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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Moms in search of humanity

I spent twenty-five years wearing a badge. I’ve lost friends and colleagues at the hands of hardened criminals and deranged madmen. I’ve hugged their family members and fellow cops, sharing our grief and asking, “Why?” I’ve also investigated countless shootings and murders, absorbing the visions of carnage, forever seared into my memory. I’ve hugged victim’s family members, sobbing in grief and unable to answer, “Why?”

As a human being I can be equally moved by the pain of mothers who have lost their children to gun violence or police encounters and the pain of slain police officers’ spouses and families. I think our common humanity requires us to see one another’s heartbreak and fear as the one important emotion that can unite us, regardless of what side of the social argument we’re on. If we can stop for just one moment to acknowledge the grief in our hearts, it might become possible to see our common humanity.

Perhaps that narrow but critical breakthrough might help us all to focus more on solutions to the violence that plagues our communities and claims the lives of far too many citizens and police officers. Despite the media narrative, fueled by extremists bent on using hate to vilify and divide by race and occupation, I heard a different message last night from a group of women bound together by loss. Their stories differ in detail, and I am very aware of the highly emotional debates raging on both sides of the thin blue line. So, I listened to the mothers speak with trepidation, uncertain of what message they might share.

What I heard were words of loss and pain, but also a plea for an end to violence. I also heard a message that most of you probably didn’t hear. I heard a statement of law enforcement support. It’s true. I don’t care what any news outlet tells you, Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, shot at a Jacksonville, FL convenience store over loud music said this:

“We’re going to keep building a future where police officers and communities of color work together in mutual respect to keep children, like Jordan, safe. Because the majority of police officers are good people doing a good job.”

I’m not certain how any of us could possibly argue with that. We all want that. We can argue about the how’s and why’s, and in a democracy we should have those debates. The deep wounds our country has experienced recently have exposed the folly of our continued refusal to listen to one another. Our denial of our common humanity and the pain of those outside of our social circles or rung on the ladder or race or profession is blowing up in our collective faces.

There is no other way to say it.

My friends, law enforcement is at a critical crossroads. Never in my lifetime has the danger of the job been more real. But, you have the backing of the vast majority of the citizens you serve. This is not some civil war of black communities vs. the police. Those mothers spoke unequivocally that they support good and decent law enforcement, and know that most of you are doing your jobs well. It is not incompatible to say you support police, but want bad police held accountable. Just as it’s not contradictory to say you support the community, but condemn those committing violence. This should be easy to totally agree upon. Bad officers make all of us less safe, whether you wear a badge or not. Real criminals should be dealt with severely, but not every activity should be criminalized. Gun violence is shredding the fabric of our society and making everyone less safe. The toll on us all is breaking every one of our hearts.

To those who continue to sow divisions by twisting words or editing messages for a negative agenda, please stop. You are not helping. I, for one, am willing to talk to anyone who wants to join together to find solutions. That is what my conscience calls me to do.

I can say #blacklivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter without a hint of contradiction in my heart. Our humanity matters. We can end this suffering, if we only start seeing and hearing each other.

Peace.

Angry Rants Aren’t Leadership

We are at a time of crisis in our country. Police and community relationships are strained as never before. Everyday I hold my breath when I open the morning edition of the news, bracing for a new headline of violence. Communities are mourning the loss of citizens and officers, and although we disagree on many underlying causes, one thing we can all agree on is that all responsible citizens want the violence to stop.

In the midst of all of the bloodshed and heartbreak our country has endured, especially in the past few weeks, fear has taken hold. Fear can be healthy when it pulls us together for the common good or fear can fuel divisions and morph into suspicion, blame and hate. Each new tragedy further shreds the fabric of trust and provides justification to entrench ourselves more deeply in opposing positions. Our feelings of helplessness and vulnerability lead us to search for answers in our faith and our leaders. But we must find the right leaders.

When I talk to my law enforcement friends, I hear the stress and fear because it feels as if the attacks are coming from all sides. The murder of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge was an attack on the fabric of society, and the outpouring of love and support nationwide certainly shows that average citizens are with you. Yes, even those who belong to protest organizations like black lives matter denounced violence against police officers unequivocally. In fact, those peaceful demonstrators had spent an entire afternoon amicably with the Dallas PD before a madman decided to act. Because evil will always try to divide us in the most heinous ways and our most vulnerable moments. That’s why we need leaders with a steady hand and temperament.

When we feel unappreciated and under siege, it is tempting to lash out, to give into our fears, but we must not become what we hate. Some law enforcement leaders seem to be pouring gasoline on the fire, taking every opportunity to antagonize and amp up officer’s understandable anger and frustration. Getting on the news or making national speeches filled with vitriol but no solutions only deepen the divisions and make your officers or deputies less safe. While it might be popular short term, perpetuating the Us v. Them mentality doesn’t help, because we all know that we need each other to survive.

We need leaders who call us to our highest selves, not those who feed our darkest and negative thoughts. We need leaders to unify, not further divide. We need leaders who understand that hate shuts down the heart and solutions only come when we are open to hearing another point of view. We need leaders willing to talk to activist leaders to find real solutions. 1468280264-23109-57841d6ac46188ef6d8b456a-450x250

Exceptional leaders have stepped forward in the past few weeks. Leaders of faith reached out following the Orlando massacre to acknowledge the role of religion in the demonizing of the LGBT community throughout history. They carried messages of love and non-judgment to start open dialogue about ways to bring LGBT people fully into the faith community, in order to stop the hate and violence. Dallas Police Chief David Brown, while acknowledging his anger and grief, also told us that his department will not abandon community policing or allow them to turn away from their outreach.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said this following the murder of three officers in Baton Rouge, “This is not what justice looks like…It’s not justice for anybody, and it’s certainly not constructive. It’s just pure, unadulterated evil. We’re gonna start our conversations here in Louisiana and around our communities, with community leaders, law enforcement, government officials and faith leaders, so we can find out together where we go from here. And there isn’t any one of us who can fix this, but all of us together, can and will fix this problem together. I don’t have all the answers and I know it won’t happen overnight. But I know we’re going to come out of this stronger.”

In our time of unprecedented volatility, law enforcement leaders must reaffirm the values we swore to uphold. We cannot shrink into a defensive crouch that silences all dialogue or spout dangerous rhetoric to sound as if we are at war with our communities—even our most crime-ridden communities. An eye for an eye only makes us all blind. Dangerous rhetoric will not help us to come out of this stronger.

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.