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Family: Married to Sabine Lobitz (retired Captain with the State Capitol Police). Hobbies/Interests Lifetime sports (running, biking and skiing). Travel. Martial arts.
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Why Police Matter
[This post on my blog "Improving Police" has been viewed over 16,000 times.]
MAYBE FIFTY YEARS WASN’T ENOUGH. It’s been that long since the day a shiny badge was first pinned on my chest. At the time I felt it was an immense honor and responsibility to be chosen to serve my community as a police officer. I had just spent four years with the Marines and had some idea about service, honor, and protecting others. It was a privilege now, as a civilian, to be able to continue to serve, protect, and help people.
The best way for me to explain the important job of policing a free society is to let you know you policing is a calling — not a job. It is a calling for those who wish to help society function better, zealously protect the rights of others, and work with community members to resolve budding social problems. Others should not apply.
The Founders of our society were concerned about fairness, equality, and freedom. That’s who we are as a nation. And that it is our job (often delegated to police officers) to continue that concern. Those who can best ensure that is our nation’s police. This is because police work on the street, with people, not in office buildings or courtrooms.
If you have not thought of police in this way, maybe you should start. Police are our first line of justice. Think about it. Police are like the canaries that coal miners used to carry, acute sensors to detect the early presence of dangerous gases. Police are in our communities and neighborhoods to do just that — to make early detection of dangerous social “gases;” our ills, social problems, and the times when we don’t live up to our nation’s values.
As a young patrol officer in an urban city I found that I came upon many of those social problems. I saw daily the result of discrimination, racism, unemployment, poor education, inadequate healthcare, and lack of jobs. I couldn’t solve these problems, but I could, at least, not exacerbate the problem. I could do something.
For instance, I recall making sure a woman with an advanced stage of breast cancer was immediately taken to a hospital despite her husband’s denial of her illness and condition, saw that neglected children were reported and cared for, and mediated in squabbles that most likely would have resulted in some kind of mayhem if I didn’t intervene. Many times, my arrival on the scene of a dispute was the first step toward keeping peace in the neighborhood and preventing injuries.
Many of the police calls to which I responded alerted me to those who were neglected and oppressed in our society. They were our nation’s underclass — those who were poor and lived on the street or in substandard housing. When I was able to deal with their problems or concerns fairly and equitably, I felt I was making a big difference; that I was helping to make the American ideal work — even if just a little better. We must never forget that. When the ideals we profess as a nation fall short in practice, it is often seen by police way before it was noticed by anyone else. Police are our “eyes and ears,” our “early warning system.”
That’s why police matter and are important in our society and why I have argued strongly over the years about the need for them to be educated, carefully selected, well-trained, controlled in their use of force, honest in their actions, courteous and respectful in their demeanor, compassionate, and closely in touch with the communities they serve. I have also strongly argued that those who are police leaders must be committed to the growth and development of those they are privileged to lead. They must be more like coaches and team leaders than drill instructors. They must be mature and committed to the continuous improvement of the systems in which they work. All this makes for a strong foundation in which honesty, moral action, and respect for human rights become the standard of American policing.
Serving as a police officer also requires courage – both physical and moral. In many instances, the latter trait is more difficult than the former. When a man or woman puts on a police uniform, they are highly visible representatives of our government and who we are as a people. They should be the epitome of our nation’s values. When police fail in this, we all stumble. Those of us who experienced our nation’s civil rights movement know this to be true. And once we fall as a nation, it takes a long time to get back on our feet again.
In such a positive police environment, citizens can go about their daily work and interactions knowing that should trouble arise, their police will fairly and effectively “sort it out;” that order and justice will always be well-served by fair and effective police officers, and that police leaders will always be cognizant of our society’s “big picture.”
A lofty ideal? I hope so. I have always believed we in America should have extremely high expectations of our police. This is how excellence is nurtured in other areas of our social and civic life: on the athletic field, in the classroom, during the conduct of business, and how we go about governing one another. We should have as high a set of expectations for our police as we do in these other important and necessary functions.
During the time of our nation’s birthing process, Edmund Burke noted,“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” This means that we need to make sure our police meet the high standards we expect of them.
For those of you who are police, or considering becoming one, these are the standards to which you should aspire. It might take another 50 years, way beyond your career as it did mine — but I am convinced it will eventually happen if you do not lose your way or sight of the goal to effectively and impeccably serve others.
Charlottesville: That's Not Us!
Years ago, when the KKK wanted to demonstrate in Madison (WI) they were small in numbers. As police, our mission was to protect their right to free speech. We had to protect the Klan in the face of a very large crowd of anti-protesters.
The same thing happened in the late 1970s in Skokie (IL) when the American Nazi Party wanted to demonstrate in a community of which there were 5,000 Holocaust survivors and also during a Klan rally in Denver in 1992.
These protests are on track to become even more violent. Charlottesville will, no doubt, be the turning point. The challenge today is how police are going to handle protests when the protestors out-number those who assemble to protest against the protesters?
To a certain extent, that’s new. Yet, that is the special and unique job of police in a free society – to protect that First Amendment — regardless. Madison had the unique opportunity in the past to develop a method of responding to protest that came to be called “The Madison Method.” We had plenty of practice during the anti-war and civil rights marches. We learned to contact both “sides” of an issue and negotiated our response and what we expected from them. Early contact was essential.
The Madison Method of Responding to Protest
1. Facilitate and protect the right of people to assemble and petition their government.
2. Always use restraint and care in the use of force. Dialogue before, during, and after the event.
3. Be effective and noticeable peacekeepers.
4. The focus should be on the protest, not the police.
5. Be open and communicate with the media.
6. Continuously improve this method.
Along the same lines of crowds and violence, The British Home Office has been concerned about the behavior of their passionate and often violent football (soccer) fans.
Commendably, the British consulted academia for some help and found Dr. Clifford Stott, a social psychologist who studied crowd behavior. We would do well to follow what he learned and taught police. Stott is one of Europe’s leading researchers regarding crowd behavior and he advocates a different approach for police to use when handling crowds; in short, “The Madison Method.”
He found that:
“[L]arge-scale disorder tended to emerge and escalate because indiscriminate, heavy-handed policing generated a group mentality among large numbers of fans that was based on shared perceptions that the police action was illegitimate. This had the effect of drawing ordinary fans into conflict with the police.”
So, when a crowd perceives the police as overreacting or being heavy-handed, its members tend to stop observing and start taking action. It is exactly what I had experienced early in my observational studies in Berkeley and Minneapolis.
To prevent this from happening,
Stott advocates what he calls a “softly-softly” approach—a low-key approach in which officers mix with and relate to crowd members based on their behavior, rather than their reputation. If police approach a crowd with the expectation that its members are going to make trouble, it often turns out that way. Even so, most police around the world have continued to use the traditional hard methods of the past when responding to crowds.
For the most part today, communicating, relating, or dialoguing with people who are protesting isn’t what police do. But it is something they now must learn. The soft approach is precisely what we developed and used in Madison. It worked then and, as Stott suggests, it will work now...
Read the full post HERE.
Top Ten Posts
Rethinking Community Control of Police
An argument for giving citizens free rein to hire, discipline and train police in their neighborhoods
In the police world, there are two viewpoints that drive just about everything that happens: There’s the police view and the even more internal police view. Traditionally, everyone else's is secondary.
When I was considering retirement from the force, my police officer wife knew what was ahead. She said, “David, if you still want to be a change agent and want police to listen to what you have to say, don’t retire. Once you’re out the door, you’re out. No one listens to consultants.” She was right.
Nevertheless, I've pressed on for police improvement. After retirement, I went back to academia to teach introduction to criminal justice at a small Wisconsin university. My colleagues and I recently hosted our second annual conference on building police trust and legitimacy — one of the pillars of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. For the second year now, we've brought police practitioners and community leaders together so that they can figure out what needs to change in order to improve police practices in underserved communities.
But as I sat through conference meetings, I realized that these two groups — cops and citizens — are no closer to being able to listen to one another.
I was struck by the cry of a young black woman who stood before a crowded room of cops cradling her newborn in her arms. She very frankly explained her worst fear: that one day, after her son was grown, an officer would kill him. She was a college graduate, an activist, a single mother and an organizer for her local chapter of the Young Gifted and Black Coalition — a group that was formed last year after a Madison police officer shot and killed unarmed black teenager Tony Robinson. Too many black men across America are dying, she said. Her response has been to advocate for community control of police — the people would have the authority to hire, discipline and train cops and develop police policy.
I was also struck by a police chief who asked why a citizen would advocate for what he considered such a drastic change in police procedure. His question, shrouded in anger, epitomized what was too often missing in police-community dialogue — the ability to listen with an open heart. If she had lived in his community, he would have been obligated to do it. His current state of mind wouldn't have allowed it.
This young mother wasn't calling for a takeover of her local police force. She wanted to ensure the safety of her son. She and many African-American activists like her are scared. Their goal is to build trust.
The chasm between those who wear a badge and those who don’t isn't going away.
Allowing citizens to help ensure that good men and good women are recruited as cops is a step in the right direction. Paying cops well is another step. We must expand their training. And we must give the community a bigger voice and role in training and discipline. Police must start thinking of themselves as lifesavers and peacekeepers.
If I could share one thing with young police officers today it's this: Your safety and your effectiveness depend on your ability to listen, understand and relate to those you serve. It requires that you work to overcome your biases and make fair, respectful decisions.
If police officers cannot or will not do this, we are destined to experience a continuing number of protests across our nation in response to police shootings.
[By David Couper. First published at http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/policing/spotlight/2016/09/28/community-control-cops-answer-voices-policing-the-usa/90964972/ on Sept. 28, 2016]