Policing in the 21st Century

NOTE- In the wake of the recent finding against Officer Derek Chauvin, several people have asked for my thoughts on the institution of policing in America. This post is just one of many I hope to share to explain my position as well as to let our community members know exactly what efforts we are taking at the Yakima Police Department to change the culture of policing in our community.

I was hired to be a police officer in April of 1991, one month after the now famous traffic stop of Rodney King in Los Angeles. I remember vividly the countless times that incident was referenced during our training. We were repeatedly told that American Policing needed to change and that this was not the way to treat members of our community. I also remember the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers involved.

In 1999, Amadou Diallo was shot by a team of undercover NYPD detectives who mistook him for a sex assault suspect. The officers were tried and also acquitted. In an eerily similar case, Sean Bell was killed on the morning he was to be married by three undercover NYPD officers – 50 rounds were fired. The officers believed he was preparing to shoot some people following an argument, but Mr. Bell was unarmed. In 2009, Oscar Grant, also unarmed, was shot and killed by a BART subway officer in Oakland. In 2010, John Williams was shot and killed in Seattle, Douglas Zerby in Long Beach, Patricia Cook (2012) and John Greer (2013)—both in Virginia, and Terence Crutcher (2014) in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In 2020, George Floyd died in Minneapolis as Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck. Officer Chauvin was charged with murder and was found guilty for his actions.

Every one of the people listed were unarmed. And, of course, there are many more controversial police encounters, some in both Denver and Yakima where I have served as a police officer for the past thirty years.

Obviously, the more recent cases most Americans are familiar with (George Floyd, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland) are just more current examples of what has been a flashpoint for police and the communities they serve throughout my entire career. So, what is the answer? How can police in the 21st Century move away from this horrible legacy?

The good news is there are things that can be done and are being done. Even right here in Yakima, Washington! From changes in training, policy, accountability, and transparency, there is a dramatic shift in how police operate now compared to 1991. But the most important change is in police culture.

When I saw the video of George Floyd’s arrest for the first time, and images I still can’t shake today, what struck me the hardest was the palpable indifference of Officer Chauvin. Despite Floyd’s clear distress and pleas for breath, Officer Chauvin knelt as if he hadn’t a care in the world. He certainly didn’t demonstrate any empathy for Mr. Floyd. And as a result of that indifference, not only did Mr. Floyd die, cities across America and even in Europe burned. People took to the streets to march against police in almost every community – including right here in Yakima. Qualified, professional police officers would never condone Officer Chauvin’s actions or attitude, and acknowledge there are changes needed within our system. However, many disenfranchised officers have retired early or quit the profession altogether and some of these are people that could have helped us identify and implement the type of changes needed.

Most officers are still serving. They are going into the neighborhoods of their communities each day or night to do the work of keeping people safe. How to we keep these amazing people engaged, focused on creating safer communities, and yet finally moving away from the systemic issues corroding the trust between police and communities?

As I said above – culture change.

Officers MUST shed indifference. Another way to say this is that officers need to care about the differences, outcomes and lives of the people they intersect with. And to do that there must be authentic relationships built, not through enforcement, but engagement and understanding. These relationships should be promoted and measured. Officers need to accept that part of their responsibility is to build rapport, relationships, and understanding, and that they will be held accountable for failures to take on this part of their role. In 2021 Yakima police officers have positive interactions with members of our community more than fifty times per day! I should also note that we are lucky to have amazing community support. Throughout the summer of 2020, community members sent notes, cards, emails, baked cakes and cookies, or gave other small gifts to show their appreciation. We gathered them together into a document and it was 77 pages long!

At YPD I changed the mission statement to reflect this cultural expectation, and two years into my tenure I am proud to say it is working! I am hearing from community members that the police seem different. One community leader recently said, “I always supported the police, but now it’s like they…they have a soul.”

Even though there is still work to be done, I couldn’t be prouder!

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