me into the ranks of four city police departments in two states. In two of those departments I served as the chief of police for 25 of those years.

Now if I met someone like me, I would be interested in asking that person some questions. (Seeing I am not being overrun by reporters or today’s police officers asking me what I have learned during my years as a police officer, trainer, detective and chief, I have decided to interview myself.)

Q: Well, David, you have had a long and interesting career as a police officer and now two decades have passed beyond your years of active service. Years in which you have continued to observe, teach and reflect on the craft of policing. So, what have you learned?

A: Let me first talk about the improvements I have seen in policing. The police improvements I see havr stunningly been in the area of technology and officer health and safety. For example, look at emergency lighting. It’s no longer a red, rotating, “bubble” on your roof but an array of high-powered digital illuminations that motorists can see a mile away. That’s improvement. I would also to this add body armor and portable radios. Remember, when I started patrolling in 1960, radios were bolted to our vehicles and remained that way for almost 20 years. Today, dispatchers can track police vehicles and provide real-time information about people and vehicles to officers on the street. Paperless reporting is at the fingertips of officers in the field. Overall, there is better field equipment, personal gear, armament, and access to information. But there’s one thing that hasn’t improved, and it is the most important of all.

Q: And that is?

A: The human element. The relational ability of police. Policing has been, is, and I believe always will be about this “relational factor;” that is the ability of individual police officers to deeply and effectively relate to those whom they contact. It is what we describe today as “emotional intelligence.” It is not necessarily I.Q. that makes you a good cop, it’s E.Q. — emotional intelligence — your ability to monitor your own (and other people’s) emotions, to discriminate between different emotions, and to use this emotional information to guide your thinking and behavior. The good news is that while you cannot increase your I.Q., your emotional intelligence can be increased through learning and practice. These recent findings fit quite well in my belief from the first day a badge was pinned on my chest – the stark realization that my job is about the proper, legal and most effective way of handling human persons — and often when they in distress.

Q: That sounds like a big order. Who is able to do this kind of work?

A: Well, surely not everyone. What it takes to be a good cop is a combination of smarts, formal education, and the development of interpersonal social skills (E.Q.). It begins with selection. Then comes high quality training and supervised field practices. Overall, this preparation must be followed by new officers being supervised by mature, servant-style leaders who are committed to the personal growth and health of those they are privileged to lead. What I am saying does not apply to non-democratic societies. They just need force and its threat to do the job. Not so in a free society — police there must be able to model the values their nation professes.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: I mean that police in a free-society must be paragons of virtue and values. America (or any free society) doesn’t work unless their police can model their founding values – to practice what is preached from the constitution and halls of government. We know our values in America from our founding documents: our Bill of Rights: freedoms of speech, assembly, and security, along with the concepts of equality, justice, and rule of law. Robert Kennedy once said, “Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on.” I believe that America deserves the best men and women to enforce its laws and maintain peace in our towns and cities.

Q: Given what you have just said, do you believe police have evolved as much as their technology?

A: That’s the key question, isn’t it? Are cops better today than they were 60 years ago? In some ways they are. Overall, police are higher educated than they were when I first started. Very few police had a college degree. One or two in a department of over 500 officers was the norm. I was a most unusual cop when I started because I was attending the university. I would say the same about diversity. Police are far more diverse. Most of the departments I worked for had no officers of color and, of course, no women served in uniform. Police today are more educated and more diverse in the ranks.

Q: In what areas have police not improved? Where do they need improvement?

A: It’s in the human relations area that improvement seems to be most needed. For example, narrowing the trust-gap between citizens of color (along with youth and poor people) should be “job one” in policing today. That will be strongly dependent on the ability of our nation’s police to reduce the number of citizens killed by police. What I don’t see are visible efforts to reduce that gap, evaluate improvement actions, and report results to the community. We have the technology to do this. Now we need the heart. I would also add diversity to this critique. While women are present in today’s ranks, they are not there in the numbers necessary to give them a voice — which, I believe, should at least be 20 percent in the organization (See Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works by Jay Newton-Small.)

Q: Are there other areas in need of improvement?

A: Unfortunately, yes. One very close to my heart, and one that I worked on heavily during the last half of my career, was developing a leadership style that was consistent with the transformation I was proposing and what was being learned in business, education, industry, and the military. When I put all this knowledge together, I came up with Twelve Principles of Quality Leadership. They were a direct contradiction to the top-down, coercive style of management that many if not most police agencies were permitting to be practiced in their ranks. We can no longer tolerate police leaders who believe “my way, or the highway!” In short, what I was proposing was a style of leadership Robert Greenleaf called — Servant Leadership. This way of leading is committed to listening to employees and facilitating their growth.

Q: Anything else?

A: While we are at it, police must develop a stronger commitment to the people tehy serve through true community-oriented policing, a realization that racial bias, homophobia, and misogyny needs to be rooted out in many of our police agencies, and stronger commitment to the sanctity of life needs to be the goal of every police leader. Police leadership in a community must also address the environmental and social failures which cause the problems that cause the situations and incidents which require police attention. Police must be like the central character in the story “Upstream-Downstream” which asks the question why these problems exist. It also means police must understand the work of Herman Goldstein in the development of problem-oriented policing.

Q: That’s a pretty big order!

A: Perhaps, but police matter in a free society such as ours – and they matter greatly! They are the guardians (not the occupiers) of our cities. I see municipal police as the glue which holds a city or town together and who have no hesitation in following to the letter Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing.

Q: Some of your critics have called you out-of-date and overly critical of the fine work our nation’s police do on a day to day basis.

A: I strongly disagree. I probably am as relevant today as I ever have been. When I was a chief I was a very busy person and I had little to reflect on the “big picture,” Today, as a police observer who is committed to social justice in our nation, I have a deeper understanding of the complexities of police work and the positive and negative effects of policing. Policing is not only about law enforcement, but and a whole lot about serving, listening, and working with community members. In order to do this well, it requires a man or woman who is smart, educated, well-trained, mentally healthy, controlled in the use of force, and committed to working with citizens on community problems. If we don’t attract and train our “best and brightest” to be our police and adequately support and compensate them, we, as a nation, are just looking for trouble.

Q: Anything else?

I want to close by saying that policing is one of the best jobs (callings!) in our society. It permits a person to positively intervene in the lives of others and protect those who are most vulnerable in our society. If you are a caring and compassionate person committed to the values of our great nation, you will stand up and join the police – it is our nation’s domestic peace corps. I care.