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.

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.

We all want to be seen

A few days ago, I was chatting with a few law enforcement friends about the need for a positive message when debating sensitive subjects and it occurred to me that the larger debate on law enforcement and the community was certainly one of those areas fraught with emotion on both sides. I think that is important for everyone to remember this as these debates rage. Policing is under intense scrutiny and both sides have dug into deep trenches because, quite frankly, the stakes are huge—we’re literally talking about life and death issues all around. I realized that is precisely why a more positive and open-minded dialogue is so very necessary.

Since Ferguson, law enforcement has entered a defensive crouch. Videos continue to surface of alleged officer misconduct, exposing some egregious behavior that cops would rather not have displayed for the world to see. Some tapes have the opposite effect, showing the public the shocking realities of undeniably unprovoked attacks on officers just doing their jobs. What I love the most about this current climate is that increasingly, we are seeing outstanding videos of really excellent officers doing what they do every day: serve their communities with compassion and generosity.

The importance of celebrating those officers cannot be overstated. Somewhere during my career, law enforcement shifted into statistics mode. Numbers ruled and tallies of tickets and arrests became the only standard of measure for an officer’s worth. If the numbers weren’t high enough, the officer was branded a slacker and disciplined. The glaring problem with that approach is that it erodes both public confidence and the officer’s morale. Where a cop might have issued a warning on a traffic stop, he now feels the need to write numerous tickets to boost his numbers and stay on the good side of management. Good community work and problem solving doesn’t fit into that model. It takes time and results are often not quantifiable—at least on a stat sheet or pie chart. Citizens become potential statistics for the officer’s eval and officers become reduced to numbers in the statistical game of politics.

Now that we are struggling with perceptions about law enforcement, suddenly the merits of compassion in service are viewed favorably, rather than dismissed as “soft” like they were too often in days past. This is a good thing. We are human. I would argue our emotion and humanity are the traits that make the best cops. When we see the humanity in the citizens we serve and respond with compassion, we show the strength of humanity that is character. Let’s stop attacking and start seeing each other. No one person is all good or bad. Not cops, not citizens. In all of the noise and fighting, why not use this truth as a starting point for seeing one another? We might be surprised at how that one gesture opens a door for change.

Be safe.

Numbers and Compassion Don’t Mix

This week, I read two good perspectives on empathy and policing by retired Chief David Couper and current D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier. Both rightly argued that empathy is something we are often lacking in modern policing—the ability to see things from another’s point of view. Chief Lanier points directly to policies of measuring performance by numbers as the reason for the empathy gap. From a street cop’s perspective, I couldn’t agree more.

When we all started going down the Compstat road, and police administrators started openly advocating treating our profession like a business counting widgets, things slowly began to unravel. Don’t get me wrong, Compstat has its place in identifying crime locations and determining where to put cops to fight that crime, but measuring those cops’ worth based on numbers is a path that soon puts the cops at odds with the entire community. The numbers-only system removes objectivity and most discretion, the two key ingredients in policing with compassion.

A friend of mine worked in a housing project known for notoriously high crime. After a series of shootings and other crimes, he was told to step up patrols in the area. The officer, knowing his zone, took the message to mean, stop the violent crime. He identified the key players, made a few good cases and removed the perpetrators from the neighborhood. At the end of the month, there were no shootings on his watch and crime was half what it had been! He should have gotten a citation for outstanding work, right? No. He was chastised for his lack of tickets and drop in arrests. (He had focused on the main criminals, and ignored minor crime). By policing with more discretion, he garnered greater trust and was able to get valuable information about crime from citizens. But, on the books, he looked like a slacker. Crazy, huh? The truth often is.

Another friend of mine was confronted with a dilemma on a traffic stop years ago. The driver of the car had a terrible driving record and his license was suspended so many times that he was considered a Habitual Traffic Offender, a felony at the time in FL. In this instance, the easiest—and many would say right—thing to do was for her to simply arrest the man and tow his car. But. There was an older woman in the passenger seat. The man bowed his head, telling the officer that his mother’s legs hurt so bad due to a medical condition that he risked going to pick her up to spare her the pain of walking home. My friend, after confirming the man had no other criminal background or warrants beyond the traffic fines, made a decision. She asked the woman if she had a valid license. She did. The officer then looked at the man and said, “I would do anything for my mom. I’m supposed to arrest you, but I’m not. Let your mother drive from here. Take care of your license. If I see you driving in another setting, I will arrest you. Fair?” The man was so grateful, he started to cry.

So, what’s the moral of the story? Technically, should my friend have taken the guy in? Yes. Did it really hurt anything for my friend to let him go? No. Do that guy and his mom now have a different perspective on the police? I’d say yes. In contrast, the officer with no compassion, simply “cuffs and stuffs”, indifferent to a personal story. When citizens become numbers, they cease to be people. Compassion is eliminated. Then, it’s a short jump to mistreatment or worse. For me, empathy and compassion are the two greatest traits of a good cop. In policing, we are too often told that those words equal weakness. That is fundamentally wrong. In fact, police are at their very best when they temper enforcement with compassion. Police leadership has to be bold enough to value empathy in the form of unconventional problem solving that cannot normally be measured like a pile of beans. It will take a little more work, but a community that sees its police as compassionate and just will support its police in times of crisis. Officers on the street are safer when community support is high.

Be safe.