Respect all citizens or get out

I believe the profession of law enforcement is a truly honorable calling.

A calling. Not a job. A calling is about service. Real service puts others over self.

In these contentious times, it seems to me, part what putting others first requires is to listen. What citizens are telling us is that there are problems. It’s that simple.

Instead of getting ourselves personally offended by their protests, and dismissing people’s experiences, maybe a better way is to begin to listen. Pointing fingers and laying blame are not working for us. They make us look petty and thin-skinned, not heroic. They continue to exacerbate tensions and increase fear and anger. The volatile mix gets cops and citizens hurt and killed. That is the only thing we should be working to change.

Policing in a democracy means that we answer to the public. Right now, minorities do not feel as if policing as a whole is working for them. Maybe not you or your department individually, but as a whole, there is a confidence gap, fear, anger, and lack of trust. Lack of trust is a critical problem that jeapordizes officer safety and effectiveness. So, why do we we keep lashing out at anyone who asks us to do some self-reflection and consider that policing might improve?

More importantly, why do we keep insisting there is no problem when the evidence to the contrary hits us between the eyes nearly every day?

The other day another racially-charged incident happened in this country. This time it was at a military school affiliated with the US Air Force Academy. The commander of the academy, Lieutenant General Jay Silveria stepped up to give a speech that is a leadership example for the ages. The general’s words made me realize that is the kind of leadership law enforcement really needs right now.

A couple of racist idiots painted racial slurs on the lockers of African American cadets. The general could have made a lame statement about how there are a few bad apples everywhere. He could have insisted that most men and women at the academy are not bigots and asked us to overlook this as an isolated incident. He could have blamed the prep school and disavowed any racist or other bigoted behaviors in the Air Force Academy or Air Force as a whole. He could have referred to their anti-discrimination policy in the terms we’ve all become accustomed to hearing. Instead he did what was necessary and right.

General Silveria said what I believe every law enforcement leader needs to start saying when an incident tinged with racist overtones or indefensible behavior occurs in their agency. It’s not enough to say you have a policy and people know the rules. Leaders need to step to the microphone and state their values in no uncertain terms to every cop and in earshot of every citizen in the community.

“So, just in case you’re unclear on where I stand on this topic: If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you can’t treat someone from another gender with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out. And if you can’t treat someone from another race with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.” ~ General Jay Silveria

Yes. That’s right. Get out.

We’ve got to stop sugar coating. We’ve got to stop making excuses. This has nothing to do with the job being hard. Nothing to do with danger. It’s about the integrity of the badge. It’s about service and honor. We can no longer afford to have those with questionable ethics, racist views, or any moral character deficiencies that tarnish policing. There can be no room for such people in law enforcement. Period. The public and fellow cops must all know where you stand. Say it loud and often.

The one clear agreement among community members and rank and file cops is actually this: Problem cops aren’t held accountable. That is no small coincidence. We all know it, but an unwritten rule says we shouldn’t talk about it. So, publicly, we focus on “bad apples” and “mistakes” of judgement. This weak argument is transparent to the public and keeps us from truly purging those folks from police ranks.

The general spoke directly to diversity and bias by saying, “We’d be naive to say this isn’t a problem in our ranks.” Law enforcement must take this clear-eyed, direct approach. When an incident happens and one of our own is exposed for bias, character flaws or excessive force, we should speak with equal clarity. Unfortunately, law enforcement has largely been unwilling to publicly denounce such behavior and say what needs said.

So, as the general says, there’s a better idea. Real leadership. Step up and let the world know you stand firm on the values of your profession. Right now, loud and clear.

If you cannot treat all persons with respect, then you need to get out. There is no place for you in law enforcement.

The public and good cops everywhere will stand and cheer.

Zero as a goal

Zero. That’s the goal.

Law enforcement strives for zero crime. Of course we know that is unachievable, but still, we must try. This is the understood objective of our profession. Sure, we could shrug and say there will never be zero crime, and somewhere inside we know this is true. Yet, we strive for zero. We accept the challenge.

Just because we can’t get crime to zero, we don’t give up the goal. We keep changing our tactics, trying anything we can to arrive at a goal we know is unachievable. Why?

Because we know it’s a worthy goal. More than that, we know if we strive for zero, we will succeed in reduction and any reduction is success.

What if we applied that simple metric to every area of our profession?

Why isn’t our stated goal for police shootings zero?

If we had the courage to make that the goal, by the same rationale as overall crime, we would not eliminate police shootings, but reductions would inevitably be the result.

A goal to reduce shootings would not mean endangering officers. Quite the opposite, it would focus training on tactics and critical thinking that would most often slow things down and give officers time to assess and react. This would improve safety. We know many situations require split-second decisions and officers have to react. More often, officer safety and training is abandoned in critical situations, leading to officer induced danger and unnecessary escalation.

This is where we can drive down the numbers. We talk so much about the value of training and preparedness. Training should include far more prevention skills than any of us have ever gotten. I hear so many people talking about de-escalation in training, but the reality is that officers get very little training in this area.

Historically, our training is disproportionately heavy in shoot scenarios and escalation. The tragic result is that officers then resort to force when they have no alternative skill set. We teach threat/no threat. Black or white. All or nothing. In truth, reality is almost always infinite shades of grey.

Yes, training budgets are sparse, and sadly, are often the first cost-cutting measures in agencies. This shortsighted thinking ignores the much higher cost of litigation and the emotional toll on officers involved. Driving down the number of shootings with a sound policy goal of zero, paired with the training to work toward this goal makes fiscal sense. It’s also good public policy.

We won’t achieve zero police shootings but zero should always be the goal.

Stay on the side of right

The news in the past few days has been filled with the pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and tough guy Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, who is selling a new book. I’ve seen praise over the past couple of years from law enforcement officers and former colleagues for both of these men. There is this narrative that they represent tough, no-nonsense leadership that make them the quintessential cop’s cops.

Are these guys who we really want to emulate?

I know it’s easy to get caught up in the tough guy rhetoric. So, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at the men being touted as the example for law enforcement to follow. That way we can ask again if these are our values.

As sheriff in Maricopa County, Arpaio famously bragged that his tent city jail was a concentration camp. Investigations since the mid-90’s have exposed extreme abuses in Arapaio’s jails, where even paraplegics demanding catheters in order to urinate are physically abused. People who require insulin or other medication for survival are denied and some die as a result. You can read more about the abuses at his jails here.

But let’s move on to his street law enforcement abuses. Arapaio ordered the arrest of reporters who wrote stories he didn’t like. He fabricated an assassination attempt on his life, trying to frame a convict for the non-existent crime. He said he considered the comparisons of his department to the Klan as an honor.

These shocking cases pale in comparison to Arpaio’s most far-reaching and devastating attack on the rule of law, professionalism, and integrity in law enforcement practice. In Arpaio’s county, race wasn’t one factor in a law enforcement reasonable suspicion for a stop, the way most law-abiding cops do their jobs. In Arpaio’s world, racial profiling is the only factor necessary for a stop. Officers only need to say the individual “looks like an illegal immigrant.”

These are the reasons that the Bush DOJ opened investigations to the sheriff. Arpaio has been well known as a sheriff who consistently violates constitutional rights. It might fun to wax poetic about what a great world it would be if we could ignore the pesky laws that govern police behavior and just stop anyone we want at any time. Message boards abound with posts about how working for Sheriff Joe would be great. But, no upstanding cop with integrity should be defending the actions by this thug masquerading as a lawman.

In Milwaukee, Clarke’s dubious resume isn’t quite as long, but he also has many complaints racked up, including an inmate who died of thirst after deputies turned off the water to his cell. He became furious when a man on a flight “disrespected him” and had deputies, including a K9, meet the man when he disembarked from the plane in Milwaukee. He said the man threatened him. No charges were filed.

These men attract lots of attention for their bluster and bravado, but nothing about their actions or words are helpful to law enforcement. Police departments rely on good community relationships in order to effectively solve crime, and more importantly, cops need good relationships for their personal safety day to day. Cheering civil rights violations and abusive behavior is not the path to improved community relations. If we truly believe and worry about the dangers for cops in our current national discourse, then we should reject the rhetoric of these kinds of leaders.

We need to be very careful in the way we show our commitment to our profession. Cop’s support for abusive and illegal policies should be a red flag to all who care about our future. Police have to stand on the side of the constitution, because that is the foundation of our freedom. When cops are willing to encourage civil rights abuses and thuggish behavior from so-called real lawmen in some twisted need for validation of our worth, then we need to take a hard look at ourselves. Blind loyalty in our ranks has never been the answer.

Good cops know the difference between right and wrong. Stay on the side of right.

Be safe.

Cops are dying. What are we doing about it?

If you want to prevent police shootings, then quit bitching and do something.

Last Saturday night six police officers were shot in this country. Three incidents in which two officers were shot. Police departments use after-action reports and investigations to prosecute the offender (if the offender wasn’t killed) and ostensibly to examine the events in order to learn from what occurred to hopefully improve safety. That’s the goal, right?

In Uniontown, PA, state troopers were shot while attempting to arrest an individual they believed was dealing in stolen property (Xbox taken from a recent burglary). During a struggle, the w/m suspect pulled out a .38 revolver and fired. The bullet went through one trooper’s hand and struck the second trooper in the abdomen. Troopers returned fire and killed the suspect. The suspect, a felon and registered sex offender, still had a firearm in his possession and used it to shoot officers.

In Jacksonville, FL, officers responded to a call about a suicidal subject threatening others in the home. Upon arrival, officers heard shots, and fearing for the others in the home, decided to enter. Suspect shot the officers through the door with an assault-style rifle. One officer was shot in both hands, the other officer was shot in the abdomen. Officers were able to return fire and kill the suspect. The suspect was mentally ill but still had access to an assault rifle used to shoot officers.

In Kissimmee, FL, officers were checking out a group of suspicious individuals and one suspect physically resisted. During the struggle, the suspect shot both officers with a revolver. When located later that night, the suspect was in possession of a revolver and semi-automatic handgun. Both officers died from their injuries. The suspect is a retired marine with a history of mental illness, and still had weapons.

My friends, I’ve written about mental illness, felons, and guns and law enforcement in the past. I’m angry that as a country and a profession, we refuse to speak out forcefully and loudly on these issues. I’m sick of politics getting in the way. I’m sick of hearing about Second Amendment rights.

When are we going to demand a change in policy? When are we going to take proactive steps to remove firearms from these homes? Why don’t we stand up and say this is inexcusable?

We can get angry and yell about police officers dying, but what good does it do if we don’t take real action? Felons and mentally ill persons are responsible for the majority of police killings. Mental illness is a factor in up to 50% of all police shootings. We have to honestly look at the problem in order to start solving it. Proactively removing firearms from these individuals and their homes would dramatically reduce the likelihood of police shootings.

If we could possibly prevent half of police shootings, why wouldn’t we? We know these two categories of subjects we deal with are the biggest threats. It’s time to do something real instead of wringing our hands and wiping our tears. Our refusal to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people is a self-inflicted problem. That is the truth. Cops keep dying. We say we care.

What are we going to do about it?

Political Mental Illness and Guns

I wonder how Steve Scalise thinks his leadership is working out today?

On Feb 2nd, the NRA gushed over the politicians who showed great leadership in removing the previous administration’s “final gun grab” by eliminating the order designed to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Today, a sick individual shot at a group of lawmakers playing baseball in Virginia, and one of those NRA darlings was shot. The irony is thick. I don’t say that with any satisfaction. In fact, it sickens and angers me that we keep having this same discussion over and over. Trust me, I’m not blaming the gun. I’m blaming our refusal to act in managing their possession responsibly.

Fact:        Mass shootings are on the rise, mostly committed by mentally ill subjects

Fact:        Police killings are overwhelmingly at the hands of mentally ill subjects or felons

Fact:        The American public supports common sense measures like universal background checks and preventing mentally ill individuals from buying guns

Fact:        Law enforcement deaths by gunfire are up 21% so far this year according to ODMP

Yes, I know, we can’t prevent all gun violence, but saying this tragedy couldn’t have been prevented by any of those measures is like saying we shouldn’t have DUI laws because we can’t prevent every traffic crash.

I’m tired of the excuses. We all know better. We in law enforcement especially know better. You see the carnage and live the danger every day. We know that expanding background checks and keeping people on terror watch lists and mentally unstable people from buying guns are all good ideas.

A small possible delay for me in my next gun purchase is not too much to ask to try to prevent more tragedies.

Will today’s shooting of a US Senator make him or his party reconsider their subservience to the NRA? I wish I thought so.

What I do know is this: Mental illness and guns don’t mix. Law Enforcement needs to start leading on this issue. Let’s have the courage to have some honest conversations and speak up. The life it saves may be your own.

Be Safe.

 

**I was in the middle of writing another (related) commentary on the pending legislation on silencers when this shooting happened. I’ll post that very soon.

Obama Hates Cops

Across policing there is a generally accepted narrative: Former President Obama never supported cops. In fact, he hated cops. Many of my friends, even those who see the need for progressive police reform, tend to share this belief, at least to some degree. The most strident majority has even gone as far as saying that any cop who supports the former president is a traitor to the profession and have the blood of the fallen on their hands.

That kind of inflammatory rhetoric does nothing to help solve any of the issues for policing in this country. I would argue that it is equally damaging to community and officer safety as any anarchists carrying signs or chanting slogans calling for the killing of cops. These equal and opposite reactions only inflame the tensions and harm everyone.

We have to listen more and bully less because learning can never occur if we remain locked in our echo-chambers, only hearing how there’s a war on cops and anyone who questions policing or suggests reforms is the enemy. We blame the media or the former president rather than those individual officers and departments who give policing a black eye.

The Obama-hates-cops line has become so universally accepted in many policing circles, that on some police message boards or chat rooms, anyone who dares to challenge the narrative is shouted down, vilified, and even censured. So much for our belief in free thought. Truth be known, this kind of against-the-grain thinking is the reason for the title of my blog. I find myself agreeing with the objectives of safety and respect for law enforcement, but see the road to that goal differently. Many think the way to gain respect is through dominance and force; I believe it is through compassion and service.

I wanted to understand where this animosity came from against the former president. I searched extensively, truly wanting to find the source. I wanted to defend you. Surely there must be some smoking-gun statement that I could point to and say, “Aha.” What I found was only a man who, like all of us, filters life through his own experiences and tried to get us to see the world through the eyes of someone who grows up Black in America.

Did he challenge us to improve? Yes. Did he condemn violence against cops? Many times. Did he also empathize with the systemic issues that set up the conflicts between minority communities and the police? Definitely. Did he ever disrespect police officers? No. Unless you believe any suggestion of systemic problems that contribute to historical bad blood and violence defines disrespect.

Are we really so thin-skinned that we require our leaders to speak only of blind allegiance?

The more I read and searched for the answer to this hatred of the former president, and effusive enthusiasm for the current president, it struck me that we want a cheerleader, not a leader. But, leadership is what we desperately need. We need honest reflection to improve. Discussions about the hard topics. Ferguson, Chicago, and Baltimore exposed serious systemic problems that made their crime-fighting ineffective and destroyed the trust of their citizens. Policing 101 teaches us that we cannot effectively conduct our mission without the support of the citizens we serve. Without it, crime increases and cops are in more danger. All the feel-good speeches bragging about supporting cops do no good if we don’t fix the deep-seated problems exposed by each flashpoint. And the next one is surely coming.

Most of my white friends told me Barack Obama disappointed America because he had the opportunity to do so much more on race relations and he didn’t. He divided us further.

Long, careful reflection has made me conclude something entirely different.

When we complain about what our first African American president didn’t accomplish our bias is on full display.

I think we really mean we voted for a Black man expecting him to prove that racism is over in America. We expected him to wag his finger and scold Black America. We wanted him to tell them to get their shit together, because it’s their own fault if they haven’t succeeded. His great sin was asking white Americans—and policing—to confront biases that made us uncomfortable. Police wanted him to tell Black people if they would just do what their told, they wouldn’t have a problem.

Instead, he told us that he understood the frustrations of African Americans. He asked us to think about ways to stop shootings instead of escalating violence. He asked us to consider systemic racism in ways we didn’t want to. None of this is anti-police. It’s a plea to find ways to bridge the divide. Yes, part of that is acknowledging very real concerns with how some departments and individual officers conduct themselves. He tried to shine a light into the dark corners we don’t want to see.

His refusal to become the excuser in chief for the racial tensions that continue to divide is what really bothers us. As though his presidency might magically erase the legacy of two centuries of harm.

We should think about that.

Numbers started this war with citizens

I know we’ve been saying we engage with the community, but it hasn’t really been true for a while now. When I was a new cop in the 90’s our agency fully embraced the concept of community policing. The program was flexible, allowing maximum latitude for innovative approaches tailored to each neighborhood.

Many departments across the country were similarly engaged in fantastic work that fell well outside the definition of what we’d come to know as police work—arrest as the primary response. Part of community policing thinking was the much-heralded Broken Windows Theory emphasizing quality of life (QOL) crimes. Crime fell to historic lows, and correspondingly, police deaths and police shootings fell as well. It was working on paper.

Then came a new century, and in our genuine desire to improve, American policing adopted a new strategy for fighting crime—statistical based policing. The most visible example is NYPD’s COMPSTAT, but almost all of us bought into the stat theory. On the surface, it seemed like a perfect idea. Map your city’s crime and calls for service in order to identify problem areas and more effectively deploy cops. Commanders were armed with real data to attack the problems in their areas. And it worked. Crime continued to decline. We were all feeling good about ourselves. Saturation of crime-ridden neighborhoods made citizens feel safer, and the statistics gave law enforcement leaders an easy way to graph progress and see productivity in individual officers.

When the economy tanked a whole host of societal issues got worse. Budgets were slashed and cops were now asked to handle a lot of non-police related calls. Homelessness, poverty, and mental illness became problems society expected our police to handle. We ignored the many complicated solutions necessary to actually solve these problems. It was far easier to pass vagrancy laws and dial 911 when those people made us uncomfortable in our public spaces. It seemed to line up with the broken windows philosophy, but police handled the problem as we always had: Arrests. That was good because arrests fed the statistical beast. We taught a whole new generation of officers they would be judged on their numbers, not whether crime went down in their zone. Not quotas mind you—quotas are illegal. Nevertheless, cops now knew what was expected of them.

Everything was going great until we got addicted to the numbers.

Politicians, including elected sheriffs and appointed chiefs realized that touting big arrest and ticket numbers made them look tough on crime. Numbers became the go-to answer for accountability. In short, we incentivized punitive actions. In my former agency, this was the formula for officer performance:

Tickets written + Arrests made ÷Hours worked =Performance ratio

The problem with making numbers the engine of policing is two truths:

  1. Crime will never be driven to zero.
  2. Numbers and statistics can be manipulated to support whatever you want.

Given these realities, it was inevitable that leaders who continued to press for better numbers—lower reported crimes and higher officer activity—would eventually chafe against both the street cops and the citizens they serve.

We’d already sold everyone on numbers as the answer to everything, so we ignored those tensions and doubled down. This created a systemic problem of “numbers worship” that tells cops that it’s not about humanity, only numbers tallied on the page. That puts cops in conflict with the communities they serve because in a numbers-only system, the criminal traffic “arrest” or the quality of life misdemeanors are the same as an assault or theft arrest that actually clears a crime. The results have been documented in many studies and articles, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how easily these arrests can be concentrated in poor neighborhoods. It’s called low-hanging fruit, the easiest way for an otherwise well-meaning officer to stay in management’s good graces.

When officers need numbers, the easiest place is in the poor, higher crime neighborhoods. I want to be clear, most cops do this out of a desire to do a good job. I would argue they honestly believe that if they stop people in the higher crime neighborhood, they achieve two objectives: increase their productivity and address crime. What’s actually true, however, is simply increasing numbers as productivity doesn’t work. The officer’s activity must be problem solving activity. We cannot send a mixed message. Law enforcement leaders must be clear that the goal is crime reduction and community relations, by rewarding the absence of crime as benchmarks of success. If we say we value crime reduction, and then continue to reward number tallies regardless of effectiveness, credibility is lost with both officers and citizens. Officers have to know the values of the department and how that translates into how they do their job.

Here’s what happens without solid values leadership: Look again at the formula above. Officers get the message that numbers of tickets and arrests are all that matter. So, they know that somewhere in their busy day, along with taking radio calls for everything under the sun, they must build in time to ticket and arrest. That is the officer’s problem to solve, and human nature is to solve problems in the easiest way. Back to the high-crime (usually minority) neighborhood, where the officer knows she can find a quick stat. With everyone fishing in the same pond, and a young black male gets stopped for his bike light five times in one night, he’s pissed off. That officer, even if he’s polite, becomes the enemy. The police become oppressors.

This antagonism builds, adding to other natural conflicts between law enforcement over arrests that are perfectly legitimate. Too often, police take the position that they don’t have to explain anything; another missed opportunity to engage citizens. Without open communication, anger simmers and festers, increasing the likelihood of tensions and danger to the next officer who responds to that neighborhood. When everyone is on edge and amped up, no one is safe. Our rigid, arrest-driven approach had serious unintended consequences. Angering the citizens we serve.

When that anger boils up in communities who have historically experienced the worst in biased and brutal policing, it’s not hard to see why violence and resistance result. Statistics also show that these communities are over-policed in small crimes and traffic offenses, while under served in violent crimes. Frustration and mistrust are the direct result. Without trust between communities and their police, we know the results are devastating for citizens and officers.

As Dallas Police Chief Brown so eloquently stated, “We are asking too much of cops.” We must come to the realization that policing is one of the most critical components of our democracy. No other profession has as much authority at their discretion. A cop can take your freedom or your life in a second. Likewise, the officer can lose their life when a call goes bad. It’s too important to our safety to ignore what’s going on. We no longer have the luxury of pretending that voting down the one-cent tax increase doesn’t have real consequences. Shrinking budgets force police leaders to eliminate training and adopt policies like those discussed here in an honest, but misguided effort to improve efficiency.

Policing will always be at once revered and reviled. It is the nature of the business. There is much work to do, but the answer is not to sow seeds of discontent and division. Stoking the fires of anger and fear in the name of supporting law enforcement is unfortunate and anti-productive. We need calm, focused leadership unafraid to partner with any citizen who wants to work for solutions. We are the professionals. What’s needed is a culture change that values life and measures crime reduction as performance.

Radical action is needed and police must take the first steps. Numbers put us at war with the citizens we serve and it’s time to end it. Acknowledge our faults and be willing to listen, even if we disagree with the speaker. Change our outlook from the us-versus-them mentality to real outreach and respect for the community. Cops and citizens know the stakes have never been higher. Right now, in the midst of the horrific violence and confusion and mistrust and fear, one thing is certain: We cannot shout or shoot our way out of this problem.

Peace.