Last Thursday morning, the Daytona Beach News-Journal was kind enough to ask if I would give my thoughts on the police-involved shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota.
Given the fact that I have an opinion on literally everything – and a long background in police operations – I was quick to accept the invitation with humility and pride (it’s the bloggers version of being called up to the major leagues for a cup of coffee).
Having served most of my adult life in law enforcement, when these terrible incidents occur I tend to support the actions of the officer until the facts prove otherwise. Invariably, if we wait until all the elements of the encounter are known, we learn that the police officer was defending his or her own life in a potentially violent situation.
When the facts prove otherwise, the officer is more often than not quickly held-to-account.
As has become the norm, in the immediate aftermath of a deadly police-citizen encounter, certain politicians instinctively use the opportunity to denigrate the actions of law enforcement.
For instance, following the shootings in Baton Rouge and Falcon Point, President Obama – before any of the facts were known – told all American’s that they should be “deeply troubled” by the events. Rather than calm fears and encourage patience, the President went on to describe the incidents as being “…symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.”
Then, in perhaps the worst example of gubernatorial leadership in the history of the Republic, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton (D) made the wholly irresponsible statement, “Would this have happened if those passengers, the driver and the passengers, were white?” Dayton said. “I don’t think it would have… I think all of us in Minnesota are forced to confront that this kind of racism exists.”
Regardless of your personal opinion on the serious issues we face, were these remarks appropriate under the circumstances? Did they help bring calm to the situation, or did they fan the flames of speculation and divisiveness?
From that perspective, I spent a few hours cobbling together my thoughts on the apparent breakdown in police-community relations in certain areas of our country – after all, we never think things are as bad in our own backyard as they appear to be in those far-off places we see on CNN – and wondering why the media kept playing video snippets of the incidents totally outside the context of a comprehensive investigation of the facts.
In my original essay, I spoke of things like building bridges between the various factions by establishing a foundation for discussion based upon the common human values and virtues that we all share.
By and large, I believe that regardless of race, color or creed we all want peace, dignity and respect. We all want equal opportunities for education, good jobs, the freedom to worship and the opportunity to contribute to society in a healthy and meaningful way. We all want to raise our families, pursue our livelihoods and enjoy our friendships in a nurturing, free and supportive environment.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
Just before 9:00pm Thursday evening the world watched live newsfeeds from downtown Dallas as a peaceful protest suddenly turned into a bloodbath.
In a cowardly ambush specifically targeting white police officers, a lone assassin changed everything, and the buzzwords “community policing” and “everybody’s life matters” just didn’t resonate anymore.
And in the absence of strong leadership, our nation succumbed to fear, suspicion and chaos.
As the hours passed my anger built as I watched in horror as young demonstrators shouted epithets and spewed hate-filled rhetoric just inches from the faces of stoic police officers who bravely and patiently held the line to protect protesters and the general public alike.
I watched as angry spittle struck the bare faces of officers who bravely and unflinchingly held their ground and I quietly wondered if I would have had the inner-strength to control my emotions under similar circumstances.
I then watched proudly as Dallas Police Chief David Brown demonstrated extraordinary leadership, courage, and poise under extreme pressure as he slowly transitioned to both the face of this tragic incident – and America’s Chief of Police.
To Chief Brown’s great credit, he didn’t try to put an artificial happy face on an atrocity – nor did he wallow in outrage and self-pity. He simply told us the facts we needed to know – he calmed our fears – and he spoke eloquently on the harsh realities of law enforcement that American needed to hear.
He also set in motion the process of healing the “Thin Blue Line” by reminding us that law enforcement is a family, and that police officers should let nothing come between them or break our special fraternal bond.
Thank God for Chief Brown’s incredible leadership at a time when our nation needs it most. He changed my perspective and brought me back to reality.
In my view, we live in an age where snap perceptions of police misconduct – often based on jangled video snippets and inflammatory rhetoric – fuel an immediate and certain rush to judgement.
Law enforcement officers are assumed guilty and convicted in the court of public opinion at the speed of social media – at times before investigators have even arrived at the scene.
The result is an untenable environment where those sworn to uphold the law and safeguard our communities no longer enjoy the basic right of equal justice before the law, or the fundamental presumption of innocence. The rule of law has been replaced with rabble-rousing, incendiary assumptions and hearsay – and now a direct attack by a domestic terrorist.
Americans should be outraged when our political leadership almost instinctively use their important role to fan speculation and intensify emotional conjecture in the immediate aftermath of deadly police-citizen encounters that none of us – especially law enforcement – want to see continue.
To my mind, this blatant and terribly reckless rhetoric by state and national politicians is indicative of one of the very real problems facing the American people: A complete lack of moral and ethical leadership on the national stage.
Just as law enforcement officers have a sworn obligation to serve all members of society – including those with a demonstrated hatred of police – our elected officials have an equal duty to use their positions of trust to urge calm, encourage patience and restore unity in times of crisis.
To check the prevailing wind and fall in line with reactionaries in the immediate aftermath of an incident in a cheap ploy to exploit tragedy for political gain is wrong – and it is the antithesis of courage and leadership.
Following my commentary in Sunday’s Daytona Beach News-Journal, some felt I condemned the killing of five Dallas police officers while failing to address the “reasons” behind the shootings.
Frankly, I don’t care what the shooters motivations were. His willful and vile actions in taking innocent lives in a self-described act of racial hatred is patently and utterly wrong.
There can be no moral, ethical or societal explanation or justification for this act of terrorism.
Please understand that I respect everyone’s position on this and other important social and political issues facing our great nation. I encourage the healthy debate of logical and well-thought opinions and the search for common ground.
I can take the heat and we can still be friends.
The fact is we have great divisions in America today. At a time when we should be celebrating our diversity and enjoying the harmony, inclusiveness and innovations of a modern world we seem more split and alienated than anytime in recent history.
In the early 1990’s I remember attending a Community Oriented Policing symposium where the concepts of community and problem-oriented policing were discussed as the new federal mandate for law enforcement operations nationwide.
In fact, the government employee who facilitated the discussion made the comment that, “Any police administrator who fails to embrace this philosophy won’t be working in this business in five years.”
That rather bold assertion prompted a discussion between my colleagues, who, after hearing the concepts discussed, came to the realization that what the federal government proposed was the very manner in which we had policed our small community for years.
But we fell in line.
Under the Clinton administration, we received funding from the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. In turn, we took officers who had been assigned to police/community relations programs, (“Officer Friendly,” McGruff the Crime Dog, crime prevention activities, school programs, drug abuse prevention, etc.) and put them in “Community Policing” roles.
Officers stopped going out into the community, holding neighborhood watch meetings and teaching crime prevention techniques and started collecting statistics, tabulating “full-time personnel equivalents” and applying for, then managing, federal grants.
I watched as small town police departments took officers off the street and had them staff “sub-stations” because the Community Oriented Policing Office told us police departments needed to “decentralize” our operations. (Never mind that we were a community of four square miles – one size fit everyone. Or so they thought.)
I watched as traditional agencies transitioned from true service-oriented, community based programs to data-driven policing concepts.
But I did not speak out – I joined lockstep with everyone else – least I be one of those dinosaurs that was jettisoned from the service because I failed to embrace the federal government’s committee-style decision to force their homogenized version of “good policing” down our collective throats.
The net result was that our communities received massive amounts of federal grant dollars for everything from personnel to advanced equipment – and at the end of the day – all it cost us was our soul.
Between the “let’s do good” concept – and the implementation – comes the problem.
In my view, bureaucracies beget bureaucracies.
We went from being peace officers working in the neighborhoods of our communities, holding meetings in living rooms, and playing with kids in the street – not because the government told us we needed to do that to check off a block on a grant management report – but because we actually enjoyed interacting with those we serve, to statisticians.
As a patrol officer I got to know many people in the community. I knew their children and their extended family. I celebrated life events and attended to them during dark and difficult times. And when they broke the law, I arrested them and worked diligently to see justice served.
But at the end of the day, we helped each other. As a community should.
For instance, the small city I served collected more food for disadvantaged people than any other municipal government – or the County of Volusia – year in and year out.
I trusted those I was sworn to serve, and they trusted me.
My experience was not unique.
The community I served supported their police officers, and in turn, the men and women who wear the badge found helpful ways to give back. They cleaned-up properties for the disabled, mowed lawns, painted houses and went into their own pockets to see that the hungry had a meal.
To my view, that is the very essence of community-based policing.
Was my agency perfect? Far from it.
Did I make mistakes as Chief of Police? More than I care to remember.
But when we erred, I like to think that we did our level best to make things right again.
Now, I fear that in a well-meaning attempt to set comprehensive standards for policing the federal government will once again ignore the local knowledge, familiarity and social cohesion that strengthens communities.
With the advent of law enforcement accreditation, the vast majority of law enforcement agencies throughout the United States already share common rules, regulations and proven operational policies. My concern is that the Department of Justice and other well-intentioned federal regulatory and oversight agencies will once again attempt to use a one-size-fits-all approach to correcting issues, both real and perceived.
Given today’s unrest – I’m not sure the government’s concept of community-oriented policing worked.
While I’m no expert, I think the process of rebuilding trust begins with kindness, compassion and a sense of community pride – something you rarely find on a government grant application.
I once worked for a police chief who said, “Change that happens overnight never lasts. Change that is implemented thoughtfully, over time, is transforming and lasting.”
Now is the time to mourn the dead, remember their bravery and sacrifice, support and promote healing for the wounded, and take a moment in time to reflect on those things that unite us and bind us together as members of the human race.
Whatever we do, let’s pray we get it right this time.