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.

6 thoughts on “Admitting the problem is the first step

  1. I Have to say (again) very well said. I remember sitting at my favorite traffic sign outside of Robles park housing. There was always something going on there. One stop was this older lady with her grandson in the car. She was so upset about getting pulled by the police. I did my thing with the computer and made the decision to just give a verbal warning. She grabbed me and gave me the biggest hug (scared me lol) but made my day. I think our safe space is needed but we have to remember our humanity also! Keep telling it like it us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Julie. That’s my perspective. Too often, officers don’t realize that slowing it down and giving someone a chance to have their say can many times prevent situations from escalating. And in the times when officers absolutely have to use force, if the community knows they are good at heart, it will mean the difference between support and riots. Thanks for always lending your perspective.

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  2. Why is it that public servants are expected never to make mistakes? I worked for two decades in the human services system, and I can attest to the fact that EVERYONE makes mistakes. I learned early on that when I messed something up and admitted it quickly with a promise to rectify my error, every single citizen/program participant (who wasn’t mentally ill) was grateful – at least grudgingly grateful – and most were pretty patient with the correction of the mistake.

    How many times did I hear a pissed-off client say, “All I wanted was an apology, an acknowledgment!, and you people just lied or shucked & jived, so now I’m filing a complaint/official report/law suit.”

    It’s when we fail to admit mistakes, when we get defensive, when we tell the client they’re wrong (when we know WE ARE) that most of the miscommunication, mistrust, and misuse of power occurs. Like Julie Moore said, “Keep telling it like it is.” That means tell the truth.

    Cops and teachers and welfare workers and politicians are human! We err in so may ways. If we’d all just admit it when mistakes happen, then such a big deal wouldn’t be made. People are so much more understanding if they believe you’re speaking the truth. AND – many mistakes can be avoided by instituting further training which nobody knows needs to be given if the mistakes aren’t brought to light. Transparency really does work in a whole lot of ways!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely right, Lori. I always find it interesting that in law enforcement, we are quick to criticize the citizen for any number of lapses, offenses, maintaining the snitching code, or whatever. If we are honest, we do exactly the same thing. It doesn’t help gain trust, which ends up fueling animosity, and makes both citizens and officers less safe.

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  3. Absolutely! You know my DT background. I remember being taught all of those wrong approaches many years ago as a recruit. I’m proud to say that my instruction is not like that. I teach how to have safe contact with the everyone. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of new, young instructors come in and try to teach “old school” (don’t apologize, don’t shake hands and don’t let anyone touch you). Their egos are getting the best of them and they want to show how tough they are, and tell these new recruits how tough they should be. The challenge is for these officers to figure it out for themselves, like we did as we went through our careers. The job becomes much more rewarding when the ballance between tough guy and human is met. It’s simply being a true professional.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steve, you are without a doubt a cop’s cop. your perspective on this issue is important because, in my humble opinion, too many have been using the “safety” as an excuse to try to show their toughness, as you say. It doesn’t hurt you one bit to show a little bit of compassion and humanity. I contend that most times, it will actually improve your contact with the public, then two great things happen: either you don’t have to get into a physical fight (or worse), or you might be able to use that rapport to get some actual intelligence on the street. That is good police work. Thanks for stopping by, bro. Be safe.

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