Wellesley (Mass.) Police Chief Terrence (Terry) M. Cunningham and President of the International Association of Chief’s of Police (IACP) issued a formal apology to the nation’s minority population at the convention in San Diego last week.
“While we obviously cannot change the past, it is clear that we must change the future. For our part, the first step is for law enforcement and the IACP to acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.”
This is going to anger some of my colleagues and friends, but I’m OK with the chief’s statement. And I think much of the anger directed at the chief for his statement is misdirected.
He also said: “The history of the law enforcement profession is replete with examples of bravery, self-sacrifice, and service to the community. At its core, policing is a noble profession made up of women and men who have sworn to place themselves between the innocent and those who seek to do them harm. Over the years, thousands of police officers have laid down their lives for their fellow citizens while hundreds of thousands more have been injured while protecting their communities. The nation owes all of those officers, as well as those who are still on patrol today, an enormous debt of gratitude.”
He then followed this statement with a “but” statement. And that’s what almost all the cops I have talked to are upset about. He said:
“There have been times when law enforcement officers, because of the laws enacted by federal, state, and local governments, have been the face of oppression for far too many of our fellow citizens. In the past, the laws adopted by our society have required police officers to perform many unpalatable tasks, such as ensuring legalized discrimination or even denying the basic rights of citizenship to many of our fellow Americans.”
Again, very true, and nothing I myself would take issue with.
However, the timing of this statement and apparent lack of understanding about what officers have been going through over the past two years—being demonized, portrayed as violent racists, subjected to constant verbal abuse and physical attacks—is what has the cops up in arms.
The line-level members of law enforcement are undoubtedly, unarguably, losing faith in their law enforcement leaders on both national and local levels. It’s the most consistent thing I hear as I travel the county over 70 times this year training police.
A One-Way Street
Blame for the fractured relationship between police officers and communities of color is universally characterized as a one-way issue when it comes to fault: it’s law enforcement.
There are few voices in the media or among the political class that acknowledge that there are complex causes for this current chasm. Instead they want to make it simple and singular. It’s the police and their racist tendencies, past and present, that harm minority communities.
That’s something cops have come to grudgingly expect and accept from political punditry. But they absolutely can’t stomach it when their law enforcement leaders promote the same false and unchallenged narrative.
Where are the law enforcement leaders willing to defend the profession?
It wouldn’t be that difficult: the statistics are right out in the open. I’ve written about them countless times. The FBI, BJS, and well-researched books prove that there is not a systemic war on people of color; that incarceration rates are proportionate to crime rates; and that the profession is not made up of uncaring violent thugs motivated by racism.
I’m OK with what Cunningham said because it was true on all counts. And I think it needed to be said if for no other reason to start the dialogue, which I believe was his true intention. In fact I applaud this.
But now what? Will the conversation commence in a civil tone? Will it be undertaken by those interested in finding solutions? Will the conversation at least be a two-way exchange?
It better be, because this divide is certainly not one-dimensional. To treat it otherwise will doom us from the onset.
Law enforcement has to own up to its shortcomings and problems. We must address the fact that implicit, illicit biases may unjustly impact evaluations and decisions of others. We should rethink some of our strategies addressing how they may adversely affect people of color and the impoverished.
But when will groups like PERF, IACP, NOBLE, and so on invite line-level officers to the table and figure out what’s important to them? After all, it’s the line level we’re talking about here. Shouldn’t they have a voice in this?
Here are the concerns I hear about from the line level.
Officer safety. I’m talking real officer safety, beyond a gun fight or an eight-hour shift. Safety that addresses the emotional, physical, psychological, and financial realities that burden cops and stress out their families.
Realistic and applicable training. When will leadership acknowledge that good training is the best way to improve morale and competence? That the refusal to dedicate money and resources to stress education results in overreactions on the street? Admit that they realize that much of the mandated training is designed to do nothing more than check a politically correct box all while knowing that it won’t resonate with the cops and therefore has little to no chance of changing unacceptable behavior?
Unreasonable expectations. When will they give more than the occasional lip service to how law enforcement is now expected to fix all of society’s ills? How they are the default for mental health problems, marriage counseling, lawn maintenance, animal control, traffic dangers, not to mention dealing with the sociopaths that make up the criminal gangs who prey on the most defenseless?
True leadership. When will our leaders look the public and their bosses in the eye and say, “You are expecting too much on our side, time to pick up your end of the bargain”? When will they tell those who claim to care, that they need to lead and acknowledge that things other than law enforcement are the root causes for neighborhood problems?
My final advice: Leaders desperately need to stop talking to each other and listen to those they are supposed to be leading, to those that actually fulfill the mission of their organizations. If they don’t, the situation will only deteriorate.
The question is: Do the bosses even care that those they are supposed to be leading have lost faith in them?