During the third week of May, tens of thousands of cops from across the nation will gather in Washington, D.C., for “Police Week” and its national memorial services, a solemn tradition that dates back to the Kennedy administration. As a former law enforcement officer, I know the importance of this week.
I also know that this is an ideal time to commit to improving the institution from within as well as from without. There is no better time to recognize and appreciate our courageous officers — and make their work safer, more satisfying, and, ultimately, more legitimate in the eyes of the people.
Twenty-three years ago, as Seattle’s police chief, I traveled to our nation’s capital to join the family of a gifted, compassionate police officer, Antonio Terry. On June 4, 1994, Detective Terry was shot dead by a motorist he had stopped to assist. Police Week is meant to honor the men and women, like Terry, who are gutsy enough to do this critical, often dangerous work.
But a proper tribute starts by accepting what is for some a painful truth: Much of the criticism of American policing — rudeness, bigotry, and discrimination; unlawful stop and frisk; false arrests; sexual predation; corruption; excessive force — is valid. And another truth: Airing these criticisms is but a first step. Communities must have a meaningful role in improving the system — which includes reform-minded people joining the ranks.
Many officers accused of unlawful acts, including the use of excessive and deadly force, are playing out what the system of policing has taught them. Whether that learning takes place in the academy or in the locker room or the front seat of a squad car, it must be addressed, checked, and countered by proper training and a supportive culture that will more effectively protect everyone.
While there are numerous examples of effective, often heroic police work, deeply-rooted patterns of dysfunctional policing stretch back generations and are less talked about, certainly within the ranks. It’s time for police to discuss them openly and honestly with our communities. Such frank conversations would create an environment in which those who believe in the best values of policing would be more likely to enter the profession or to work with departments to bring about needed change.
For too long, our police have been taught never to back down and always to maintain the upper hand, regardless of the circumstances or whether the methods and tactics employed are likely to backfire. Senior officers have taught junior officers to convey an attitude of We’re in charge here. Or, put differently, We’re the cops, and you’re not. This equation leaves little room for the rights and humanity of regular people. And, this mentality, reinforced throughout an officer’s career, is pretty much guaranteed to escalate tensions, strain community-police relations, and cause citizens to view their officers as arrogant, unapproachable, and unfeeling.
Furthermore, the increased militarization of law enforcement, fueled by an immoral, wrong-headed, unwinnable drug war, has only added to these problems. For the past half century, local cops have served as foot soldiers in an armed conflict against their neighbors, especially low-income people and communities of color.
Actual reform of the institution demands a willingness of all stakeholders — crime victims, grassroots community activists, civil libertarians, civic leaders, police officials, and rank-and-file officers — to come together to build a robust new system. Some critics go so far as to argue that police departments should be abolished entirely. I disagree. But for those of us who believe police are necessary, we must be prepared to enact fundamental reforms that fulfill the promise of joint community-police protection and service.
Such a police department will have clear and nameable priorities: the protection and preservation of human life as the agency’s highest calling; crime-fighting that concentrates on domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, and other predatory offenses; an iron-clad agreement to play by the rules, vigilantly honoring human rights and civil liberties; a commitment to treat one another and all community members with the utmost dignity and respect; and dedication to authentic community policing.
True community policing, at its core, includes full citizen participation in all aspects of police operations. That includes policymaking, program development, officer selection and training, crisis management, performance appraisal, department discipline, and citizen oversight of investigations into alleged police misconduct.
Resolving to practice these principles and priorities will yield better cops and better and safer policing.
When I picture good cops, I see maturity, calmness, and friendliness. They are individuals who embrace a “nobody dies on my watch” ethic and who respond properly, lawfully, and humanely to all situations, including those where the officer is fearful. Good cops understand that uncontained fear leads to distorted perceptions and poor judgment. Through training, experience, and mindfulness, good cops learn to manage their fear. They become the kind of officers that everyone — including young people, poor people, people of color — would want to show up on their doorstep in a time of need.
Building a system that produces such cops cannot be left to chance.
Community and police, working together as bona fide partners, can and must create a new type of police organization, one that, in policy and practice, rejects racism, counteracts implicit bias, ends excessive force, consistently uses de-escalation to prevent and stop violence, and is transparent with and accountable to the people it serves,
To honor our police officers — and to help both them and the people they serve make it home to their loved ones, day after day, night after night— we must begin the hard work of establishing a revolutionary new police department. Our departments must become a “people’s police,” in which officers and citizens work in tandem and in harmony.
Norm Stamper was a cop for 34 years, the first 28 in San Diego, the last six (1994-2000) as Seattle’s Chief of Police. He is an advisory board member of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit of police, prosecutors, judges and others who want to reform the criminal justice system, and the author of two books on police reform, “Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing” and his latest, “To Protect and Serve: How To Fix America’s Police,” which provides a blueprint for carrying out the changes advocated in this essay.