(To listen to the audio of this blog, use the purple play button.)
Recently, I was visiting with a friend who is a retired cop. I’ll call him Tom Jennings. Even though he’s no longer physically involved in the business, intellectually he’s still working. He has ideas about how cops can and should make community connections in order to help solve problems, not just make arrests.
Addressing the serious issue of unarmed people (not only people of color) being killed by police officers, Jennings said the public needs to be taught two things: 1. If a police officer is pointing a gun at you, obey the orders. 2. If you think the police are wrong, complain later.
Gun deaths in the United States are disproportionate to the rest of the industrialized world. Too many accidental deaths, suicides, and homicides. Too many massacres by active shooters. Too many officers being murdered. Too many police officers killing unarmed people. Even though most people of color are killed by police officers of color, the statistics continue to show white officers killing people of color at higher rates.
As a result of high profile deaths, the public has less trust in law enforcement officers today. Recruitment of officers is more difficult. Communities are less safe. These factors, in part, have led Jennings to ask the question, “What can the police do to reestablish trust with the community?”
Jennings talked about the importance of officers being able and willing to show compassion. And, of course, in order to show compassion you need to build relationships, which means…drum roll please…not just driving around in your patrol car. An officer needs to stop and talk to people, build relationships, and be willing to listen.
In recalling his days in law enforcement, Jennings made it clear that during his career he wanted to talk to everyone, including the “drug people.” He wanted to understand them. By seeking them out and listening, he was showing respect for them. Their voices mattered to him, but building these relationships didn’t mean he gave a green light to crime. “I made friends with them,” he said. “I’d listen to them. Some I arrested.”
His story reminded me of an interesting citizen I met who lived in poverty. I’ve referred to him before as Christopher McCraken. I got to know McCraken after interacting with him about his rough living conditions. On three occasions I assisted landlords who evicted him. He and I had a civil relationship that was built on familiarity, but never total trust. You could say we used one another.
Christopher used me to help protect him from landlords who were trying to intimidate him by using illegal tactics. I treated him respectfully. I felt compassion for him, and I wanted to help, and during the eviction process everyone was safer because of our communication.
However, I never helped him solve his bigger problem: living in poverty.
Besides the issue of officer safety, retired Officer Jennings told me how he had approached his calls for service with a bigger picture in mind than making arrests and writing reports. He asked himself, “What will it take to resolve this problem?”
Sometimes when people hear of officers who want to solve problems, they jump to the conclusion that the officer would rather be a social worker, hold hands around a campfire, and sing Kumbaya. Instead, usually, these officers have a desire to help people while avoiding repeated (dare I say, “nuisance”) calls for service.
Good officers understand that making an arrest isn’t always the best solution. It’s called using discretion.
Imagine the difference between the police continually responding to calls about a person loitering, looking suspicious, or “acting crazy,” versus helping a person find affordable housing or receiving support for a mental illness.
Jennings told me he was more productive after he allied with personnel from Community Corrections and Court Services. He gave me an example of how he learned to gain leverage on uncooperative drug addicts who refused to go to mental health counseling. Jennings worked with the County Attorney to file legitimate charges against people in order to pressure them to choose counseling over jail or prison.
Having been a School Resource Officer (SRO) for twenty-two years, I grinned when Jennings told me that today’s police officers need to visit schools and connect with kids. This was not breaking news. But, we agreed that many police administrators know but don’t take preventive action steps to help create healthier, safer communities because of other priorities.
Obviously, limited budgets and understaffed departments can make everything more complicated, especially when law enforcement’s mission continues to be about reacting to, not preventing crime.
I’m not saying that law enforcement officers should turn their guns in for electronic tablets. Obviously, the public needs protection from dangerous people. Jennings and I agree that when reoccurring problems are solved then police have more time to focus on more serious issues.
Jennings recalled a job interview he had where the city authorities explained that they had a huge community problem.
“What was the problem?” Jennings asked.
Their police department was “at war with the teens.”
“At war?” Jennings questioned.
“Yes, war,” they repeated.
Ultimately, Tom wasn’t hired for the job but he recalled thinking, that’s a war the police won’t win.
I recalled my own years of working with the schools in order to build positive relationships with the students, staff, teachers, and parents. Early on, a principal asked me to park my patrol car behind the school so that parents didn’t assume there was a criminal problem at her school. Later, after we had built trust with one another, she promoted our sixth grade Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) graduations using the school’s outdoor marquee.
The Kansas Law Enforcement Center (KLETC) has updated its training approach to being much more interactive. They’ve trained their instructors to be mentors and facilitators rather than lecturers showing PowerPoint slides.
Smaller class sizes allow for the instructors to give the newly hired officers opportunities to think critically while working through different scenarios. Ultimately, when officers improve their communication and teamwork skills, it should have a profound effect on their community.
Jennings and I hope that KLETC is promoting the creation of a police culture where well-trained officers and the public build positive relationships. Taking the time to talk and listen to people is an important step because it shows an openness to understanding different points of view.
However, Jennings and I both agree, the law enforcement community has a long way to go. One big challenge hasn’t changed. Hire excellent people, from the chief or sheriff down to the line officers. We know how one rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel. One bad cop, one high-profile poor decision, one inaccurate post from the media, can help ruin the reputation of and trust in an agency.
Delayed trust means delayed progress.
Until next time, happy writing and reading!
The Kansas Authors Club www.kansasauthors.org is a statewide organization that encourages and supports great writing. It’s divided into seven districts. In Hutchinson, Reno County (part of District 6), we have monthly meetings at Hutchinson Community College. http://www.hutchcc.edu You’re invited. Questions? Contact Jim Potter, firstname.lastname@example.org