Symbols of Hate

Everyday when I drove to and from work I cringed when I reached the apex of interstates 4 and 75 on the outskirts of Tampa. The reason for my reaction? A Confederate flag the size of a football field flying at that location. As cops, we understand what symbols mean. Gang signs, signature clothing, and tattoos have always been warning signs that we need to treat a situation or individual with more caution. I submit to you that we should add the Confederate battle flag to the list of red flags when assessing individuals for violence. In today’s hyper-charged climate, safety dictates that cops understand that many home-grown hate groups view you as totalitarian enforcers of a government they hate. As a country I believe there is a broader reason to shun this symbol.

I’ve heard all the rationale and excuses surrounding the continued use of the rebel flag. Heritage, Southern Pride, and whatever else people choose to explain the use of that flag, but for me it doesn’t fly. The flag has historically been used as a symbol of hate, no less than the swastika used by the Nazis. It’s no accident that the neo-Nazi’s continue to use that as their preferred symbol. Germany, unlike us, understands the power of such hateful symbols and long ago banned the use of the swastika. When symbols are so closely aligned with hate and massacre, they should be banned. The removal of such vile imagery should not cause any uproar.

So, why, after more than 150 years, do parts of our country continue to cling to the Confederate battle flag? It’s not a question I have an answer to because I really don’t get it. If somebody has a plausible explanation—no, not the BS “heritage” claim—I’d really like to hear it. What if it was a Taliban flag? An Isis flag? Would we be so accepting? We are so quick to judge the symbols of hate, genocide, and tyranny in other cultures—rightly so. But what about us? Are we saying that our home-grown symbols of hate are less offensive? Really? All of these symbols give inspiration and cover to those on the fringes who act out violently, because they are messages of legitimacy. We are all to blame for allowing it.

The fact that the United States Flag is flying at half staff over the South Carolina state house as a sign of grieving, while the Confederate battle flag arrogantly flaps at the top of its pole is a slap in our collective faces as citizens of this country. Have the common decency to take the offensive symbol down while your community grieves. Then commit to a real conversation and reckoning about what it really represents.

No. It is not heritage it is the symbol of hate. It represents taking up arms against our country to preserve some perceived “right” to hate. It represents the enslaving of Black people, and people willing to go to war to defend the institution of slavery. Read your history. Mississippi’s declaration of secession spelled it out in the second sentence: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” The flag is a symbol of this belief. It is not some benign “aw, shucks” symbol of harmless country folk. The Klan and other hate groups have always used that flag as a symbol of intolerance and violence. No amount of revisionist history to absolve the Confederacy can change any of this. It is a battle flag and the fight was rooted in oppression. Its continued presence in communities and even government buildings, sends a dark message that we have not overcome. The solution is simple. Remove the Confederate flag from all government buildings. Now.

Let Them Never Be Forgotten

It’s Law Week. May 15 is officially recognized as Law Enforcement Memorial Day. A day set aside to honor the service and ultimate sacrifice made by Peace Officers dating back to the beginning of our country. Each year, the names of more heroes are added to the stone facades, a permanent testament and promise to never forget.

Police officers in our country are serving in a climate of excessive criticism, in levels not seen in a generation. The cop on the beat is scrutinized and blamed for factors often beyond his/her control, more than ever before. Every day, another article appears to blame police for some other purported transgression. Sometimes the complaint has merit, but most of the time it does not. The noise is loud all around, but what is lost in the shouting and blame is what police officers still do on every street in this country, every day. They confront criminals and do their best to maintain safety and order in their communities. They defend the thin blue line between criminals and citizens. Far too often, the officer pays the price with their very life, like NYPD Officer Brian Moore did last week.

On average, every 54 hours a police officer is killed somewhere in this country. Last year, 127 officers died in the line of duty. Their names will be carved into the memorial and read at the candlelight vigil in D.C. The police nation will pause to remember those lost and renew their commitment to the brotherhood of law enforcement, the honor of the Thin Blue Line.

In spite of the dangers and criticisms, cops continue to serve and protect. As NYPD Commissioner Bratton said yesterday, “We cannot be defined by that criticism. Because what is lost in the shouting and the rhetoric, is the context of what we do.” There will be plenty of time for debate as our country moves forward. Policing will adapt and adjust, the way it has always done. But what will not change is what is inherent in the job: crime is messy. Still, the vast majority of cops who walk the beat every day for our safety do so with honor and integrity. A small number of incidents, compared to the millions of encounters, cannot and will not undermine the bravery and dedication of the thousands of police officers who serve us with distinction. The raging debate has no place at this memorial.

Law Week is to honor service, sacrifice and bravery. Those officers who laid down their lives in your service represent the best in our nation. Let them never be forgotten.

National, military-like standards would help policing

We see the videos popping up more and more, capturing the worst of the police profession. It makes good cops angry and more disturbingly, casts a shadow over the profession, making even the average person wonder about all cops. It’s frustrating, I know. But, instead of getting angry at the person who posted the video, we should be angry at the individual tarnishing our badge, and the system that allows those unworthy personnel to stay too long, by resigning and moving to another jurisdiction. They should not keep their certification. We need higher standards and a commitment to uphold those standards nationwide.

I’m going to say something completely challenging the popular narrative in our culture today. We don’t need less militarization of policing, we need more. Yes, I said more.

Dear, citizen, I hear you yelling, “WTH?” But, before you fly off the handle and your head explodes, please listen. Not bigger, badder guns or armored vehicles. We need more military-like training and streamlined standards. I’ll explain. When you join the Marines, you go to basic training at Parris Island, SC or San Diego, CA. Everybody goes there for training. The same training. There is a standard curriculum and standard requirements in order for you to EARN the right to call yourself a marine. That’s right. EARN the title. In the process you learn what character it takes to be a marine. What’s best about this is that once a marine is forged into the proper mold, now any duty assignment he goes to, his superiors know that he has at least met the minimum criteria for becoming a marine. More importantly, his fellow marines can rest assured of his training in the event they have to cover each others asses in a firefight.

That’s what we need in law enforcement. Standards and continuity. We say we have them, and their are various criminal justice standards organizations, but the truth is they are a patchwork of differing requirements state to state. Training for law enforcement should be standardized nationally. A cop in a small town in Iowa should get the same training as a cop in LA, and held to the same standard of achievement. That way, a cop in a small town in Virginia, who moves to Tampa is truly making a lateral move and can be readily assimilated. As a nation and profession, we have to come to the realization that too often we have been derelict in our duty to ensure only the best wear a badge. An officer’s standing and responsibility in the society requires a higher level of character and physical fitness. Once selected, it is then our duty to ensure rigorous, continued, training, even though that costs money. It’s imperative that we make this change.

Police recruits should EARN the right to hold the title of Police Officer. Exhibit the character required to wear a badge. Too often, we have relinquished law enforcement training to our community colleges and accepted less stringent standards on a daily basis. I’ve heard way too many stories from new officers that half the time instructors didn’t show up or their FTO didn’t do anything but dog a certain intersection for traffic tickets, and consequently they are on the street and don’t know how to handle some basic call. More disturbing is the tendency today in law enforcement to hire experienced officers, without really vetting them. We need look no further than a few current cases in the news. The Tamir Rice shooting and the Floyd Dent excessive force case both feature examples of officers who left their agencies under questionable circumstances and are now in the news again. Raising the standards of law enforcement and making a commitment to one another that those standards will be universal could prevent these and many more cases like them. I mean, how is it that the Tulsa Sheriff can openly say that he has the power to “waive criteria”? And in the past month, NYPD and Philadelphia have openly acknowledged they haven’t been requiring their officers to undergo continuing training in critical areas like defensive tactics. If the first and fourth largest agencies in this country are neglecting training, what does logic say is happening elsewhere? That’s a big problem.

Folks, we have to take a hard look at our professional standards. Raising the bar will benefit every good cop on the streets today. This, in turn, will benefit our communities, and make our cities safer. Most importantly, national standards will begin to restore the public’s faith in law enforcement. If you’re a cop today, you don’t have to be perfect. We know you are human. But as a profession, policing must start striving for a national level of excellence. The time is now.

~Be safe.

Admitting the problem is the first step

At my retirement ceremony, given the opportunity to say a few words, I decided to end on this challenge: To my peers, I said don’t fall into the numbers trap, remember these are people you are serving, not numbers. I turned to the department staff and added: Please don’t forget the officers who work for you are people, not numbers.

A friend of mine asked recently what systemic changes could address the very contentious issues of policing and race in our country today. For me, it has to be reconnecting with people. To be sure, there are dangerous criminals and police officers must be ready to defend themselves, but most people are not. This affects even our interactions with average citizens and victims. We are taught to maintain this “safety distance”, and too often that morphs into a superiority buffer. The compassion I talked about last time dissolves in that defined space.

Early in my career, a homeless man was beaten and robbed. He was upset and desperate to have someone listen to him. In his emotional state, he grabbed my arm, begging me to hear him. My sergeant immediately shoved the man and chastised me for allowing him to touch me. I know he was thinking of safety, but I honestly, to this day, I do not think the man wanted to harm me.

As a new supervisor handling my first citizen complaint, I realized after speaking to the officer and citizen, the officer was wrong. The citizen, a calm, rational woman, wanted the officer to apologize. I asked him to do it. The woman was very satisfied and the complaint was resolved. Soon after, I was shocked when a colleague of mine told me I handled it wrong, saying flatly, “We don’t apologize.”

I’ve thought about this attitude a great deal with the recent scrutiny of law enforcement misconduct. I wonder, what are we so afraid of? Why can’t I do something as humane as giving a victim a hug if the situation warrants? Why is it wrong to simply acknowledge our shortcomings, fix the issues, and apologize, if applicable? I mean, if you and I are friends and I do something to hurt you or make you angry, the only way for us to really get past the harm is for me to acknowledge my actions and apologize. Right? Otherwise, I cannot regain my goodwill with you. It’s a very basic human dynamic. And law enforcement is all about human dynamics.

We are starting to see a change. In the video age, more officer misconduct is exposed, leading to more accountability. It’s a painful, positive step. I take no pleasure in seeing officers charged with felony crimes, but we cannot have a double standard. Most officers have integrity. Human mistakes can be fixed, but the profession loses credibility by ignoring or attempting to excuse those who do not. There are simply too many shocking videos to ignore the problem. Too many of these individuals have checkered histories or been allowed to move from agency to agency. Law enforcement has to own it and take credible steps to fix it.

Good cops should not be sorry to see the bad go. They only make your job harder and you and your peers less safe. Only when the entire police profession is willing to tackle systemic issues, be honest with the public at all times, and purge those who violate the trust of the badge will police be able to begin the process of repairing its crucial relationship with the citizens of our country. As retired NYPD Chief Phillip Banks said last week, “Cops hate two things: The way things are and change.” This change in thinking has to come, and it has to happen sooner than later. We can bridge this credibility gap. Fixing law enforcement’s house does not mean giving in to criminals. Accepting one’s flaws makes you stronger, not weaker. The first step to healing is always admitting the problem.

~Be safe.

Numbers and Compassion Don’t Mix

This week, I read two good perspectives on empathy and policing by retired Chief David Couper and current D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier. Both rightly argued that empathy is something we are often lacking in modern policing—the ability to see things from another’s point of view. Chief Lanier points directly to policies of measuring performance by numbers as the reason for the empathy gap. From a street cop’s perspective, I couldn’t agree more.

When we all started going down the Compstat road, and police administrators started openly advocating treating our profession like a business counting widgets, things slowly began to unravel. Don’t get me wrong, Compstat has its place in identifying crime locations and determining where to put cops to fight that crime, but measuring those cops’ worth based on numbers is a path that soon puts the cops at odds with the entire community. The numbers-only system removes objectivity and most discretion, the two key ingredients in policing with compassion.

A friend of mine worked in a housing project known for notoriously high crime. After a series of shootings and other crimes, he was told to step up patrols in the area. The officer, knowing his zone, took the message to mean, stop the violent crime. He identified the key players, made a few good cases and removed the perpetrators from the neighborhood. At the end of the month, there were no shootings on his watch and crime was half what it had been! He should have gotten a citation for outstanding work, right? No. He was chastised for his lack of tickets and drop in arrests. (He had focused on the main criminals, and ignored minor crime). By policing with more discretion, he garnered greater trust and was able to get valuable information about crime from citizens. But, on the books, he looked like a slacker. Crazy, huh? The truth often is.

Another friend of mine was confronted with a dilemma on a traffic stop years ago. The driver of the car had a terrible driving record and his license was suspended so many times that he was considered a Habitual Traffic Offender, a felony at the time in FL. In this instance, the easiest—and many would say right—thing to do was for her to simply arrest the man and tow his car. But. There was an older woman in the passenger seat. The man bowed his head, telling the officer that his mother’s legs hurt so bad due to a medical condition that he risked going to pick her up to spare her the pain of walking home. My friend, after confirming the man had no other criminal background or warrants beyond the traffic fines, made a decision. She asked the woman if she had a valid license. She did. The officer then looked at the man and said, “I would do anything for my mom. I’m supposed to arrest you, but I’m not. Let your mother drive from here. Take care of your license. If I see you driving in another setting, I will arrest you. Fair?” The man was so grateful, he started to cry.

So, what’s the moral of the story? Technically, should my friend have taken the guy in? Yes. Did it really hurt anything for my friend to let him go? No. Do that guy and his mom now have a different perspective on the police? I’d say yes. In contrast, the officer with no compassion, simply “cuffs and stuffs”, indifferent to a personal story. When citizens become numbers, they cease to be people. Compassion is eliminated. Then, it’s a short jump to mistreatment or worse. For me, empathy and compassion are the two greatest traits of a good cop. In policing, we are too often told that those words equal weakness. That is fundamentally wrong. In fact, police are at their very best when they temper enforcement with compassion. Police leadership has to be bold enough to value empathy in the form of unconventional problem solving that cannot normally be measured like a pile of beans. It will take a little more work, but a community that sees its police as compassionate and just will support its police in times of crisis. Officers on the street are safer when community support is high.

Be safe.

The Leadership We Need

I am continually amazed when true inspiration strikes without warning.

Yesterday a friend of mine shared a blog, Stuff that needs to be said, by the Reverend John Pavlovitz.  Once I began reading his words I found I couldn’t stop. This man is a true spiritual leader, the kind we sorely need in many areas of our country today. Real leadership means saying what needs to be said, even when it’s very hard.

On this Easter Sunday, I thought it would be great to apply some of Reverend Pavlovitz’s ideas to the broad conversation of race and policing. What we need is honest reflection and soul-searching. When I see videos of questionable police behavior, I wince. And every good cop should, too. Because every time one of your peers oversteps his/her authority, they make your job harder, they make you and your fellow cops less safe. If I’m honest with myself, I admit that I didn’t always take a firm stand with my fellow cops when I saw small signs of racism or heard racist comments in the halls of the PD. Why? I could rationalize that, as a woman and a lesbian, I was fighting my own battles for inclusion and didn’t have the clout among my peers to challenge them, but the truth is I was a coward. Most of us are when it comes to the subtle injustices day to day. We let it slide, tell ourselves it’s harmless fun. Well, it’s not.

Later in my career, when I had the confidence to address it, I did. But, not strongly enough. There’s a code we all have–not just in law enforcement–our society has it. We don’t snitch. We don’t want to get our co-workers into trouble, right? We don’t want to argue with our friends. Easter dinner will be so much easier if I don’t rock the boat. So, we feebly laugh at the joke and walk away. In law enforcement there’s a subtle worry that niggles at the back of all of our minds: If I piss off my peers, they might not back me up. That’s a very powerful controlling motivator for the group as a whole. I believe that the vast majority of cops will back each other up, regardless of personal feelings…but…what if…? It’s hard to shake that fear. If you’re honest, you know it’s there.

Even as a supervisor, when I learned officers had a racist acronym for learning the name of the streets in the housing projects, I was shocked. I spoke to the individual officer and told them it was wrong. But, I should have done more. When I met resistance above me, I should have pushed harder. We should push harder. That is what leadership requires. I realize now that this is the biggest systemic change needed in law enforcement and our community as a whole. Whatever form racism manifests itself is wrong. Police and community leaders have to do more to acknowledge the damage it does. Bias and racism lead to dehumanizing the other side and tacitly condones the escalating violence. We have to stop allowing it. We must attack it at the roots.

A couple of months ago, the new Pittsburgh Police Chief, Cameron McLay, had his picture taken by a group at a rally in downtown Pittsburgh. Chief McLay held up a sign: End White Silence. The chief took a beating for that. Immediately, the police union jumped up and down, crying that the chief was calling police officers racist. No. He. Was. Not. The chief was talking about what I described above. Our tendency to ignore what we think are minor infractions. We have to stop because it allows the behavior to go on, and those of us who tell ourselves we aren’t racist, but who do not step up, are wrong.

I promise you, it will be okay if you speak up. A couple of years ago, a family member of mine made a racist joke at my dinner table. I challenged them immediately because I didn’t want the children at the table to think I thought it was okay. I made my point and it didn’t ruin dinner. We moved on. After that, it became easier to act in those small, one on one moments, both personally and professionally, and you know what? It made me feel a lot better when it happened. So many times we tell ourselves that we cannot fix problems like racism because they are just too large. It’s really not true. One on one interactions are probably the most important of all. They grow, like the ripple in the pond. Remember, in policing, you are safer on the street when more community members see you as just. I felt better once I started to take positive actions in small ways. You will, too.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. Be safe.

A Warning to Our Nation’s Police

Retired Chief David Couper shares his thoughts on what law enforcement can do to improve community relations. It’s not about blame, it’s understanding that all sides have to have skin in the game in order to overcome our challenges. Be safe everyone.

Improving Police

Unknown-1Many of you know that I am a person who has put a number of years into the discipline of policing a free society — and I do say “discipline” because policing consists of the multiple disciplines of psychology, sociology, law, emergency medicine, rhetoric, martial arts, history, education, and philosophy (and a few other as well).

And since my retirement, I have been watching, analyzing, writing, and listening to and about police matters. I have recently come to a conclusion about what is going on and a prediction for the future — deep-down, I do hope I am wrong!

Since Ferguson, I have felt a sense of urgency in the nation — and I know that when I write and talk about that urgency has rubbed many of you the wrong way. Agitated or not, police need to look outside themselves and into the cities and communities they serve.

Here’s what…

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