I would imagine most community leaders, including police, are trying to sort out just what happened after May 25th, 2020, the day George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. If we look back, we will see tension rising since Ferguson in 2014. And if you really want to go back read the report of the Kerner Commission in 1968 on the “causes and prevention of violence in America.” Once again, George Floyd’s death caused a nation-wide outburst of protest and violence — events not seen in our country since the late 1960s.
Now is not too soon to start thinking about a long-range plan — a strategy to begin to fix things. I can assure you that the tension our nation is experiencing today in response to systemic racism and police violence will not go away by itself. It never has or will. The question is whether or not this time we will do something about it!
A few of you have asked me what needs to be done, here’s my take:
Like the caged canaries coal miners carried with them into the mines in order to detect poisonous gas, so police have become our nation’s “canaries” — those first to be impacted by the “poisonous gases” present in our society today.
This is so because police are the most visible and accessible representatives of our government. When societal problems arise (like the Covid-19 pandemic, decent-paying jobs, healthcare availability, the high cost of a college education, and the caging of immigrants) local police experience societal anger — an anger inflamed by all-too-many viral videos showing questionable (if not illegal) behavior of police toward citizens of color.
I do not know exactly what needs to be done in each of the above problem areas, but I do know what needs to be done to fix and save our nation’s police.
1. In the midst of these tensions, especially brought about by how and when police use force, there came about a call to defund or eliminate police. In spite of this, every effort must still be put forth to maintain police services and respond to crime and civil disorder. I know, it’s not easy. Yet the discussion needs to focus on a cooperative RE-IMAGINING of police, not their defunding or elimination.
2. When tension is reduced (nightly protests and property damaging cease) and city residents can sit down together and take a needed breath, it will be time to rationally discuss and re-imagine the police the community wishes to have.
3. The police chief, elected city officials, and other community leaders must come up with an improvement plan after deep listening to those who have been most affected by police action. The plan must address the various steps that will be taken in order to align the police function with the wishes and expectations of the community; steps that will build trust and support of the police function. In effect, this will be designed to change the “hearts and minds” of those police who are overly committed to a “warrior,” us-versus-them mentality. Instead, what is needed is a police department staffed by “guardians” of the community. Additionally, “hearts and minds” of community members who are dead-set on defunding or eliminating police out of anger must likewise be changed. Police officers committed to the status quo, must transform themselves or seek employment other than that of a police officer. It must be clear that the only way is forward is to to carry out the agreed-upon plan.
4. The chief of police and the command staff must be fully and totally committed to the plan and be passionate, patient, and consistent servant leaders, and strong practitioners of Procedural Justice. Without these kind of leaders, I can tell you that nothing will happen.
5. In order to do this, the chief of police must be given enough time and support (this is not the case in most cities which appoint police chiefs to 2 or 4-year terms). The chief must have a 5-7 year solid, performance-based, employment contract with goals and appropriate measures. If a city is committed to less than this, failure will most likely be the result.
6. In my experience, the unwillingness to take these important steps will result in few lasting improvements and a continuing erosion of the necessary trust and support police must have in free and diverse society such as ours.
7. The failure to take these steps will reinforce an old saying of mine that ‘a city deserves the police it has.” Which is a short version of Robert Kennedy’s, “Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves… every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on.” I happen to believe that every town and city in America deserves educated, well-trained, honest, respectful. community-oriented cops who will guard our nation and its values and model of our way of life.
( For more, download a free copy of my book, Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police, HERE.)
For an update as to where we are today, view Jelani Cobb’s recent and excellent PBS documentary “Policing the Police 2020.”
We can do this, but we must do it together — police and community members.