I was cleaning out my drafts folder a little bit when I came across this post. I was asked by CNN to write a post for them a couple of years ago, I think during the Fersuson rioting, and either I never sent it to them or, more likely, I did and they didn’t use it. Either way, it’s pretty clear that my hope here for things to get better not only between the police and citizens, but among all citizens, is not only not happening , but are unbelievably, getting worse.
I’ve not intentionally sat down to watch more than five or ten minutes of news coverage about Ferguson since Michael Brown was shot.
He was laid to rest on Monday, and I didn’t watch that either.
What little I have seen has come from social media or other readable sources. I just can’t bear to watch people with agendas, people who will never accept that their opinion isn’t 100% correct, feuding with other people who have agendas and will never accept that their opposing opinion isn’t also 100% correct.
If you’re reading this, then it was published, which means I guess I have an agenda as well, but I promise I’m at least open to hearing every side of an issue. My agenda, as it were, is for peace. It’s for simple things like being able to drive a patrol car down a city street and exchange a wave or a pleasant smile, instead of angry glares, with people I’ve sworn to serve and protect.
How do we do that? How do we get to that point?
Let’s start by learning something from the events in Ferguson. We’re all eager to get over the ugliness of the past three weeks, but shame on us, if we don’t take away some lessons from the mess. Ferguson is about much more than Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. It’s a culmination of things that have been simmering for a long time. What finally boiled over in violence in Ferguson isn’t about a single incident or even a few incidents, it’s about decades of things not getting better for the poorest in America, while things continue to improve for the wealthiest.
It’s about how many black people, especially parents, feel they or their children are perceived and treated by the police. Their beliefs can’t be marginalized or ignored as unrooted in reality hysteria. Too many people have similar stories for that to be the case, people of color from all walks of life.
It’s about whether or not the militarization of police in this country is necessary, or even real. It’s about the hundreds of thousands of honorable police officers in the United States who do a difficult job with honor and integrity and pride, those who never make the news for the hundreds of thousands of calls they handle each year that end without an ugly incident. It’s about people losing friends on social media or at work because they can’t agree to disagree when the issue has any tint of race involved. It’s about blacks and whites and Democrats and Republicans and Liberals and Conservatives and us and them.
It’s about you and it’s about me.
It’s about our kids.
It’s about all of us.
We as Americans need to learn from this horrible incident and make positive changes to help us not only to heal, but to move forward as a nation of civilized human beings.
What can we learn? Let’s start with these discussion points.
1. The police are here to stay. Law enforcement isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Like us or not, we serve an important role in society. Go to any neighborhood meeting in any large city in America, and safety is somewhere on the agenda.
Law abiding citizens have a right to know what the police are doing and to have a say in how we go about doing it. The police, in turn, have a right to expect support from the law abiding citizens in their community, and to be equipped with tools sufficient enough to go about doing a very dangerous job so that we can go home safely at the end of every shift.
The police have big guns because the bad guys have big guns. Take care of the latter issue and we’ll listen to your complaints about what we have in our arsenal. I have access to a 9 mm Beretta pistol, and either a shotgun or 9 mm carbine rifle, depending on which car I’m in on any given day. The rifle is rarely ever taken from the car by most officers. The high octane equipment everyone is up in arms about (pun intended) is used by specialized units and for special circumstances only. They are an unfortunate necessity in a terribly violent world.
2. Race is an issue. When I see a person standing on a street corner, of course I notice whether or not they’re black or white, just as I notice whether or not they are a man or a woman. Police officers are trained to notice these sorts of things and make decisions based on these observations. Where I patrol, over 90%, maybe more, of the population is black. In the district where I patrol, we do have many black officers, but it’s not 90%. The racial make up of the police officers in any given district isn’t a perfect representation of the area they serve. Just as I notice the color of the person I’m dealing with, citizens are equally aware and interested in the race of the officer who they’re encountering as well.
If citizens, both black and white, aren’t trusting police officers based solely on their skin color, then the problem is not one of police versus society that we as a police department can fix, it’s a problem of whites and blacks in general, and how we’re not doing a good enough job of getting to understand one another.
I like to think I’m an okay police officer, and I can be a lot of things as an officer. I can be fair, calm, empathetic, polite, concerned, brave, strong, whatever you as a citizen need, but I can’t be black.
I just can’t. I can’t be black or gay or a woman or Muslim or any of the myriad things that some people want in a police officer standing in front of them at any given time. We aren’t Burger King, so you can’t have it your way, unfortunately. You get the officer we send, there are generally no substitutions.
If certain citizens in black communities want all black officers, regardless of talent, then I can’t be that officer for you. I work for a department that does have a large number of minority officers, so we’re blessed in that respect. I understand the desire for the department in Ferguson to more closely mirror the demographics of the entire community. Officers from the communities they serve are bound to be better in tune with the people they protect, but there’s something wrong with a person who would take a rude officer who shared their skin color over a truly eager to help officer with a different complexion than theirs. That works both ways, as many white citizens I’ve encountered over the years have expressed disgust at having black officers show up to their calls in the past.
3. The police aren’t the root of the problem. Police officers have become and unfair symbol of all that is wrong in society. It’s easy to blame the police for a lot of the ills in society, because we’re the ones on the streets dealing with the people first hand. A lot of the laws passed by city, state and federal leaders are, quite frankly, stupid, for lack of a better word. Even so, it’s the police officers who have to go out and enforce those laws whether we agree with them or not, because the folks we elect are supposedly passing laws based on the good of the people. The police are also not to blame for teenage pregnancy, rampant drug abuse, divorce, high unemployment rates, kids dropping out of school, terrible public school systems educating those who don’t dropout, or most of the other issues that cause the poor to stay poor while allowing the rich to get richer.
It’s not my opinion when I say that black men are responsible for most of the crime in my patrol area. That’s just fact. It’s also a fact that most of the victims, the people who are calling us for help, are also black. Why are these men committing crimes? What can we do to fix that? I am not a fan of putting drug addicts in prison where they’ll never get the help they need to fix themselves. I’m also not a fan of the robbing, killing and everything else that comes along with the drug problem in this country. Those crimes must be punished. How do we balance this? This is a conversation the police should be a part of, but we can’t be expected to fix crime when society isn’t offering alternatives for these young people to turn to instead. Rec centers where kids can play basketball and hangout aren’t the answer. Education, learning a trade, fair practices in hiring, housing etc. are the answer.
4. The police can do a better job to earn trust and respect. I’m not a police homer. I will be the first one to acknowledge when we’ve dropped the ball on something. Police officers are notoriously pessimistic and resistant to change. We see the writing on the wall about having to wear body cameras at some point in our careers. It’s going to happen and we will adjust. Video evidence doesn’t have to be a negative concept. It can often help to exonerate officers who are wrongly accused and even moreso, they can help illustrate just how crazy people can really behave, even in front of a police officer. There are stories that police officers have that are simply unbelievable, and are hard to believe, but for seeing with one’s own eyes.
If you’re an officer, or really any person out in public nowadays, you should behave under the assumption that somebody is filming you, because they probably are.
5. We are here to help you. I’ve yet to meet a police officer who has said they’ve taken the job because they hate people and want to make as many people miserable as possible. Are these type of people out there? I’m guessing yes, but overall, most officers are good men and women. We don’t live as officers 24 hours a day. When I take off my badge and gun, I coach my kids’ soccer and baseball teams, I hang out with my neighbors and family, I have to cut the grass and get my oil changed and help with homework, and do all of the daily chores that you and your loved ones do.
Part of the public relations problem we suffer as police officers is that officers aren’t always able to meet people at their best. We so often deal with people who are either committing crimes or are angry, hurting victims of crimes or accidents, that we forget that there are millions of people in this country who live their lives everyday without giving the police a second thought unless something happens.
We need to get in touch with those folks again.
These are the people who run small businesses or who are outside watering their lawns on the weekends. How do we get officers to be able to interact with these people again? My department, just as an example, emphasizes getting to calls as quickly as possible over sending the best officer to a particular call. The best officer to send, is the officer who patrols the area where the 911 call is coming from, but if that officer is not available, then we send a nearby officer, even though that call can safely be held until the area officer returns and is available.
If officers are tasked with patrolling a certain area and taking ownership of what goes on there, then crime outcomes will matter to that officer more than they do otherwise. Officers getting to know the people who live and work in his or her area are officers who will care for these people and do what they can to help them. Departments can do a better job of this. We used to call it beat integrity, and that we’ve lost that concept is a shame.
The problems faced by society are myriad, not just police and crime related. Solutions to issues of race, community, crime, employment, etc. can only be addressed by cooperation among all members of society. When the dust has settled here in Missouri, and the pundits and news vans and blow-hards have left, my hope is that what’s left is different. That what’s left is hope for a better future and a commitment from all of us to do what it takes to make that happen.