The Problem with Policing Is Even Worse Than You Think

If We Cannot Make Progress on This, Much Else Will Never Get Right



Here We Are

Once again, we sit in front of our TVs and watch our nation burn. We have been here before, and surely will again. This time has some important differences, as well as some timeless evil.

That there are racial disparities in the dispensing of law enforcement and justice should not be a surprise to anyone by now. Although some resisted the terminology and the messaging, the Black Lives Matter movement has done much to educate the rest of us in preparation for this moment. The hard, cold statistics are unwavering. Your odds of dying at the hands of a police officer are stunningly high if you are black, particularly if you are black male.

Black parents fear for their children’s lives literally every day, every time they step out the door. One chance occurrence, one misinterpretation, and someone’s child is dead. Who the hell can be expected to live that way? And yet people do – for their entire lives.

But what makes this time even more dangerous is our failure to police effectively and consistently. More on this in a moment, but one of the results that makes this so dangerous now is that a lot of police departments themselves feel under attack and at risk. When the people you have entrusted with sanctioned violence feel threatened and as outsiders, no good can come forth. This will end badly, every time.

Living Where You Work is Key for Law Enforcment

One of the striking lessons we seem never to learn is that community policing works; its absence is a lit fuse. Like so many other places (remember Ferguson?), the Minneapolis Police Department is a force of outsiders. Over 94% of that force does not live in the city they are charged with securing. I expect that percentage is even higher among the leadership at all echelons.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how this happens. Sometimes the city is not a desirable place to live. Oftentimes, it is too expensive to live there. But there are places that have overcome such obstacles, to great benefit. A police officer that lives where he or she serves feels a connection to the community they serve. Equally important, their neighbors know them, see police cars parked in front of homes in their neighborhood all the time. Sustained proximity does not solve everything, but it makes a better set of outcomes possible. It is worth serious investments to make it happen. It is reasonable to expect police leadership to set the example.

Three Warning Signs

I have known a lot, I mean a lot, of law enforcement people over the years, local and federal. Most I have found to be decent, dedicated people trying hard to do the right thing. But three particular warning signs should be called out and addressed.

One, policing attracts two kinds of individuals. One is the natural protector. They want others to feel safe and secure; they will take great personal risk to provide that protection.  That accounts for the vast majority of those I know in law enforcement. The other is the natural bully, who seeks to dominate (a term used just this week by a particular politician…) and has a bit of the sadist in their soul. Every law enforcement agency knows this type of person. It is not always obvious at first, but the signs do show up.

Departments that are slow to identify and cull out these types are asking for trouble. Even good officers can be charged with misconduct, but the man now charged with murder in Minneapolis had 18 such charges against him. The guilt of the crime he is now charged with is shared by his supervisors over the years. There are more than a few of these people out there in uniform. They are bad news for everyone, including their fellow officers.

Two, even good people get burned out. Doing street level law enforcement is hard, dangerous, discouraging. You see people at their very worst, day after day. There is gratuitous violence. Every call, no matter how innocuous , could turn fatal. The military learned a very long time ago that people cannot operate in the combat arms forever, nor can they sustain battle forever. The Command must build in breaks and rotations or face having a cruel, malignant force of soldiers that have lost too much of their humanity. Their moral injury becomes too great to heal. So too must it be with law enforcement at the front lines. People burn out.

Three, if the gap between law enforcement and civil society, including political leaders, gets to be too large, the risk is of having an organized force, armed and sanctioned to commit violence in our name, that feels itself under attack. Under attack individually and as a unit. They are not connected to the communities they serve, they do not trust their political leaders, and they do not see any way for it to get better. They will surely circle the wagons and push back.

A Deadly Combination

In this last concern, now we have an armed force that feels betrayed and threatened. It is in the midst of a community that feels that this armed force is their main threat, one incapable of working with the community in any meaningful way. In other words, we have two groups that are angry, feel threatened and at some point, feel they have nothing to lose. Anyone with a smattering of history and human psychology will tell you there is nothing more dangerous than an angry man who has nothing to lose.

Hope and Despair

We saw the full spectrum on display this weekend. Police officers were marching with demonstrators, helping demonstrators who had fallen or needed some other kind of help. Demonstration leaders were calming each other down, making a human circle to protect isolated police officers, and separating out troublemakers.

These are dangerous times. People are angry and have every right to be. If you are not angry about the history that brought us to this point, you are part of the problem.

But be aware there are those that very much want to agitate the calls for justice. There are anarchists and extremists both left and right who fan the flames of destruction. It is so much easier for them now to communicate, and to miscommunicate. They tarnish the memory of those whose deaths started this movement. They don’t care. We all need to be wary. Call them out, isolate them, punish them. Don’t let justifiable calls for justice play second fiddle to looting and violence. We don’t have the luxury of getting this wrong.

Can We Do This? Dare We Not?

Civil strife is never easy. There is pain and misunderstanding everywhere we turn. Irrational actions spring up in an instant. But so too are there opportunities to deal with both cause and effect. Joe Biden and others have been clear and compassionate in calling on us to do just that. But a nation where the President disdains the rule of law without consequence and who so clearly identifies with the worst of our nature is a nation at risk.

Bryan Stevenson has often and articulately spoken of the power of proximity. It is not enough to sympathize with others. We need to get uncomfortably in close with them, to live a bit in their world. Until more of us understand what it is like to be a black man walking a street alone or being a police officer feeling hated by everyone around him, we will not break this gordian knot of mutual distrust. And until we do, it will not get better. Those who thrive on hate and division will carry the day. Because we allow them to do so.

No one is going away, America. We all live here. Together. Best we start working on how to do that the right way. This one will be hard to solve. But solve it we must.

Bill Clontz, Founder, Agents of Reason     Bill Clontz

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10 replies to The Problem with Policing Is Even Worse Than You Think

  1. A very good post, Bill, thanks. I am concerned about the content of police training. Of course they are trained to shoot “when necessary” but they may be joining a culture that rewards them for being “tough” even trains them to be “tough” and we don’t need that. Community policing is very important, and I’m glad we have our own Kenilworth officer. When Kenilworth neighbors, about 100 strong, met with the chief of police and others, we learned that pay is too low, officers are difficult to recruit and turnover is too high. So I will not be among those who threaten to remove funding from police departments. I do wonder about who sets standards for their training.

    • Thanks, Ann.Your closing question really scratches a big itch. Who sets standards and content for training is a real mash up that varies almost everywhere. There are a number of good standard setting organizations (the International Association of Police Chiefs comes to mind) and agencies like the FBI can help (I have visited their training academy and saw some quality foundations), but in some ways this is the negative side of community policing – everyone sets their own priorities and standards. The pressure on the neck technique we saw with fatal results in MN is practiced there a lot, but is forbidden in many places. I don’t expect that one size fits all is a solution, but it surely seems that we could all agree on, or at least require, some minimum standards across the board.Getting there is going to be one hell of a challenge. Local authorities are not going to look kindly on a lack of local control.

  2. What’s good about this article is the issues are fairly laid out for both sides, the community and police. If the focus is on one side there will be no solution, and peace will never exist on the streets. Secondly, you identified key issues to be addressed to lay the groundwork for the slow recovery to respect on both sides. Officers living in the community, rules of conduct changes including no choke holds, other officers interventions, changes to union rules protecting rouge officers after multiple filings of misconduct…and holding responsible supervisors that let it continue. Instituting a civilian/police joint review board with “teeth” to act might help. We need a return to good ol’ community policing. Many police forces have been working hard to earn community respect. Unfortunately, what we are experiencing now has set back even the best efforts of enlightened law enforcement. There’s a lot of work to do.

    • Heck, Jerry. You said it better than I did, and more succinctly. You mentioned the civilian review board. A problem some places, but done right a real saving element. The last community I lived in fought hard to get one, faced great resistance from our police force (which overall was a good force), but in the end we got the board and a year or so later, everyone wondered what the fuss had been about. It did everything one could hope for, including helping support good cops and reinforcing action on the bad ones. It gave people a real voice in a meaningful way and fortunately, had people on the board that wanted to get it right for all concerned.

  3. Bill, why don’t you run for Congress?

    • Ha! Thanks, I think. No shortage of good talent running this very year. Our job it to clean the benches and get some of that new talent in.

  4. I much appreciate your description of the kind of person who wants to become a policeman/woman. The distinction between someone who wants to serve and protect and someone who is a “natural bully” seems to me very apt. I listened today to someone academic who has studied police systems and said that the police unions are part of the problem since their mission is to protect police members from any accountability. “They are like the NRA,” she said = well funded by right wingers.

    • There has been a lot of attention of late on police unions. I dont claim to know enough about them to weigh in on the topic, but I am following the discussions closely. There certainly is a good bit of anecdotal evidence to warrant concern. One would think such a union would be most interested in protecting its membership by standing up for the values of good policing and those who live those values. It surely is valid for such a group to ensure due process for all its members, but if the starting position is protect everyone who is charged, that is indeed part of the problem.

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