Blue Line


January 16, 2015  By Tom Wetzel

I learned as a child that our neighbor’s brother, Cleveland police officer Louis Golonka, had been killed in the Glenville riots in the sixties. He was shot July 23, 1968 in a shootout with snipers he and other officers had bravely chased into an alley .

I became a police officer and remember the riots resulting from the 1991 Rodney King incident. I watch today as Ferguson, Missouri seethes under the strain caused by the shooting of Michael Brown.

What is bothersome is the recognition that the nation will likely experience a similar problem in another 23 years, if not much sooner. This begs the question of how much progress has been made in our relationship with those we serve, particularly black residents who have historically suffered under oppressive police actions.

Despite all the efforts made — stronger hiring standards to include broadening opportunities for minority personnel, in car video systems and safer less lethal force options — it sometimes seems the most important tool to succeed is still “at large.” That missing ingredient is trust. Until more of it becomes engrained, too many neighborhoods will be tinderboxes smoldering until the next cop uses force that may be “perceived” as excessive.

So what should we do? There are lots of ideas but unfortunately too many suggestions will be fraught with political nuances or selfish agendas that are unreasonable or worse, will ignore our safety. I posit that success must come in part from solutions within the police culture itself as officers must balance getting the job done and living to go home. I remember a phrase from a police leadership college – “If it has to be, it’s up to me.” I would adjust that to “If trust is a must, it’s up to us.”

Enhancing that ingredient will improve our credibility so that when something unfortunate happens after aggressive police action, citizens will be less inclined to jump to conclusions. They will instead view matters in the totality of the circumstances, generally confident that their public servants had to take strong measures when necessary. If something was done incorrectly, they will own up to it while working to prevent it from happening again.

Gaining that trust is a comprehensive project that won’t be achieved overnight but its effort can begin immediately; each positive officer/citizen contact can build a brick on a foundation that over time can eventually withstand storms of mistrust. Mutual respect is the glue needed to hold those bricks in place. There are many places to start.

Since officers’ use of force is the current topic in the news, police leadership, in collaboration with civic and educational partners, should begin by trying to teach people just how dicey force decisions can be. This will give people a chance to see these situations from the perspective of an officer whose life is at risk.

Instead of understanding force by police from television, young people should learn about decisions such as the landmark US Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor, which established the groundwork for when police can use force. Who better as a guest instructor than a peace officer? This effort can also be accomplished through more citizen police academies that allow participants to train in force simulators, public service projects and forthright explanations by police spokespersons.

Police agencies should also endorse an empathetic model of policing that is basically community policing to the tenth degree. It is a thought process that can influence an entire police culture and begins during hiring when agencies search for candidates who are not only brave but compassionate. It values catching bad guys while helping the downtrodden. This style focuses on interpersonal relationships and places great emphasis on the Golden Rule in its citizen contacts.

Balancing the spirit of the law and its letter is critical and teamwork is vital because officers need to have a symbiotic relationship with their customers to make neighborhoods safe places to thrive as well as prevent crime. Put simply, empathetic policing and trust are synonymous.

Cops have been risking their lives for others since policing began. Many have died or shortened their lives from the strain of police work. Others have taken their own lives from the pain or were seriously injured and disfigured while trying to “protect and serve.” We owe it to them to enhance that trust with those we serve so that fewer officers are injured or killed.

When a community has a cop’s back, the officer will be safer and more successful in accomplishing our mission.

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