Preparing for Hard Conversations

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The nation collectively recoiled at the death of George Floyd. We were not prepared to watch a man suffer and die while officers held him down. In that moment, our country was unified. First, in disbelief. Then helplessness. Then outrage.

For those who have seen arrests and medical emergencies handled thousands of times, this wasn’t normal. For those who have been serving their communities selflessly and with honor, this was enraging.

Even now, we cannot make sense of what we saw. Experts, who have learned to be circumspect and wait for facts, are struggling to imagine any fact that could adequately explain the treatment of George Floyd.  

For many, Mr. Floyd’s death was a call to action. Experts in police practices were joined by those who knew little about policing. But how much did they need to know—they saw the video, they didn’t like it, and they are anxious to do something about it.

Making Sense

As we move forward during this national crisis, we are going to have hard conversations. Some will require us to humbly listen. Others will require us to courageously speak up. All will require us to sift through the competing media coverage to distinguish cases of injustice from rampant distortions.

But our challenges in the weeks ahead go beyond proving statistics or verifying facts. If we are to engage our community in a meaningful way, we have to relentlessly test and, when necessary, be willing to adjust our own understanding of the world.

It is this “sensemaking” process that allows us to confidently defend well-considered perspectives, while remaining intellectually agile, willing to learn, and willing to grow. Cultural sensitivity requires us to admit that others, sometimes with vastly different experiences, are engaged in their own sensemaking—and their view of the world may look nothing like ours.

Vicarious Trauma

To add to the complexity, for many who have been thrust into this conversation, sensemaking is being experienced through a lens, not only of personal trauma, but of vicarious trauma. Trauma that resulted from stories of actual and perceived injustice traditionally shared from house to house, generation to generation, and now endlessly recycled through social media.  

For some, these stories and experiences result in emotional injury, fear, and a perpetual sense of injustice. They perceive police as unjustly targeting their community, their family, and their lives. Many are convinced that abuse, even death, at the hands of the police is common—even likely

Through this lens, it is easy to see how even the most routine police actions can generate intense emotional responses, violent resistance, and outrage from those convinced they are defending an unjustly targeted community. Unreasonable police conduct even more so.

Seek to Understand

Many readers may not be convinced of the anti-police narrative but understanding “sensemaking” and vicarious trauma does not require accepting that premise. It is simply the willingness to hear from those who sincerely mistrust, fear, or view the police as instruments of a unjust system. It means understanding that whatever a person might experience with the police, it is exponentially worse when malevolence, betrayal, injustice, and immorality are presumed.

For those of us who have spent careers shielding people from the worst parts of society, we may have inadvertently kept them from seeing the best parts of policing. We have countless stories of compassion, selflessness, courage, and sacrifice yet to be told, and more than ever it is important that we do.

But whatever influence we hope to have in the current national discussion, it will be most enduring when it reflects our shared interests and common identity. Something we all may be struggling to recognize amidst competing narratives.

Even so, unless we prioritize our common humanity and aligned goals—until we are seen as trusted allies—facts and personal anecdotes will fail to persuade. Instead, we are reminded to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger—to seek first to understand, then to be understood.1

  1. New Testament, James 1:19 []
20 Responses
  1. John Black

    Well stated. Reference your statement, “It is this “sensemaking” process that allows us to confidently defend well-considered perspectives, while remaining intellectually agile, willing to learn, and willing to grow. “.

    I couldn’t have said it better, echoing a needed critical perspective to address the challenges we are facing as a society. Thank you for all that you do for evolving the profession.

  2. Warren Rhyner

    No. My understanding of the world is based on reality. What the author advocates is capitulation to those who have based their world view on a fallacy. His is an idea devoid of logic and merit. No one can look at freely available, but unreported UCR data and see that the whole foundation of BLM and Antifa are manufactured myth. Just because someone thinks something is true does not make it true. The same goes for any group of people. Changing what I think and do based on a lie would be the worst sort of masochism. Allowing those that believe those same lies to continue to be misinformed is cruelty.

    What we are seeing is nothing more than an attempt to gain power outside of the normal channels of democracy. No further understanding is necessary. Capitulation is morally wrong AND will backfire spectacularly. The string pullers should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. No looter caught on video should escape their day in court. Not one. No solvable act of violence should either. What is happening is unacceptable, just like what happened to Mr. Floyd.

    Law Enforcement and the communities they serve have already been substantially damage by recent events. Officers that can retire, are. Those still on the job will be retired on duty. Recruits will be fewer. Future hires will be less qualified and MORE violent. Be prepared for a substantial increase in “Street Justice”. It is inevitable. When cops are not allowed to do their job, someone will. It won’t be pretty. Feeding the narrative that is commonly and falsely believed will result in anarchy, as seen on TV.

  3. Thank you for this well constructed missive. As a police trainer, I am dedicated to law enforcement professionalism and integrity. I will gratefully use the content of this message in my interactions with police and the public.
    David W. OLaughlin
    Force Science Analyst

  4. Thank you for this well constructed missive. As a police trainer, I am dedicated to professionalism and integrity among law enforcement officers. I will gratefully use this message in my communications with both officers and the public.
    David W. OLaughlin
    Director of Training
    Municipal Police Institute
    Force Science Analyst

  5. David R Margulies

    As a part time LEO I’ve been following you for many years and have watched you grow into the amazing powerhouse of scientific verification that you are today. This well said essay is just what I needed to put all my jangled thoughts into the correct perspective. I’m counting on you to keep up the good work.

  6. As a retired Police Officer who trained for many of those years, I kept in mind three Biblical principles: Romans 13, see below. There but for the Grace of God go I which leads into I don’t hate the person for what he/she did, I hate what he/she did. My emotions and reactions were kept in check, even when investigating a child rape. Lastly, no greater love does a person have than to lay their life down for another, I was willing to make that sacrifice. There is true evil out there and it must be dealt with without emotion. Lies and deception is behind this most current movement, we need to bring the truth into the Light. We can walk softly, listen and be prepared to use the sword but only when justified.

    Romans 13: Submission to Governing Authorities
    13 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

  7. Mike Phillippe

    After 31 years in Law Enforcement, and still counting, I have to agree with the response of Warren Rhyner. Mr. Black is continuing the false narrative that BLM and the media keep pushing. I do believe in listening and communication, and training that is ever evolving. But to constantly state that Police Departments across our great country are systematically racist is the “False ” narrative that needs to be replaced with the true, fact based narrative.
    When does reality finally take hold and people realize that, yes, once in awhile a police officer slips through the cracks and gets hired by a police department, that never should have been hired. And yes a police officer will make mistakes and in the rare occurrence make that mistake with malice. However the majority of police officers do their jobs with honor and dignity.
    It is time OUR voices are heard!

    1. Von Kliem

      In fairness, I think Mr. Rhyner was addressing me as the author…not Mr. Black. I hoped to simply point out that for many of the people we hope to persuade, it is important that we recognize that when we are asking them to reject a certain narrative, we may be asking them to conclude that the most important people and influences in their lives may have been wrong. We are either saying they are mistaken, or we are saying that they are liars. Either message requires some strategy if we hope to leave people better than we found them. Happy to discuss anytime. Not a full conversation in an article of 700 words or less… Thanks for caring enough to comment. – Von

      1. Mike Miller

        Interesting points. The comments have some interesting counter points. I think it comes down to “The Ability to Tell the Truth” vs. “The Truth Should Be Obvious.”

        To us, the truth is obvious…because we actually live in the criminal justice system and see with our own eyes that the sky is blue and there is NO systemic racism in law enforcement. But to others who only see what media sells them in an emotional package… well, how do we provide them the truth when truth is not what they are buying? They are buying emotion…regardless of truth.

        I am not sure what the answer is. But I lean toward the one that sustains the relationship between the guardian and the community he/she guards. That can only be accomplished through achieving mutually beneficial cooperation and understanding. If that relationship does not exist, then there is no guardian. Next stop: Chaos. Next stop after that: Dictatorship.

  8. April Doyle

    I appreciated this article very much. Thank you for your reasoned perspective that recognizes the humanity of other very real experiences and perspectives.

    We in law enforcement stand for justice. Racism breeds injustice. We must be anti-racist. Justice demands it of every one of us. One cannot stand for justice while standing by in the face of racism. True justice requires the dismantling of racism in its every form.

    Reality, is that our profession’s past includes the brutalization and the very most racist actions imaginable, among them: “slave catching” and enforcing Jim Crow laws. And, so many in the KKK were employed as local law enforcement. The KKK were responsible for lynching WWI AND WWII veterans STILL IN UNIFORM!

    So, yes, there are some very real other perspectives on law enforcement and vicarious trauma.

    I am unapologetic about being a police officer; I’ve been one for 22 years and counting.

    We are *actually* powerfully positioned in this moment. We can make it the greatest moment in L.E.

    We need to adopt and embrace an identity as anti-racist. It must become synonymous that if you are employed in the justice system, then you are actively involved in deinstitutionalizing racism.

    Institutionalized racism in education, banking, real estate, employment, and healthcare stymies human potential. It denies the self-evident truth that all people are created equal, that all people have dignity and humanity. Let’s all understand that third grade literacy rates are the metric used in deciding how much prison capacity to build. How much prison capacity will we be building in the future if we bring to bear the power of all of us to deinstitutionalize racism in its every crevice and redoubt?

    We–all members of law enforcement–must adopt an anti-racist identity with intentionality. Otherwise, we cannot claim to be agents of justice nor representatives of our Constitution’s highest ideals.

  9. RM

    “For those who have seen arrests and medical emergencies handled thousands of times, this wasn’t normal. ” This is not true. Many in the community have seen arrests and medical emergencies handled in this way for too long so it was normal, but unjust and racist. We have seen police officers murder citizens before on television. I am glad that this time, many have taken to the streets to demand justice.

    There is no “perceived injustice” as you say. As April Doyle in the comments has eloquently mentioned, this trauma is historical and police have traditional been part of causing this trauma. i can see why Black people keep talking about being exhausted having to say the same thing over and over again.

    Please do better.

    1. Von Kliem

      Welcome to the discussion. I can tell you care deeply about these issues. Thanks for taking the time to share your experience with us.

  10. Doug Parker

    I believe this moment affords us a great opportunity. yes, things are very difficult right now. In the long term we can make a difference not only in how we police, but in how we present our actions in the community. In my role as an academy Director I emphasize our mission statement; Discipline is the Foundation of Professionalism. An officer who is not disciplined physically, intellectually and morally resorts to actions like those in Minneapolis and elsewhere. It is up to us to instill sound values in our candidates at the earliest moment-the academy.

    Our Academy motto is: We are our brother’s keeper. No only do we accept responsibility for respecting the rights of our community members; we also accept responsibility for our fellow officers when they stray off course. We an do no less.

  11. Scared. To. Speak. Out. Because. You. Don't. Listen.

    Poster above says: “just because someone thinks something is true does not make it true,” then goes on to write: “Those still on the job will be retired on duty. Recruits will be fewer. Future hires will be less qualified and MORE violent. Be prepared for a substantial increase in “Street Justice”. It is inevitable.” Because you think this does not make it true.

    You sir are part of the problem.

  12. William Wilson

    As much as I appreciate your inclusion of the quote from the book of James and love the reminder on how to approach conflict, I have to agree with what Warren Rhyner said.

    I am closing in on 30 years as a police officer. I’ve worked in two different states, the past 24 years being with a major metropolitan police department. The beginning of my career was highlighted with the Rodney King riots and all of the police reform backlash that began with that incident. As a young officer, I was informed about the “pendulum swing” of public opinion about police.

    Over my career, I’ve watched the pendulum swing further and further left. There was a momentary shift back to the right after 9-11, but that was short-lived. With the anti-police group, whose opinions are based solely on emotions in spite of real facts, there is a give-and-take relationship. We do all the giving and they do all the taking.

    There has to be a point of enough is enough. I’ve watched this profession grow exponentially harder with unreasonable consequences for errors. Modern police officers need to be near perfect to survive a full career. And by survive I mean physically, psychologically, emotionally, and financially, both for themselves and their families. During that same time I have seen police-community relations regress to a level that seems to reflect the 1960s.

    Our training has improved incredibly. Transparency as well as both internal and external scrutiny has increased tenfold. Accountability (both personal and departmental) is FAR greater that it was when I started. Yet our detractors pretend policing is still in its infancy. To an honest critic, all of these things are evidence that this group simply cannot be satisfied. Their expectations are largely unreasonable.

    As a long-time police professional, I am completely committed to making reasonable changes to improve our practices and better serve the community, but it’s been a very long time since I’ve heard the voice of reason. We need to start addressing the needs of the entire community and not just the unappeasable. In our efforts to placate anti-police groups, we are overlooking the rest of the citizens who end up paying the price.

    We are supposed to serve the public, not just the squeaky wheel, right?

  13. John P

    I agree with the points of view expressed by Warren Rhyner, William Wilson, and Mike Phillippe.

    Have some minor law enforcement and private security experience, but many years of military experience.

    While the following does not directly address the author’s focus, slack enforcement of certain laws is a factor in the apparent diminishing respect and support for law enforcers that a seemingly increasing number of the public have. .

    For one example, in the area where I live, weak traffic enforcement is where the public is definitely not seeing the best part of policing because safety of the public takes a hit. The glaring result is increasing red light running, failure to stop at stop signs or for a right turn on red, and speeding (greater than 10 mph “over”, including in construction zones).

    When certain laws are de-facto weakly enforced people become contemptuous of those who make the law and law enforcement leadership, and most unfortunately, people lose respect for the line officers who deal directly with the public. This negatively impacts officer morale, promotes an overall contempt for and lack of compliance with the law by some of the citizenry, and diminished public support for law enforcement funding.

    It is a timeless verity in the military, that it is unwise to issue orders that cannot, or will not, be complied with, or SOPs that are allowed to be ignored or by-passed, as the predictable result is unit indiscipline, poor morale, probable mission failure, and loss of popular support.

  14. Thomas Ehret

    I served 28 years as a police officer and during my time I was a DT, Baton, and Firearm instructor for over 20 of those years and was the supervisor for many years of a street crime unit where the use of force was almost a daily accordance, I also spent over 25 years on the SWAT team. I saw police tactics and the force continuum change over the years, as an early Taser instructor I saw recommendations and training greatly change over the years. The current political atmosphere has thrust this topic into the spotlight. I believe we should use this as an opportunity to increase training and focus more on leadership, this is where we have more problems with the real use of force issues. We need to use this to challenge the “defund the police” movement and truly point out that defunding will take away valuable and necessary training, instead funding needs to be made available to support more and better DT training as well as de-escalation and related training. The need for enhanced leadership training with a focus on accountability and transparency must also be a focus this along with better messaging and showing the public the truth will go a long way to stop those that are attempting to use police as political fodder for power.

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