Policing in America: Sixty Years of Practice and Observation

Each time there is a policing crisis in our nation I say to myself, “This is a great opportunity for us to learn from this mistake, let’s correct it, and move forward.”

I am weary about advocating for police reform and improvement — and I’m a white guy – a white guy who’s was also a cop for 30+ years and a deep observer of social justice for another two decades.

This is what I see. Each time there is a policing crisis in our nation I say to myself, “This is a great opportunity to learn from this mistake, Let’s correct it, and move forward.”

It’s not that we don’t know what to do. It’s just that we can’t make the needed changes and reforms stick — we seem to be unable to sustain change.

I first felt the sting of bad policing as a young 22-year old as I began my police career in 1960. It was during a traffic stop that the driver, upset at being stopped, asked me if I was one of those “burglar cops.” This was shortly after a number of Denver police officers were arrested for burglarizing businesses on duty and loading their ill-gotten goods into the trunk of their squad cars.

A thousand miles away from Colorado, my integrity was being questioned! I quickly understood that bad behavior by one police officer affected all of us. It influenced how my community thought about me and impacted my effectiveness as a cop. It became personal; like a family member being sentenced to prison.

From that time on, I can recite a number of incidents that embarrassed me over the years of my career. Each one reminded me to be very careful of my own behavior. When I became a leader, I wanted to be sure that my officers would work hard to make sure their behavior never would embarrass our department or other police officers.

Yet soon after the Denver incident, there were other embarrassing, even shocking, moments as fellow officers were handled civil rights and anti-war protests, how their department’s had loose policies on uses of physical force, and how there was little accountability for their bad behavior.

There was the highly publicized savage beating of Rodney King in 1991 and Michael Brown’s death in 2014. It was 2014 when our nation became aware of a series of questionable, if not criminal, assaults on young black men and women leading to their deaths.

These deaths seemed to occur all too frequently. Didn’t we learn from mistakes? After all, we had viral video accounts of most of these incidents. Millions of times they were viewed on social media for the viewer to make up his or her own mind. Citizens no longer had to discern between conflicting accounts between police and bystanders regarding what happened.

Journalists alerted us in 2014 to the actual number of persons killed by police. the number was almost three times as high as our government was reporting. That number, approximately 1,000, has remained essentially the same each year since 2014 — a rate far higher than any civilized country in the world and disproportionally involved victims of color,

And now, once again, we have another video account of a black man’s life extinguished by police in Minneapolis. But this time there was a national explosion. People shouted “enough was enough,” but would it drive real and sustained transformation of our nation’s police?

Many of us thought this time was different, The protests surround the death/murder of George Floyd on MAY 25, 2020 did not only drive black citizens out onto our streets, but thousands of white citizens turned out with them. Some of these protests resulted in widespread property damage. Some continue even to this day.

At last, I thought, this would is the straw which will break the back of racism and racist practices in our nation. Now we will have a re-imagining and reforming our police and are other systems of criminal justice. Not so fast.

After months of protest, calls to de-fund, even eliminate police, little has occurred and I can predict few of the measures will be sustained. Initial efforts to significantly change and improve police services seem to be slowly drifting away into the dustbin of political history. Mainstream America is, again, wanting all this to just go away — “Can’t we just get back to normal?” Many in America today are saying, “No!” They do not want the way it was, they want improved policing practices.

We need to understand that the strategy of police and our system of government is to hold and maintain the status quo. That means seeking cover when criticized, and encouraging dog-whistling such as “Back the Blue,” “All Lives Matter,” and “Who will protect you from ‘them’ except for us?” (As an aside, I remember fellow officers saying, “If you don’t want us to come by when someone is breaking into your home at 2 0’clock in the morning, why don’t you call a hippie?”)

What is occurring in our nation should not surprise any of us. It is our nation’s fearful response to race in a society and system of justice which has far too long been racist. It pains me to write this because I sense this summer could have been a moment in which we significantly reformed and improved our nation’s police services; instead, we seem to have lost the momentum in this strange time of dealing with two deadly viruses: Covid-19 and racism.

As a nation, we never intentionally developed a social control system which highlighted our professed values of fairness and equality. We never had a chance because, even if we tried, there was always present the specter of race and the question of what are we to do with these millions of people we enslaved, diminished, and persecuted? The unvoiced fear that white America must protect itself from those whom they have abused, injured, and disfranchised for two centuries.

After the civil war, we tried to free those whom we had enslaved for our economic enrichment. There were good intentions, but we never did accept “our property” as “fellow Americans.” We prevented them from being restored by underfunding their children’s education, providing poor medical care, limiting their job opportunities, and geographically segregating them by “red-lining” the many housing opportunities which were afforded white citizens. When we needed their manpower, they came north and east and worked in our factories. When we went to war, they served and died along with the rest of u. But Jim Crow never stayed south. He came north and was all too welcomed. I came to know this and I sense you may have, too. If not, you should.

The only way forward now is to begin anew the creation of a police system which is willing and able to truly “protect and serve;” policing that is, fair and equitable, committed to Procedural Justice and a style that is truly collaborative and community-oriented.

Years ago, we didn’t think about how we would organize, train, and supervise a Constitutionally-focused police service. Instead, it slowly emerged from working-class private watchmen which were hired to protect the stores, warehouses (and neighborhoods) of the wealthy. Working class men to control and manage throw below them in status.

When private police became public employees, little changed; lock up the drunks and vagrants, keep order with your nightstick, and protect the assets of those who pay your wages.

Looking back, we should have known the many ways this could go wrong. In a society which highlights its Bill of Rights, claims freedom for its citizens, welcomes diversity, and advertises itself as a “shining light upon a hill,” needs the very best men and women among them to enforce its laws.

I won’t go on, yet permit me to say that unless we truly take the bold step of honestly and openly re-imagining and reconstituting our nation’s police along the line of our deep and enduring values, we will continue to go through these painful, chaotic and often violent urban explosions.

No longer should national commissions, “band-aid” improvements, and hollow pledges be accepted without quantitative improvement in building trustful and supportive relationships between ALL members of our society. At the same time, we must encourage our “best and brightest” to serve as police, thoroughly train them, and provide them with well-trained and mature coaches and leaders.

It is time we in America “walk our talk” with regard to how we want our laws to be enforced. Policing in America must always be in accordance with the founding principles of our nation — the deep, visceral values we hold as Americans.

We must seize the day. We cannot, once again, miss the opportunity to do this.