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.