The courage to police with love

Friends, like you, I swore an oath when I pinned on my badge. I swore an oath to uphold the constitution, to fight for the weak and vulnerable, and to serve my community. Most of us took the job to do good things in our community. We don’t usually think of love as part of the job, but I think it’s the most important part. Remember, we were originally Peace Officers.

Somewhere along the way, I became hardened. Maybe you can relate. Dealing with the worst atrocities that humans can inflict on one another has a way of taking its toll on even the kindest soul. Those who are truly evil prey upon the weak in ways so insidious and violent that it can turn your heart to stone. Those who have simply given up hope and instead turned to crime, violence, or treachery, as a misguided equalizer can also erode faith in our fellow man.

When poverty, despair, crime, and decay are concentrated in our most neglected, minority neighborhoods, that is where policing is focused. We see the carnage. We bear the brunt of verbal abuses. We fight for our lives during physical assaults and too often become victims of the most violent. Many times we are vilified in the very communities we spend most of our time. Inundated in the toxic mix of crime and suffering and survival, too often our compassion is the first casualty.

We call it emotional survival, this phenomenon that causes those wearing a badge to trade their empathy for judgment. A distancing which we tell ourselves is necessary to objectively solve crime. A condemnation rationale to help us stay sane when it feels as if the world is going mad. I get it. I was one of you. It’s so easy to get caught up in the negativity.

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Which officer is braver? This photo went viral because this expression love is radically brave on both sides.

It took me a long time to see how I could have made even the worst interactions a little better.

Policing is really the toughest job you’ll ever love. That brings me to my point.

Love is required to do this job righteously. Giving up your humanity is the easy way out. Feeling and showing compassion in the face of depravity is what’s hard. In fact, it seems damn near impossible when you’re cradling a dying child in your arms or you’ve lost your partner in a shooting or you broke a bone fighting with a suspect. It’s heartbreaking, devastating, infuriating, and too often, emotion-numbing. But you must not lose your humanity.

Your humanity is essential to policing. Don’t let anyone tell you that compassion is weakness. They are wrong.

Who is stronger—the officer who gives in to his anger in the moment or the one who checks himself and ends the situation peacefully? Does it take more strength to talk to agitators in a crowd and prevent a riot or to react the way the want and launch a response, which results in injuries on both sides?

Do not see this as a naïve repudiation of necessary force. Quite the contrary. There are those who want to hurt you. I know. I also believe that most acts of resistance are motivated by an attempt to escape by any means necessary. Which is why I have always believed in what I call aggressive prevention. Controlling situations before they get out of hand. Sometimes that means force to pre-empt resistance, because complacency can put us in situations that escalate and then require force.

Be vigilant. Be alert. Sometimes a situation will require violence, but aggression alone cannot become our default response. Practice aggressive prevention to keep yourself and your partners safe, but never forget the power of aggressive compassion. There are many times when empathy is better than punitive reaction. A mistaken burglary call brings you into contact with the homeowner, who reacts angrily to your presence with verbal insults. Some may react in kind and charge this man with a disorderly citation. It may be lawful, but is it necessary or really the right way to handle this? Yeah, I know, POP can feel good in the moment, but does it help in the long run? The ripple effects of bad blood in that already toxic community really aren’t worth it.

The job is not easy. If it was, anyone could do it. I know what I’m talking about goes against the grain of what most of the loudest mouths are shouting at you right now. That there is a war on police and you must harden your heart and be on the attack.

Statistics do not bear this out. Yes, officer deaths rose last year in comparison to the year before. That’s an important thing to keep in perspective. We pray to lose none of our brothers and sisters in blue, but we know danger is always there. Block out the noise of those who want you to lash out in anger or fear. They cloud your heart and mind when safety and reason are essential for survival, both physical and emotional. Help your partner find her center, rather than feed each others cynicism.

Be careful, be alert, but don’t believe everyone is your enemy, even in those neighborhoods that challenge your humanity. Don’t give in to those who say it’s hopeless. Don’t let the hate take over your heart. Hate only breeds hate and violence escalates violence. If you truly believe (as I do) that policing is God’s work. Don’t lose heart. Be brave enough to care. Be brave enough to love, even when it feels impossible.

It is the single most radically courageous thing you can do.

King holiday still fights for respect

I’m old enough to remember when the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin L. King, Jr became law. In September, 1989, after a couple of years of debate and rejections, the city Council finally approved a measure to rename Buffalo Avenue as Dr. Martin L. King, Jr Drive. Controversy around the name change was fierce, but time has a way of blurring details and obscuring facts. As I perused a Google search this week, much of the explanations focused on objections from businesses and concerned citizens as to the cost of new street signs and business stationery.

Oh, but I remember those days.

article_3_hires_rm_corbisIn 1989-90, during my first year as a police officer, the debate raged. I distinctly recall how many of my colleagues stated emphatically their refusal to say Martin L. King. Many used it as a badge of honor, purposely putting themselves out on calls along the road just to say Buffalo with emphasis, and some dispatchers gave calls out in the same fashion. In contrast, African American officers and dispatchers said the name of the street with pride evident in their voices.

By 1992, I bought my first home in a suburb east of the city and I traveled sections of Martin L. King Jr. Blvd on my trip to and from work. Many residents east of the city limits continued to refer to the street as 574, the state route number, and for years it was commonplace to see the street signs vandalized or missing as I drove around. My friends with the sheriff’s office acknowledged that many in their agency used 574 instead of Martin L. King Jr Blvd.

Sometimes I heard the excuse that Buffalo or 574 is just shorter and easier to say, particularly on a police radio. Fair enough. But, other streets in the city have long names that were shortened for expediency, while maintaining the reference to the honoree. John F. Kennedy Blvd is a prime example. It’s commonly called Kennedy. Those of us who simply wanted a shortcut did almost immediately start calling Martin L. King Jr Blvd, MLK for short. That, at least, didn’t feel like a refusal to acknowledge the name.

Obviously, my co-workers didn’t have a financial beef with the street name change. It was defiance to the idea of honoring Dr. King—defiance to honoring a black civil rights leader. To my recollection, nobody in police leadership ever made it clear that Buffalo was unacceptable. The stark divide played out every shift and went on for years, fading eventually as most grew accustomed to the name, leaving only diehards still holding out, their bigotry refusing to yield. I wonder how that felt to my African American brothers and sisters in blue or to citizens of color who may have heard them.

When I hear people say that issues of race were settled long ago, that slavery and Jim Crow are ancient history, and they personally treat everyone equally, as a way of dismissing the frustrations of African American citizens, I think of the examples of subtle bigotry like the streets dedicated to our greatest civil rights leader. Acronyms with racial undertones for learning streets in public housing. Endless slurs directed at the President and First Lady with primate references. Ugly social media posts, unabashedly racist. These experiences are certainly not ancient history, nor are they uncommon. They are the realities of daily human interaction where bigotry lives if not refuted.

So, this year, in the wake of a contentious political season that openly challenged political correctness, ignored open shows of racist behavior, yanked the lid off a simmering anger by all sides who feel they are not being heard, I’m imploring us all to look inside. We can do better in addressing bias. More whites than blacks say that our government policies and laws treat both races equally, but once again reality casts doubt on the way race truly plays out, often in less obvious ways (at least to whites). Facts about the MLK holiday provide a useful example.

In 1983, President Reagan signed the MLK bill into law after 15 years of Dr. King’s supporters fighting for passage following his murder. Did you know the last state to fully ratify the King holiday was not until 1999? Again, not ancient history. If that’s not bad enough, the saddest facts of all are that four states, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, to this day, recognize the date in conjunction with Confederate heroes such as Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. What does that say to African Americans in those states when the day is called Robert E. Lee/Martin L. King Day? Or to see the rise of white nationalists and hate crimes in the wake of this last election? Our fellow citizens of color must interpret our deafening silence and refusal to call it out as tacit support or at best, indifference.

Martin Luther King spoke extensively about moral justice. His was a movement of nonviolence, which also spoke truth to power in order to shine a light on injustices of race, social justice and poverty. His legacy has never been more important than in our current national discord and rupture along fault lines of party, class, race, or religion. Dr. King called us to live up to the ideals of our founders and strive to overcome our differences in the name of justice for all. We have opportunities each day to reject the small-minded slurs and hard hearts of bigotry if we summon the courage to stand up. Hate in any form has no place in our world. The change must first come from our hearts.

This was the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Misconduct and DOJ Investigations

True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.

~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

 Here we go again. Yesterday in Baltimore, we heard the results of another Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into yet another police agency, saying essentially the same things that they’ve been saying for decades to numerous departments: Your police department is exhibiting patterns and practices that violate the civil rights of citizens. There are currently over 20 agencies nationwide under DOJ scrutiny. How many more DOJ consent decrees are needed before we understand that the problem isn’t one police department tarnished by “a few bad apples?” Police and community tensions have flared up for generations, but somehow we just can’t seem to get it through our heads that those tensions keep exploding because of the persistent perception of injustice in poor communities of color. There are always two sides to any story, and our side of this problem is the culture of policing has to be examined or we are never going to stop the violence.

My friends, my intent is not to lecture. As I have said on numerous occasions, I see this as an appeal to every good, decent cop, who works every day to do good in his/her community. The way for law enforcement to get beyond the continuous bad press is to finally tell ourselves and each other that enough is enough. Because lashing out against the DOJ or anyone who remotely says there might be a problem, branding them as cop haters is not the answer. It will not solve one single problem and it will not do anything to help change the perception of hundreds of Youtube videos that immortalize the indefensible actions of those who should not wear your badge.

Back in 1973, the Knapp Commission Report, which investigated corruption and racism in the NYPD (because of Frank Serpico), named two types of cops: meateaters and grasseaters. Basically, the meat eaters are the small number of bad apples and the grass eaters are the rest. In 1991, the Christopher Commission Report gave a very similar review of LAPD, following the outrage over the Rodney King beating. The commission even called the LAPD a “bastion of racism and bias.”

Following the Rodney King beating and the initial acquittal of the four white police officers, the debates over justice raged along mostly racial lines. Law enforcement was generally quick to place the blame on King for his prior actions. We do that a lot, even now. I was guilty of it myself a few times when I wore a uniform. If Rodney King had simply stopped it would have never happened. True. But if the four primary officers would have simply gone hands on and cuffed him, or if just one of the 15 officers on scene had lifted a finger to intervene when the beating began, then it also wouldn’t have happened. Those 15 cops could have kept their buddies out of prison. Somebody on scene should have done something.

What was more telling about LAPD at the time were the racist computer messages flying car to car. Sadly, we’ve seen this again recently in San Francisco, Ferguson and now, Baltimore. (Lock up the black hoodies) Sugar coat it however you want. When people feel free to express that kind of bias openly, it’s a problem.

So, the King video, just like some videos today, shocked the country because we don’t want our police behaving this way. Most agencies took note and everyone in law enforcement vowed to get better. Throughout the 90’s, the focus was on more education and professionalism in policing. It was the catalyst for police unions in larger cities to demand higher wages, arguing that a better paid agency would attract better candidates. Here we are in 2016, almost 30 years later, and we seem to have the same problems we’ve always had. When, exactly, are the real changes going to come? I’m not talking about individual agencies changing policies or jumping through hoops in order to satisfy the feds. I mean real, systemic change that recognizes that all the reforms in the world will never work if we don’t look at the history of bias and uneven enforcement that has been the driving catalyst for conflict between police and minority communities.

We have been ignoring the real issues for decades. Our police leaders have done nothing but give us one gimmick for a fix after another, while at the same time failing to actually intervene in the day to day behavior of bad officers. Very few states have mandates to decertify even cops who commit criminal offenses. Where is the outrage of police leaders on that? Those rogue, rude, biased or simply uncaring officers are cancers inside far too many agencies. They erode morale, cause internal friction, disrespect citizens (most of the time aren’t complained on), taint investigations, undermine real community policing, and here’s the biggest problem—they create an environment of mistrust and anger at police. You are less safe because of their actions. Think about it. They piss a guy off, rough him up, or in the worst case, do something criminal. How is that guy going to behave towards you when you are the next cop to deal with him? The ripple effects are even more damaging.

Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr., recently published a paper on policing and use of force. He shocked many by concluding that statistically police shoot more whites than blacks. Many of my friends pointed to that headline as vindication of policing, and proof that the media is driving a negative, false narrative. To be clear, I think the media is driving questionable narratives in lots of ways, but that should be no surprise to a cop. But, if you take five minutes and actually read the article, you get a very different message. Yes, Dr. Fryer concludes that police killings are not necessarily racially biased, but he also found that people of color are disproportionately subject to force during encounters with police, even when they are not a threat. [highlights here]

This ignored distinction is a very important detail.

According to Fryer, bias in law enforcement is “real and harmful in many ways, causing cynicism and disillusionment, especially in boys of color.” He says his findings support a UCLA paper that also found that police were more likely to use force or Tasers on people of color. These incidents “happen thousands of times a day” and Fryer argues that makes them just as important as shootings because they “speak to dignity.”

I’ve said repeatedly since my days as a patrol sergeant that bad cops make good cops less safe. I believe this viscerally. This applies to the every day encounters, not just shootings that make the news. The worst criminals will always be a threat to your life. In those cases, no one expects you to hold anything back when your life is in danger. I’m talking about the other 90% of the calls or contacts. I’m talking about professionalism that doesn’t demean or degrade. Dignity matters. You are the professional. Treating someone with contempt versus professionalism might be the difference between a safe, uneventful encounter, and a combative subject who has decided he’s taking out his built up anger and rage on you.

Good police must take back the profession. The list of violations and abuses of power exposed in Baltimore should make every good cop angry–not at the DOJ or the Mayor of Baltimore–angry at the cops who bring distrust and anger on you. It’s time for a change in mindset. Instead of shaking our heads at the bad apples, it’s time to purge them from the basket. Day to day they must get the message from their peers. Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said, “Those who choose to wear this uniform and choose to blatantly disregard someone’s rights absolutely should be uncomfortable because we are not going to tolerate it. It’s your actions that are fostering fear and resentment in our communities and making it extremely difficult and dangerous for the vast majority of honorable men and women who serve in our very noble profession.”

I couldn’t agree more, Commissioner.

Chief Cameron McLay’s Speech at the DNC

We can support police officers and listen to what communities want. The two ideas are not incompatible. Pittsburgh Police Chief speaks at the DNC. Thank you, sir.

Improving Police

“There are many more police leaders like me, who are committed to improving the integrity of our systems, but we will fail unless we come together with our communities. We must each fight our natural tendency to hide inside our narrow world view…” — Chief Cam McLay, Pittsburgh PD


Chief of Police Cameron McLay, Pittsburgh Chief of Police Cameron McLay, Pittsburgh

[Ed. Note: I am proud to have hired and promoted Cam when I was chief in Madison, Wisc. He retired as a captain and taught leadership for the IACP. Two years ago, he was chosen to be the chief of police in Pittsburgh.

Cam “gets it!” on both the leadership and community-oriented policing fronts. He knows systems, quality improvement methods, and the importance of being close to those whom police serve.

He gave a great talk to America last night on behalf of police and the need for police and citizens to work together. Black…

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Stop Saying, “Yes, but…”

What would happen if we all just stopped? If we could just for one day, one hour, or minute just stop to listen to one another? Could we listen with an open heart and really acknowledge what someone else is saying? Not with a “yes, but…” ready to go, that tells our friend or fellow citizen that we aren’t truly listening, that we still want to prove them wrong and ourselves right. Just listen silently and allow their feelings to matter and be enough.

This week, following the latest in a seemingly endless series of heartbreaking violence and loss, a friend of mine wrote an essay about tensions between the black community and the police. My friend is an African American woman who has spent her adult life working for causes of social justice, mostly for LGBT citizens. She is respected nationwide for her outstanding work, and I’ve said many times that she is one of the most articulate and intelligent people I’ve ever known.

I say all of this, not to flatter her or to build her up for anyone’s benefit. I say this because, for all the years of friendship, knowing so many things about each other’s lives, work and families, I feel as if I have truly listened to her story and feel it in my heart for the first time.

I read her unflinchingly honest assessment of my profession and my heart hurt. I wanted to stop, to turn away, to say, “yes, but…”

Then, I realized that I had no choice. As painful as the critical analysis was, she had infused the piece with such personal experiences that my discomfort became necessary. A necessary part of understanding my friend viscerally for the first time. She told of her great-grandfather’s lynching, aided by the county sheriff, and I sadly recalled the night she was injured during an unnecessary arrest early in our friendship. Her crime being a black lesbian speaking out for justice.

This is a person who might have every reason to join some group advocating for anti-cop rhetoric, but no. She takes us to task frankly and without apology, because we need to hear these truths. But then my friend does something amazing in our world of taunts and jabs and blame—she offers thoughtful, balanced solutions, that address realities on both sides. That’s what a real leader is supposed to do. I cannot be anything but humbled by her words and I urge you to read them as well.

So, I am sharing my friend’s thoughts because they matter. I don’t have to understand completely how she feels; I can’t because I cannot walk in her shoes. But, I share them because they are her truth and her truth is enough.

I’m listening.

There is no “yes, but…”

Saving Lives, Black and Blue

Blood in the Streets

When are we going to have the courage to admit we may not be 100% right? That maybe, just maybe somebody else may have a legitimate point? That my point of view isn’t necessarily the correct one, while yours just might have merit?

A year after a national commission on policing, that was supposed to give us some answers, there is still ever-widening gap between police and the Black community. Some in our own groups have tried to open discussions, to suggest that listening to other perspectives might help, only to be shouted down or shunned for daring to challenge a popular narrow worldview. My friend, the civil rights leader, gets accused of being not supportive enough of Black Lives Matter because she dares to recognize that there are many good police officers and saying that society needs good policing. I have been accused of disloyalty to the Thin Blue Line for suggesting that we should call out the bad in policing and get rid of those cops rather than look the other way, because they are making all officers less safe.

Blind loyalty is destroying us. Some cops dishonor the badge, others harbor a little or a lot of latent bias that colors their perceptions. We deal with bad situations every day. High crime areas tend to be low-income neighborhoods of color. It’s nearly impossible for it not to affect you. But not every person of color wants to harm us. We have to get a handle on this. The first way is trying to see the world through their point of view. We may not understand their mistrust, fear, or anger at policing, but we must allow them their perception and work to change it.

Likewise, to my friends of color: Not all cops are bad, most are not afraid of you. Most genuinely want to do a good, impartial job, and most do an outstanding job everyday. Not everyone in a uniform wants to harm you. But you must also allow for their perception and experience that tells them that far too many bad people do want to harm them. Many others will possibly harm them in a desperate attempt to escape. Either way, cops are in a dangerous spot. You, too, must open your mind to this alternate reality.

Healing can only begin with a bit of understanding. Understanding starts with contrition. If I hurt my brother, and refuse to apologize, just expect him to get over it, will he really think I’m sincere? No. This is why a true acknowledgement of grievances and appropriate apology is needed. Historical racial grievances must be addressed. This does not mean you caused it, but as a profession and larger community, we must concede systemic issues have caused Black citizens to distrust us. There is a real gap between how the majority of White and Black Americans feel about law enforcement because there is a very real disparity that has existed since the beginning of our country. We have to acknowledge this, even though we have not personally experienced it. We cannot expect African American citizens to suddenly forget their pain and move on without our demonstrated sincerity, which means real action.

I mean, look at the messages our actions send to each other. Some Police officers get into trouble repeatedly, (I would argue they are the bad 5%) and we allow them to stay on in policing. Sometimes we make them resign, only to show up in another city, and eventually doing something so egregious that they are finally fired or worse on the evening news. More often, those who are good officers, fail to confront those who cross lines big and small. We are silent when small injustices are committed. Silence is support. People see that and remember.

Flip side, communities too often allow bad behavior to escalate to criminality in our young people, refusing to help identify them to cops, until finally something serious happens, like their death or they commit a serious crime. Community members are too often silent at injustice in their own communities when good cops are trying hard to solve crimes and improve quality of life. Being confrontational or combative with an officer because another cop was an a-hole is the same thing as the cop judging you unfairly.

So, the way I see it is we have a choice: we can either do our best to honestly try to see one another’s viewpoint and work on our empathy, or we can retreat to our defensive positions, keep being thin-skinned and self-righteous, only listening to those who see the world through our narrow lens, sharing toxic memes, telling ourselves we’re right, and all the while, our friends and families will keep dying.

The irony is then we will be forced to recognize our most important similarity: The blood that flows in the street will always be red.

Why don’t cops fight for gun legislation?

“Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited…”. It is “…not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” –Justice Antonin Scalia, 2008, District of Columbia v. Heller

Today I want to ask a question that has been bothering me for quite some time, and I really hope my fellow law enforcement friends can help.

Why isn’t law enforcement the loudest voice for common sense gun legislation?

Before we get all fired up and defensive in our 2nd Amendment rights bunkers, everyone relax. There is room for all respectful debate here.

I’m a gun owner, military vet, and retired cop, so let’s dispense with the notion that I advocate any confiscation of firearms from law abiding citizens. But here’s what I cannot understand:

What is wrong with these two proposals?

  1. People who are on terrorist watch lists should not be able to buy guns.
  2. Mandatory background checks for every firearm purchase.

I honestly do not see how these requirements would infringe upon my 2nd Amendment rights. Seriously, I don’t.

I get frustrated because as a former cop, I don’t want criminals or mentally ill people to get their hands on guns. Right now, Internet sales have NO RESTRICTION. Any criminal, terrorist, or nut job can log on and buy any weapon they want. As much ammunition as they want. Are you kidding me?

I’m concerned about my friends and former colleagues’ safety. I don’t want a bad guy armed with pistols and a military-style weapon firing at cops. Because we know that’s what happens when the police respond. Why aren’t cops at the front line of this fight? Why aren’t we trying to keep bad guys from buying and trading guns with impunity and no background checks online and at gun shows?

Many say that criminals will always find a way to get guns. I’m sorry, that argument makes me want to scream. By that logic, we should just rip up all the statute books, because we can’t prevent 100% of any crime. Do we really believe that means we shouldn’t try to prevent some crime? I mean, we’ll never stop all burglary, rape, robbery, etc. We still work really hard to prevent as many as possible. Shouldn’t we want to at least make it harder for these people to get guns? Do we seriously believe that it’s a good idea that someone on a terrorist watch list can walk into a gun shop and buy a pistol, or unbelievably, an assault rifle?

And really, isn’t this about the fact that we all want our guns? Or we don’t want to be inconvenienced in the slightest by basic requirements that might delay our Craigs List purchase. Somehow, the lie has been sold that any mention of responsible restrictions equals banning guns. While some probably do want that, the vast majority of law abiding citizens don’t. We just want rational restrictions that keep the wrong people from getting them. I’ve heard repeatedly that the 2nd Amendment specifically guarantees the rights of ALL American’s to bear arms. I’m sorry, I don’t believe that. Even Antonin Scalia, the supposed champion of 2nd Amendment rights, didn’t believe that. Re-read the opening quote.

Reasonable restrictions are permitted. I’d argue reasonable restrictions are necessary. Cops deal with the heartbreaking realities of senseless gun violence and are put in ever increasing danger because of the proliferation of guns everywhere. If we truly believe that every citizen has the right to be armed, then somebody please explain to me why the 911 call comes in about a person with a gun, the police response is lights and sirens blaring, ready to do battle. Why is this a high priority call? We should do some soul-searching about this double standard we seem to have.

So, back to my question, from a purely officer safety standpoint, why aren’t cops pissed off that we can’t seem to take even the most basic steps to try to fix this?