Note: Impatient? Here is the summary: We are terrible at building and maintaining relationships. Don't believe me? Next time you're in roll call, take inventory of the depressed, divorced and divisive co-workers around you. It's not a matter of character, but a matter of conditioning. As a consequence, the strategies we use to solve problems usually create more problems than they solve. Interested? Read on.
I recently read an online blog about the changes that need to happen for law enforcement to improve today in the US. I was intrigued and thought to myself, “Finally, someone is going to address this thing!” As I read through the post, I discovered that there were 3 main themes:
Money: You get what you pay for, so pay police more money.
Power: Law enforcement leaders are too soft and passive-aggressive.
Respect: The only thing that works is “in your face policing” and zero-tolerance policing. Community policing doesn’t work.
By the time I got to the end of the post, I hadn’t discovered any new insights. Instead, I found an author whose frustration was masked behind the all too familiar law enforcement gripe. I immediately thought to myself, “This is why people hate the police. We still don’t get it.”
I scrolled to the bottom of the article and discovered that it had been penned by a former colleague of mine from an agency I used to police at. So frustrating.
Listen, you have to understand the disease before you can begin to diagnose it. It’s apparent to me that many of us in law enforcement still don’t understand the disease we are fighting. We’ve positioned ourselves to fight the symptoms of the disease, but the disease continues to progress. And it’s killing us.
This is by no means intended to be an attack on my former colleague, or any other LEO who shares my colleague’s view. This is purely an attempt to offer a second opinion, if you will, about the disease and how best to attack it.
Diagnosis #1: Poor Metrics
Symptom: People don’t like us.
The law enforcement community uses a broken set of metrics to gauge the effectiveness of its policing practices. Perhaps it’s better to say that there is a missing metric: Relationship. The way we currently police can be summed up in a simple formula:
Crime Increase + Enforcement Increase = Crime Decrease + Safer Community
Seems simple enough right? Crime goes up, so our enforcement goes up. That results in crime going down and safer communities right? The problem with this formula is that it assumes that all of our enforcement practices are fair and ethical while being all around welcomed and accepted by the public at large. But that isn’t always the case. This model also doesn’t take into account the impact of harmful policing practices or differing perspectives between law enforcement and the community as to the appropriateness of force used. When considered, the formula should look like this:
Crime Increase + Enforcement Increase + Enforcement Severity =
Crime Decrease +/- Safer Community +/- Relationship
We assume that a safer community is a happier community, that the ends justify the means. When my colleague wrote that the only form of policing that worked was “in your face policing,” he failed to recognize that that is the very reason the public dislikes us. We are too aggressive.
The 2017 state of policing didn’t just happen. For years now we’ve been over-policing our communities and bombarding everyone with citations and arrests for the most minor of infractions. We began treating people like problems and lost our own humanity along the way. All the while, the stats looked good on paper so we never thought to ask how the people we serve feel about us.
Diagnosis #2: Apathy
Symptoms: People can’t relate to us
Imagine going to the doctor and hearing this:
"The results of your test came back and unfortunately, it doesn't look good. You've got cancer. But, you should be thankful! The good news is that your brain, heart, lungs, spleen, gallbladder, large and small intestines, pancreas, liver and kidneys all look great. In fact, the overwhelming majority of your organs are doing a great job!”
Apathy is defined as a lack of interest or concern. We have a really bad habit in law enforcement of saying “the majority of us do a good job.” Is it true? Of course it is! But so what? The reality is that while most of us do an outstanding job, a few of us don’t. And those who do an outstanding job have a tendency to downplay, invalidate, minimize or outright ignore the presence of bad officers amongst us. It’s as if we aren’t concerned about the few among us who are doing it wrong. And because of our apathetic posture, people can’t relate to us and color us all with the same broad brush.
Here is the truth. No one focuses on the 99.9% that works when the .1% can kill you. We are so focused on our own good intentions that we invalidate the feelings of fear and anxiety that result from our colleague’s bad actions. We expect people to honor and support us for our sacrifices, while simultaneously expecting them write off the occasional unlawful use of force as insignificant by comparison. This leads me to diagnosis number three.
Diagnosis #3: Accountability
Symptom: People don’t trust us
At some point we transitioned from Peace Officers to Law Enforcement Officers. Additionally, agencies now use the phrase “community policing” as a tag line, but don’t actually employ it. Instead, most modern police agencies have adopted CompStat models that use data to quantify crime stats. We use stat driven predictive policing models, which are focused on reducing crime but not improving people’s condition, to address community issues.
I recall a time when I was called into my supervisor’s office. He had a sheet of paper in his hand that listed all the officers on my shift. At the very bottom of the list, highlighted in yellow, was my name. According to the list, I had the lowest number of arrests and citations issued out of all of the officers on the shift.
He said to me, “With numbers like this, how can I justify your existence here?”
I explained that instead of writing tickets all day, I spent time in my community. I walked into stores and engaged people. I got to know the people in the neighborhoods I patrolled. I scheduled community meetings on my own time in an effort to gather intelligence from the community, and to equip them with knowledge and tools to effectively police themselves. “Arrests and citations aren’t the only tools in our toolbox.” I said.
He simply replied, “We don’t count that.”
In addition, when officers do engage in questionable behavior, there is an overwhelming sense of injustice each time an officer is acquitted or not charged for it. We justify everything from a legal standpoint, not recognizing that our legal justifications often times fall well below a standard of morality. We see the world through a lens of right and wrong, but the public sees the world through the lens of what is acceptable and what is not. This is something few of us agree with, but we nonetheless need to understand it.
Treatment Options: Seek Relationships, Not Results
For years, our actions were like a sinkhole. We eroded the confidence, trust, faith and benefit of the doubt that the community has had in us. For years, this has gone unnoticed by us in the profession; it stayed beneath the surface. But the public has been paying attention. The recent increase in awareness of excessive force incidents from around the country, questionable policing practices and critical media coverage all led to the proverbial bottom falling out. And today, many of us in the law enforcement community are confused and asking ourselves, “Where did we go wrong?”
Here is where we went wrong. We stopped protecting people and began policing problems. We let the job become an administrative task; it’s all stats and numbers now. We forgot that the people we encounter are human beings being human. We forgot that our job was not to punish people for breaking the law, but to guide them towards better decision-making. We forgot that relationships matter more than arrests and citations. We hold the community accountable for their misdeeds, and fail to take responsibility for our own. We failed to include the community when coming up with solutions for the community. When crime increases, we immediately respond with saturation patrols, strict enforcement details and warrant sweeps. Walking through a neighborhood, engaging people where they live and building relationships is rarely considered.
I recognize that stats and data are integral to our success. I’m aware that there are times when we have to be aggressive, times when we will have to use force and times when people will get hurt. I know first hand that it’s hard to care about people who demonstrate a lack of care for themselves. But, I also recognize that there is more to being a law enforcement officer than just stats and use of force. It’s also about helping people, even those who can’t or won’t help themselves.
The key to moving forward is going to be relationships. We have to establish them. Not only do we have to remember that these are people we are dealing with (and not numbers), but we also have to demonstrate a level of our own humanity. We are going to have to be emotionally available and vulnerable. We will have to interact with them, experience life with them. We have to be present for more than just the bad moments. We have to show people that we care about them, that we have their best interests at heart.
As a law enforcement veteran, I wholeheartedly admit that in the past I was guilty of sharing in some of the diagnosed thinking described above. But now as a pastor and law enforcement chaplain, I’ve been fortunate enough to gain a renewed understanding of my purpose.
I believe that our purpose in law enforcement today is the same as Ezekiel from the bible. It’s our job to confront a rebellious nation, but to remain righteous in the process. The challenge is to get as close to broken people as we can, without becoming broken ourselves. I think we will discover that effective policing isn’t about being soft. It’s about being relational.
www.The12Initiative.com I Ryan M. Dunlap