Police integrity is the challenge of our time

I started writing this blog a few years ago out of a sense that policing—the profession I love and spent 25 years serving—was losing its way. But, then, as I gained more perspective through time and distance of retirement, I realized we were always on shaky ground.

I entered the police academy in November of 1989 and hit the street three months later as a naïve, but energetic rookie, eager to save the world. Of course, I soon realized that idealism is difficult to maintain.

My first assignment was to a midnight squad that worked the largest public housing complex in the city. The housing projects on the east side got the most media attention, but we had our share of unrest. Almost every Friday and Saturday night in those days, our squad was met with angry crowds, and we’d gather beneath overhangs to keep the rocks and bottles from hitting our heads.

I had no idea why people were so angry. Later I learned that the squad prior to us had been disbanded for misconduct. Allegations included planting narcotics, false testimony, abusive behavior toward the residents of this community—mostly African Americans. It’s clear to me now that the behavior of those cops was why we were taking rocks and bottles every weekend.

In those first years, we didn’t have take-home cars, so we checked out a vehicle at the beginning of every shift. One morning, after my midnight shift, I forgot my new rechargeable flashlight when I unloaded the car. When I woke up, I realized. I called the station to ask if anyone had checked out the car. The desk officer couldn’t find a record. That night, when I got to work, it was clear someone had driven the car because it was parked in a different spot. My flashlight was gone. At first, I clung to the belief that the officer would find me and return it, but, as the days went by the truth was clear.

The realization hit me hard. Another cop stole my flashlight.

The next lesson was even worse. When I complained to other officers about the theft of my property, most weren’t angry or even surprised.  It was normal to have items stolen if left around the police station or in a patrol car. That’s right. There was no shock, they shrugged. They told me to get over it and be more careful about my stuff.

Not one person I talked to thought it was a good idea or proper to write a theft report. I was told, you’ll never be able to prove who had the car. Even if you found out who had driven it, they’ll only deny it. It will only cause problems, and, wait for it…people will be mad at you for reporting it.

The lesson was clear: You say nothing about a cop being a thief. Put another way: We accept that there are thieves walking around with guns and badges arresting other people for theft.

I have never quite gotten over that ugly lesson.

Here’s where I’m supposed to stop and assure you that most of the cops I knew were good, honorable public servants and the issues with policing are all about a few bad apples.

And if we talk about the hard numbers of complaints vs. the total number of cops on the force, or the hundreds of thousands of (documented) police contacts vs. the number of shootings, or any other way we love to work the statistics to our advantage, you might think the bad apple argument is a good one.

But, if we look more closely at the bad apples excuse, we can understand how much it damages policing. Law enforcement is a small microcosm of our society, good and bad roam among us. That means cops who are liars, thieves, racists, wife beaters, child abusers, sex offenders, bigots, and just plain a-holes, just like the rest of society.

Yes, I know there are also kind, decent, brave, honorable, men and women who serve their communities every day. I worked with and still call many friends. Good cops should be the standard so there’s no point in continuing to say, “Yes, but there are more good cops than bad.” I should hope so. The bad apple distraction only deflects from the problem. Let’s move forward.

The lesson I learned in my rookie year about tolerating unethical cops is important. I bring up my experience because of those who point to police discipline as proof we clean our own house. While we might do a little surface cleaning, I submit that the time has come for a deep system cleanse. Not everyone meets the standard or is cut out for the job. Cops are held to a higher standard and should be. That’s the social contract. With great power comes great responsibility.  That’s the job. There is no false equivalent to what “other people” do. We are the law enforcement professionals who swore an oath to uphold the law.

If a citizen called today and reported a theft, we would write it up, attempt to determine suspects, and do our best to find the thief. Why not the cop who was a thief? When I tell this story to fellow cops, before I even get to the end, they almost always say with a note of sadness, “I know. No one ever gets their shit back.” Every single one of us can probably come up with numerous examples of personal experiences or stories from peers about misdeeds around the precinct or the community. We’ve seen our fellow cops abuse their authority, degrade citizens, manufacture evidence, and commit other behaviors that tarnish our badges.

Why is this okay? Why do they get to hang around? Why get mad at me for saying this out loud, instead of the system tolerating such individuals in your profession? Can’t we all see that if Minneapolis would have rid themselves of Derick Chauvin several misconducts ago, they wouldn’t be in the mess they’re in now?

People are in the streets because of a system that has shielded misconduct far too long. You are currently enduring weeks of consistent civil unrest designed to force change because the entire criminal justice system has refused calls for actual justice. Citizens of color have been telling us about abuses for decades. We ignored their voices and pain. We dismissed their stories. We cared more about arrests and power than justice and fairness. The bill on our arrogance is now due and change will be forced.

The truth of the matter is this: the same cop that causes so much dissension might also run into a burning house to save a kid during the same shift. This reality blurs the lines. When your call goes to shit and you’re fighting for your life, you want to hear the sound of those police package V8’s, no matter who’s behind the wheel. I get it. I’ve been there, too.

But, my friends, we simply can not afford to allow unethical cops around us. The damage they do, left unchecked, is the most destructive to the credibility of policing. We owe it to ourselves to hold them accountable from day one. It doesn’t matter if they’re fun to go have a beer with, if they do not possess the character for the profession then they must go. Saying this should not be controversial.

Disgruntled, racist, incompetent, or criminal cops are cancers to our profession. The damage they inflict ripples through our agencies and our communities, widening ever outward. Allowing even a 5% rate of cancerous behaviors in an agency of say 1000, means 50 cops walking around with everything from a shitty attitude to a racist mindset to a criminal disposition. Imagine the ripple effect of 50 cops multiplied by dozens or more citizen interactions per day, multiplied by years or decades? That’s damage done by the tens of thousands, rippling throughout communities in this country.

Police integrity is the real challenge of our time. We must change the moral culture of policing once and for all. From top to bottom of our agencies. Public servants of high moral character shouldn’t need a law to tell them they should stop misconduct. It’s time to stop using the bad apple excuse as a way to minimize police misconduct and start living up to the code of conduct we swore to uphold. Eliminate the bad apples when we first notice the bruises, not wait until they have literally spoiled the entire profession.

The code of silence ends here

As outrage burns over the murder of George Floyd, my commitment to police reforms & accountability has never been stronger. I’m outraged because the actions of those officers do not represent our honorable profession. I’m outraged by the depravity shown by Derek Chauvin under the color of authority, and we all instantly knew every cop was going to wear that crime for a long time. Rightly so. 

Not because all or even most women and men who serve as police would ever condone such despicable behavior. That’s a given. What brands us is the internal malfeasance that keeps us from removing such people long before they commit their violent act or crime that stains everyone in a uniform. 

The video of George Floyd’s murder laid bare the complicity of our entire profession. We have insisted for decades that only bad apples commit the worst abuses. Any mention of those “bad apples” is met with strong protests and denials. It’s not me, it’s not me! We cry.

The last two weeks exposed the ugly underbelly of a law enforcement culture that has been tolerated far too long. The horror of George Floyd’s death showed us all the deeper systemic cancer: One truly criminal actor and the shock of three others who either did not care or did not feel empowered to stop him. No, police misconduct isn’t increasing, it is simply being videotaped. The ongoing civil unrest is policing’s collective penance for refusing to reform on its own.  

Good cops & police leaders: Just because you think there is no problem in your community doesn’t mean people of color feel the same. Understand you have blind spots. The civil unrest in your city should tell you things aren’t quite as rosy as you think. People who have been on the receiving end of rude, dismissive, aggressive, or abusive cops are walking around with unresolved pain and anger. Please hear the pleas of marginalized communities who have been crying out over mistreatment and abuse by people you know need to be removed from the police profession. 

We all know who they are. Line officers know who they are. Police managers and staff know who they are. There’s just never enough collective will to purge them. So, they remain among us like cancer, insidiously infecting the squads around them. Supporting a subculture that in practice counters and undermines the police mottos of protect and serve and all of our lip service about community policing. We have always pretended because they haven’t done something that rises to the level of criminality, their behavior can be ignored. Like our racist uncle who rants and we shake our heads, the time has come to acknowledge that the harm they do. The daily microaggressions they inflict on people are just as damaging to our professional credibility and when their conduct rises to outright criminal behavior? God help us, we’re seeing the result. 

Police leaders have failed our communities by failing to address this systemic, pervasive issue that they absolutely know exists. Why are so many disciplined officers allowed to resign and keep their certifications? How is it possible that there are databases of cops known to have committed sexual misconduct or are flagged as criminals, and still walking around in uniforms? Why is there no leadership push for national standards to decertify bad cops? 

Why is it taking two weeks of rioting in the streets to get most of you to even acknowledge publicly that we have to make some changes? 

After Rodney King’s beating, evidence showed us LAPD officers sending racist computer messages like “gorillas in the mist.” Ten years later, I knew officers who used racist acronyms to remember the streets in the projects: AFRO SCUM. The investigations following Ferguson, Chicago, and Baltimore revealed continuing racial undertones. Minneapolis has a long, fraught history of police brutality in their city. Let’s not forget it is where Philando Castillo was murdered, even though he was a lawful gun owner and did everything the officer told him to do. 

These are truths. Police truths. It is no longer enough for any of us to say, “I’m not racist” or “I’m not that cop.” We refuse to look at our racist past in the eye and deal with it and it is long past time for our police culture to stop pretending race isn’t still a significant issue. The people of color in our communities still feel the undertow of bias in many encounters. They are frustrated by our collective failure to do anything meaningful day to day. We need to drop our defensive shields and get real with our fellow citizens.

And we have to start cleaning our own house. The cops that make every call harder because they piss the citizen off almost immediately. The cops that intentionally piss off the citizen so they can say, “Uncooperative. Back in service.” The supervisor who runs an entrapment traffic detail to stop cars in the black neighborhood. The jerk who purposely drives through puddles and splashes people just for fun. The one who “testilies” because the guy in the back seat probably got away with plenty of other stuff anyway. The non-stop microaggressions and indignities committed by these kinds of cops are festering wounds in minority communities. So, why are we surprised when the next shooting turns into a riot? 

The code of silence ends here, my friends. You may not have the power to fire a bad cop, but you must make it clear to your unprofessional peers that racism and abuse of power are not tolerated. They make your job more difficult and they endanger your safety every day. You also have the power to change the culture of your unions. If you think it’s wrong to protect bad cops, then make them stop doing it. If they are beating a drum of us vs. them, they are not truly protecting you, they are fomenting dangerous divisions that will endanger you further. 

I believe good cops want bad cops held accountable. The protests in the streets are demanding reforms and policies to help do just that. We all must be part of the solution. You must reject those among you who do not uphold the integrity of policing. You must speak. Follow your oath. Lead, though it may not be easy. Police leaders must help you by standing up and calling out the systemic failures that keep bad cops on the job. Taking these steps will earn community support. Community support and trust are what will make you safer.  

Please do not listen to those who tell you citizens hate you. Or that there is a war on cops. Policing has always been dangerous. The truly criminal will attack peace officers. They always have and always will. But the fact is policing is safer than it has been in decades. There is no war on cops. There is a war on bad cops. There is a war on abusive cops. There is a war on dirty cops. Rightly so. They are the criminal in your midst. 

To my fellow citizens, outraged over a seeming avalanche of videos showing murders and abuses of citizens at the hands of police. I hear you. Change must occur. It is unacceptable in a democratic, civil society, and should not happen. Sadly, it happens over and over. Police misconduct is a cancer and protests are the cure. As Dr. King famously said, “A riot is the cry of the unheard.” 

I believe the images of uniformed police officers callously murdering a man in their custody has finally awakened us for good. The time has come for real change at long last. Keep up the fight, but do it peacefully. We’ve had lots of examples of good cops kneeling & expressing solidarity with you. Let’s build on those connections. Hold those who do not deserve the public trust to account. Let’s demand justice and control over how we are policed. That’s how it works in a democracy. You have the entire world’s attention. Let’s finally achieve the dream of justice.

Roll Call: Officers, Can I Please Have Your Attention?

“In order to do this, you must stand up and say, “I think we should all help each other become better officers. I want you to know that if I should ever do anything in your presence that could result in my embarrassment, suspension, loss of job, or prison time, I want you to know that it is okay to intervene; to stop me. Can I have the same commitment from you?”

Improving Police

Roll Call.

I would like to talk to you today in light of all that has transpired around our country as a result of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.

Most of you chose to be police officers because you actually wanted to “serve and protect.” But along the way, something happened, some of you lost your way. Maybe it was because the bad cops you had to work with. You know, the guys on your shift who told you to forget everything you learned in the police academy and if you acted like them, you will get along just fine. These rogue cops literally silenced new officers; those good hires who had a heart for others, were compassionate, controlled in their use of force, and respectful.

Let me share a part of my journey. When I was a young Minneapolis police officer, I wrote an op-ed for the Minneapolis Tribune…

View original post 864 more words

A police reckoning has arrived

Since the murder of George Floyd one week ago, I’ve been concerned about the escalation of violence and the risk to more citizens and cops. We should be thinking about the exponential risk to every good cop who now has to wear the depravity of one of our brothers in blue, callously snuffing out the life of a person in his custody. This event has ramped up violence nationwide and, as always, cops on the front line are the ones in harm’s way.

My friends, we must understand how we got here. I want to talk to you truthfully and frankly, as a fellow cop, because we have to tell each other the truth and see our faults, or we’re going to lose our legitimacy once and for all.

We have convinced ourselves for decades that there was something a suspect did to cause his death. That their actions must have caused their own death. Always. That’s the mantra, right? It’s on a mental loop in our heads, “If he had only”…surrendered…not fought…complied…pick a term. And most of white America goes along with us. If only the person had done, or not done, whatever. The person is never killed by the fault of the cop. Never official misconduct or malfeasance. Their actions dictate our response.

Qualified immunity shielded almost every bad actor that came along. Shootings of individuals lawfully carrying firearms, children playing with toy guns, people playing video games inside their home, women sleeping in their home, the list goes on. We do mental gymnastics and think up a myriad of reasons to absolve the cop of any responsibility. Regardless of training. Regardless of the circumstance. Regardless of common sense. We are tone-deaf to how this looks to the average citizen.

Then came Minneapolis. I’d like to think the image of a cold, callous cop calmly kneeling on the neck of a non-resisting man is finally, finally a bridge too far for my fellow Americans and cops to swallow. This time, it is impossible to look away.

It’s time to put up or shut up, my fellow good cops. We’ve been crying for years “bad apples” not us! Any direct question about individual responsibility is ducked and dodged. Then came Minneapolis and it was all laid bare. The depravity of the primary cop and the failure of the others on scene to stop the murder. What you need to understand is that this is what has been at the heart of the issue for decades. That complicity has tainted you as well. The disgusting behavior of police misconduct has always painted us all with an ugly brush. We were fools to tell ourselves that it could be otherwise.

That is the critical message we have failed to hear. When the criticism comes we immediately go to our defensive crouch, insist it’s only those unnamed bad apples. Trust us. Except that nonstop videos say otherwise. They keep coming daily. We must make it stop.

This is what I want to say to you today with all the love and brotherhood I can muster. It is not enough to say you are not that cop. You must stop that cop. You must reject that cop. You must purge those cops from your ranks. You must make those cops pariahs. You must rise above those cops if you are ever to release yourself from the stain of their deeds.

I realize right now it’s easy to get caught up in the anger against protestors. I’ve been there, too. Taking rocks and bottles, holding the line with a gas mask & shield. This is the part of the job nobody tells you about when you sign up thinking you’ll save the world. Please try not to buy into the negative war on cops rhetoric. There have been riots and difficult times before. Good cops are the ones who will weather the storm, like always.

What’s different now is the political climate mixed with social media and nonstop noise. Will law enforcement live up to the lofty ideals of its code of ethics or succumb to the basest depravity of the disgruntled or criminal in our midst? Resist the temptation to believe the worst and stay true to your oath. We are at a critical juncture in law enforcement, my friends. The future is up to every one of you.

I have always maintained we are better than the worst of us. Those brave enough to run into gunfire or burning buildings are brave enough to stop misconduct by our peers. I believe in the better natures of the true heroes behind the badge. Hold tight to your humanity. There is no us and them, only one human family. Let’s get through these difficult times by committing to our communities and one another to demand only the best serving beside us.

Police honor and integrity are more important now than ever before. A police reckoning has arrived. Our profession and our nation are depending on our morality and courage.

Be safe.