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.

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