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.

9 Comments

  1. Very well articulated. I am interested to hear what you felt were your impediments and impediments faced by those in charge now, to delivering these improvements. My own feeling is that you need to start from early in the career cycle and recruitment cycle to enable and support the right kind of person who will thrive in a new type of culture, driven and lived, by leaders who possess the qualities you describe. None of this is new, but it seems to be a continual battle no matter where to achieve these things.

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  2. Out-of-date? Fundamentally policing hasn’t changed in 50 years. Policing has been updated, technology policies and procedures but as a whole 80% of what was written about policing 50 or 60 years ago is still applicable. The Kerner report, O W Wilson Police Administration, Goldstein Policing a Free Society, Muir Police: Streetcorner Politician are all very much applicable to today’s policing. I think there should be a Renaissance for out-of-date

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  3. What is you take on when you began compared today regarding corrupt government officials. Do you believe that the majority of officers preformed their duty to serve and protect the citizens then similar to the moral duty they display today as officers? I am speaking from my own experience interaction with law enforcement officers from Small town police chiefs up to the FBI. For example when you began do you believe the dept overall were willing to arrest local government officials committing criminal offenses regardless of their position as a public servant is comparable with today’s standards? Or have you seen more officers protecting public servants from being exposed of the crimes they are aware have been committed? Protect and serve the citizens or protect and serve the government. In my case a neighbor was issued fraudulent building permits by the city building administrator. The neighbor constructed nonconforming building on the legally non conforming lot. The redevelopment causes serious adverse effects to my private property. This neighbor was denied his redevelopment being recorded on the County plat map because it was not compliant with State building code and drainage laws. They he and the City/County officials determined his remedy was to eliminate me from my private property. By eliminating me he would have the opportunity to acquire my property. With the additional sq ft of my property added to his he would then have a lot large enough to legally contain his over sided non-compliant structures. The tactic used to eliminate me was chemicals applied to my private property. The chemicals began causing me a “rash” on my shins. I notified this neighbor not to apply anything to my private property again. He continued without any hesitation. I requested the police chief to trespass him from my property. The Police chief refused to trespass him. He advised me that he did not want to make this neighbor mad. The State attorney refused to trespass my neighbor from my private property. The State attorney advised that is has been his experience that neighbor complaints against neighbor never solve anything. On the other hand the Police chief and the State attorney filed criminal charges against me based of fabricated laws and ordinances. All charges were dismissed because the charges were baseless. The chemical assault continued. Non typical in a new property redevelopment and having no protection of the law, I was forced to hire an attorney to file a complaint against the City. The city was the liable party due to the fact that the building permits were fraudulent. The city did not follow the standard procedure in issuing and approving building permits. The city refused to file a complaint against my trespasser/ domestic terrorist. The evidence supports my attorney got a better offer from the opposing party, he suppressed evidence, he never objected to perjury made by the opposing party during the civil trial. He never questions any of my 7 witnesses when they took the stand to testify.
    This property not only provided my home but my business was also located at that address. My attorney never file the complaint against the City, he led me to believe that he had. 6 months later I was served a summons that this neighbor was suing me for “loss of enjoyment of his property”. On the last day of this court trial, I asked my attorney for an update on my case against the City. It was then that he informed me that he had not filed the complaint against the City. By this time a “rash” on my shins had developed into a full body severe skin condition. The effects were so severe it was unbearable to wear clothes. I was not able to function let alone work in my shop. I am posting a link to the rest of the story. Reflecting from when you began a career in law enforcement officers would knowingly allow acts of torture to be committed against a citizen knowing that the victim was being physically injured or have the moral obligation to stop any act that was intentional for the purpose of harming a citizen?

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    1. I sense you continue to struggle with your feeling that you have been dealt with unjustly. While I can sympathize with all you have gone through, the only advice I can think of is to find a good attorney, present him or her with the facts you have and listen to their advice as to whether you have an actionable complaint. If you do, pursue it. If not, you may have to move on. The way I handled injustices in the past was to remind myself that there is a difference between legal and factual guilt. We may know a person is guilty, yet we just were unable to prove it factually.

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  4. there was a civil trial in which the judge cited my right to use my property as I wished. That was never complied to or enforced. My evidence is indisputable. Most come from my assailants implicating themselves on public record.

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