Community Policing, Addressing Bias & the Power of Conversation

Posted: July 22nd, 2016
Although not often enough, I am reminded that being hopeful is a good thing. It allows me to clarify purpose and endure moments of being lost. Two weeks ago, in the wake of the tragic shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas, I found myself unsure of my purpose as a parent and lost at how to best address these events.

I was taking my family on a trip to Toledo, Ohio. On the drive, we saw from a distance a vehicle stopped by the police. Inside the vehicle was an African American male. It felt as though all highway traffic slowed in unison with an uncertain, eerie anticipation. As we drove past, my family began to make jokes that were not all funny.

I immediately felt saddened as it became clear that my kids will grow up and have an overwhelming discomfort with the police. I leaned over to my spouse and said, “We need to go to a police station.” And we did; the DeForest, Wisconsin Police Department, where I asked the officers on duty if they could take the time to speak with my children and answer their questions.

A Conversation with the Police
As you might imagine, the conversation was a bit uncomfortable at first, to the point where my son actually turned to me and said, “This is awkward.” However, it was equally clear that this visit was important. I did not realize how many questions my kids actually had and how much they really needed to have this conversation.

My ten-year-old son asked the first question: “What type of training do you receive?” The police officers talked about the training they undergo, how much it costs them and how many classes they have to take – and the ongoing on-the-job training they received on a regular basis. They talked about how dedicated a police officer needs to be in order to be willing to go through this training and expense without any guarantee of actually getting a job.

My kids asked whether the officers had ever pulled their weapon and when and why they decide to use a weapon. The police officers talked about which scenarios and situations would require the use of a weapon. They also stressed that it’s not only situational, but individual. Every police officer in that same situation may not do the same thing; it depends on the policeman’s individual makeup and their own feelings of safety.

The Power of Conversation and Community Policing
At first, it felt a bit like a lecture; I think the officers felt that they needed to educate my children on things they didn’t know. Towards the middle of the conversation, a few jokes and comments were made back and forth, and the atmosphere became a bit more comfortable.

My kids also asked how long police officers stay in a particular neighborhood. Or, do they frequently move around to different neighborhoods? They asked about the experiences police officers have with diversity training and being comfortable around people of color.

The police officers had some important things to say about these questions. They told us that police officers are supposed to engage with the community in times when there is no danger or criminal activity occurring. They are supposed to be seen as a resource or just someone to have a conversation with. They should have constant interactions with citizens, so when they do have to enforce the law or use force, both the citizen and the police officer understand that each individual is also human. They are people with their own lives; they go through good times and bad times.

I think it was refreshing for my kids to see that their job is not just to arrest, but also to protect and serve. They encouraged us to have conversations with local police and challenged us get to know all the police officers in our neighborhood by name; they gave us a challenge to do that. It’s the responsibility of the local police to do the same thing – to know as many of the families on their beat as possible. Police officers should attempt to become part of the community.

Acknowledging Our Biases and Moving Forward
I’ve noticed that most people tend to have one of a few similar types of reactions to these recent tragic events and the ongoing tensions between the police and the communities they serve. For some, these represent a new, disturbing trend in America. Others believe it’s something that’s always existed and is just becoming more visible. The former way of thinking leads to fear, the latter a numb sense of helplessness. Others will try to minimize what’s going on to make it seem like these issues are smaller or less severe than they really are. All these viewpoints have negative implications on how we process what’s going on in our country today.

For us to foster a dialogue and create an environment that encourages community policing, people need to examine their own implicit biases. I think too often people feel as though, if you have a bias, it means you are a bad person. This makes people afraid to acknowledge their biases and less likely to address them.

The DeForest police officers talked about going through implicit bias training. At first, I was skeptical; I wondered what the response of the officers was when you tell them about their biases towards people of color?

The officer said, “We start with conversations about the biases people have towards police.” Then, it starts to register with them that biases are present everywhere. Then, they start to think, “Maybe I do have biases in the other direction.” What was encouraging about that was the fact that they are recognizing – and we also recognize – the role that our experiences play in how we see others. It doesn’t mean that we’re bad because we have these prejudices, it just means that we are the culmination of our experiences. It’s how we respond to those prejudices that makes a difference.

A New Understanding
I truly didn’t know how many fears and questions my children had about the police until we visited DeForest, Wisconsin. I’m very glad that we took the time to have the officers answer their questions. I don’t know if it’s necessarily lessened their fears, but I do feel it had an effect on them. Now, I hope they feel as though they can do something about the fear proactively. It hasn’t changed the fact that, when a police car goes by, they are going to tend to have negative thoughts. But I do think that it’s going to make them think, “I don’t have to react in a fearful manner; I can say hello and go to them and not assume the worst.” I reminded them of that afterwards, I said, “Remember, we’re supposed to get to know the local police when they come by and not just view them as someone who’s trying to exert some kind of punishment on us.”

I think the police officers felt that it was a valuable exchange as well. Later that day, they posted this (along with the photo above), to their official Facebook page:

A few hours ago, we received a request to talk with a family from Minnesota who was traveling to Ohio to see family. While making their voyage, they, like many, began discussing recent incidents involving the police which generated some questions for them. During this discussion, they decided to pull off the highway and open the doors of dialogue. They chose to stop in DeForest, because it reminded them of their hometown, and we are glad they did. We had a great conversation with this beautiful family. They asked us questions and they listened to us. They told us their thoughts and we listened to them. This family helped us continue to open doors of understanding instead of building walls of disconnect.

These are examples of how we heal as a profession, as people, and as a nation. Some of the basic elements of the human condition- generosity, compassion, listening, respecting, and friendship. We will never be perfect, but it is people like this, and the many others who offered support today, that will make us strive to serve the community to the best of our abilities.

Thank you as we are better people for having met each of you!!!!

Starting Conversations, Asking Questions
It’s a beginning. It opened the door for my children and the police to start to understanding each other. One small interaction can’t heal the deep wounds that exist in this country, but conversations like this are part of the solution.

A large part of CEHD’s mission is reducing inequities, addressing debts and improving the lives of people from childhood to adulthood. In order to do that, we have to be in constant communication with each other about the barriers that prevent people from having the type of life that we want all of our citizens to have. One big barrier is fear.

Unfortunately, fear drives a lot of what we do. Fear typically results from a discomfort with the unknown. The way to make the unknown known is through education, and that is what we try to do here at CEHD. We want to give individuals the information they need to navigate through life and to have, hopefully, a better experience

When dealing with these issues of strife and community policing, having real and honest conversations like the one my family had with the officers in DeForest is crucial. Please do not be afraid of saying something wrong or asking something inappropriate. We are not having enough dialogue, and fear is dominating too many of our behaviors.

We encourage you to find ways to process, reflect and connect to address the past month’s events. Please continue to take care of yourself, and let us know what we can do to support you in that process.
Back to Define Community Policing