If a similar thought has not gone through your mind lately, then clearly, you have been sleeping through the evening news. There is not a week that goes by that some new video surfaces where someone is claiming police mistreated them. And clearly some were. But is this something new that has happened, some new change in police procedure or are our police departments just hiring a bunch of brutal racists?
You may now think “I’ve always supported law enforcement, I’ve always respected police officers, but now I am not so sure…” Historically, the police of the last century were used as a means of oppression for minority groups. It has been a long process of change since the 1960s for both the police and our country. Because of this past, and in some cases more recent events like Rodney King and now Michael Brown, support for law enforcement is not always prevalent in all communities.
I have spent my life as a police officer and worked at all levels within police agencies, including as a Chief of Police. And even Police Chiefs are shocked at some of the incidents that have occurred. So why is this happening? We are now in a media age where every person has the ability to instantly publish video of an incident to the entire world. And since the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, the news media is alert and anxious to publish any inappropriate police action.
Police Officers have an awesome responsibility. They can legally stop you, take away your freedom (arrest) and even use force, up to and including deadly force in some circumstances. So how do Police Departments make sure their officers do the right thing? They basically use four methods. First they hire the best people they can find. They train them to the best of their ability. Then they supervise them. And since most officers work alone, the ability of a Sergeant to watch their every move is limited, so most supervision is done through policy. In other words, the department writes policy on how situations should be handled. If an officer violates policy, they use a disciplinary system to modify behavior or remove the officer.
So, why is this happening now? Well, we are now getting better video proof, but the truth is, it has been happening much longer. The Justice Department has conducted over 20 investigations over the last 20 years, into Police Departments that use excessive force. It is my belief that we, Police Chiefs and City Governments, have failed our Police Officers and our communities. We have failed to see these issues and improve our policies and training. We have failed to properly supervise our officers and hold them accountable for their actions. And we have failed to engage all segments of our community in an open dialog to bring understanding. Some chiefs and some cities have done a much better job of this than others, and we need to learn from each other.
I have assisted SGR in the development of a new seminar called The Future of Policing for City Managers and Police Chiefs to discuss these issues and develop specific plans for their community and department. We certainly don’t have all the answers, but together, we can examine our operations, our policies, and our training; and learn new ways to engage our communities.
The men and women that I know in law enforcement are certainly not brutal racists. They literally put their lives on the line every day. But they are human beings and are subject to the same human emotions and frailties as the next person, and they do make mistakes – even with all the training they have had. They deserve better from us and so do our communities. They deserve our very best efforts.
Senior Vice President, Executive Search