It was not uncommon to hear things like "he may beat the rap but he won't beat the ride" when a fellow officer would make a questionable arrest. I also was taught that "POP" (short for pissing off the police) was apparently an arrestable offense. This was the culture I saw from the inside looking out.
Eventually I learned better due in no small measure to two mentors. One was a college professor I got to know well while working toward my undergraduate degree in criminal justice and the other was a wise and experienced lawman who led by example in showing me that it was not "us against them" but rather "us WITH them" and that our job was much easier if we engaged with the community and treated people with respect and dignity, even those we had to arrest.
"Us against them" does not work for the police.
While the ink on the "Not Guilty" verdict form was still wet after the acquittal of a Cleveland Police Officer charged with manslaughter in the controversial shooting deaths of two people in 2013, the Cleveland Police Department has entered into a settlement
with the U.S. Department of Justice after findings last year that the department had a serious and deep seeded problem with excessive force and patterns of civil rights violations. This, of course, follows in the wake of police controversies in Baltimore, New York, Ferguson and elsewhere throughout the United States in the recent past.
Let there be no mistake: Law enforcement is truly a dangerous and frequently a deadly profession and it takes a very special person to sign up for the life of a professional law enforcement officer. Officers are well advised to be alert to the real dangers that exist and to be well trained in the use of force -- both lethal and nonlethal -- as a means to make sure they go home safely at the end of their workday.
Us against them?
The problem, however, is to keep this justifiable awareness of danger from evolving into the "us against them mindset" that frequently creeps in. A police use-of-force instructor recently told me that more and more frequently he encounters field training officers who teach their recruits that it is only the swift use of force that will keep officers safe. Occasionally that may be the case but teaching that to new recruits will only lead to more agencies like the Cleveland Police Department being essentially taken over by the courts, and courts are neither designed nor equipped to manage police agencies.
The Cleveland settlement is a sweeping document
that outlines major institutional changes from top to bottom and will take years to fully implement.
Of paramount importance in the Cleveland/DOJ settlement is the idea of "community oriented policing" or COP. COP programs aren't exactly a new idea. They have been around for decades, having been first introduced as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement act of 1994. COPS programs have changed over time and now there is inconsistency across the United States about whether law enforcement agencies consider themselves practitioners of community policing.
Despite the evolution of what being a COP agency means, one thing that has persisted is the philosophy that the program promoted -- specifically a change from incident-driven policing where police simply responded to calls for service as they went about their hectic shifts to a model focused on police interaction with the communities they serve.
Police were asked to get away from squad cars and make connections with the business sector, civic groups, business associations, church leaders, and any other community resources to approach crime from the standpoint of being partners. Even before 1994 and the federal grant programs, the underlying philosophy of community policing has been successfully practiced in small-town police and sheriff's agencies, in big cities and even by national police entities such as the Israel State Police.
Whether an agency sees success from community policing depends on agency leaders and the degree to which it is truly emphasized. If little more than lip service is paid, then then the concept fails.
Real community policing
Real and meaningful community oriented policing is not just some gimmick whereby local agencies get a federal grant, hire a few officers for foot patrol, slap a "COP" sticker on a car, perhaps start a Citizens Police Academy, thereby pretending to adhere to the philosophy but still carry on business as usual. A very good real world description of actual
community oriented policing that I have heard comes from my friend Sheriff Scott Berry of the Oconee County Sheriffs Office
not far from Atlanta.
According to Berry, real community oriented policing is "an institutional culture within an agency [rather than] a buzzword to justify more money in the form of grants, budgets, and hiring 'Officer Friendly' to do the work of interacting with the community cops serve. The truth is, building relationships within a community is EVERY cop's job, from the chief or sheriff down to the most junior new guy or girl in the agency."
Community policing is treated as a flag to wave around by so many agencies instead of a culture cultivated in line employees from the top down at the very beginning of their careers. If you wear a badge and you don't know the people in the community you serve you are not living up to your oath and responsibility. There are two ways to do this job. You can try to occupy your beat and rule it with an iron fist, trying to instill fear in your citizens, or you can be a part of their lives and recognize the issues they face every day. Only one of these ways works -- guess which one?"
"Us against them" does not work for the community.
The overwhelming majority of police in America are true public servants who never wish to use any force whatsoever except as a last resort. That was true for me and is true for all of my many friends who are true law enforcement professionals.
While we have seen recent protests with significantly more violence, as was the case in Baltimore after the arrests of six police officers following the custodial death of Freddie Gray, there is absolutely no benefit to be gained by the violent protests in Cleveland
after the acquittal of Officer Michael Brelo. It's an acquittal that was legally mandated because the prosecution, according to the judge, could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Brelo's actions (while tactically questionable at best) caused the death of the two victims given that there were 137 shots fired by a multitude of other officers.
Felonious assaults against officers and civilians are beyond counterproductive. It's appalling to read allegations that some "protesters" actually went into Cleveland restaurants and sprayed pepper spray on people simply trying to eat a meal and that others were assaulted with various objects.
If we, through the Department of Justice, are going to forcibly mandate meaningful reform by troubled police agencies, shouldn't we also be as insistent that those within our communities who wish to protest exercise self control and do so without using violence?
Yes, violent protesters were arrested in Cleveland and in Baltimore -- and elsewhere, but arresting someone after the violence has occurred is simply reactive, as is arresting a police officer after something has gone terribly wrong. Community leaders should step up and make a proactive forceful stand against violence and redouble efforts to impress upon their constituents that police in general are not their enemies and that real meaningful change can only come from mutual respect and understanding.
What community leaders should do
It's obvious that we are witnessing a sea change in police management and training and we are asking police leadership across America to take a close look at how they do things.
Likewise, community leaders, clergy, politicians, parents, teachers and everyone else in the general population who holds influence over community reaction should also be encouraged to adopt an "us with them" approach to working together with police leaders and unite with them to close the ever-widening gulf between police and the community that is tearing at the fabric of Main Street, USA.
The old saying of "make friends before you need friends" is what community oriented policing is all about and the same holds true for citizens who, if they would take the time to learn what police work is really about, might just make a friend who will be there for them when they really need one.