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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ferguson: Our Criminal Justice System Failed, Worked, Failed...

Only once in my career has someone attempted to take my gun.  It was in the middle of a street where I was struggling to place a man in handcuffs who was under the influence of cocaine and had just smashed the picture window in the home he shared with his wife and kids.  He was larger than me and during the grapple, I felt my weapon being tugged and realized he was attempting to disarm me.  

Fortunately, I was not alone and my partner and I were able to subdue the offender and place him in handcuffs.  The bad guy wasn’t able to retrieve my pistol but I shudder at the consequences if he had. 

I tell you that story so you understand that an unarmed person can pose just as much of a threat and I’m getting a bit tired of the headlines that are painting the picture of police officers going around killing people who don’t have guns.  In fact, I’ll give you 3 minutes with someone who is beating you with their fists and you tell me if you feel as though your life is threatened.

Last year, 10 police officers were shot and killed in the United States after a suspect managed to get control of an officer’s weapon. Nearly one in five officers killed as part of a crime last year were shot with their own (or a partner’s) weapon, according to the National Center for Law Enforcement Technology - the highest number of such deaths in 18 years.

Because I write this column, I’ve been bombarded with inquiries about the events in Ferguson from people wanting to know what I think.  

The truth is, it keeps me up at night because I have an internal tug of war between what I have experienced on the street and what I know about the men and women who wear a uniform and risk their lives every day in the simple act of going to work.  These police officers have dedicated their existence to putting their lives on the line for people they’ve never even met.  It takes a special kind of person to be spit on, screamed at and even harmed by those people in the community who have made it their mission to prey upon others for their own gratification and without empathy for their victims. 

And yet these officers get up, gear up and do it all over again day in and day out. 

The conflict I feel arises because I know there are police officers who get it wrong.  When a police officer acts with a willful and wanton disregard for the law and life, I will not stand with them as there is no such thing as blind loyalty.  We have fired police officers for excessive force where it wasn’t justified and I don’t lose a shred of sleep over an officer who violates policy and/or law.

Then there are those officers who act with the best of intentions and still err in judgment.  Human beings are fallible and even though they are entrusted with powers to enforce laws, some don’t get it right. 

The difference is that the mistakes made in law enforcement are not the same as in other professions.  I’m not on the street anymore so when I make an error, it’s typically involving policy or decision-making.  I can usually right my wrong after careful contemplation and with little consequence.  When a front line officer makes an extreme mistake and takes a life when it wasn’t justified, this isn’t just an error.  It is a grave aberration that accounts for a human life being erased from existence.  I can think of no greater burden than a well-intending person to have to carry with them nor can I begin to contemplate the unspeakable grief of the family who has suffered the loss.   This is why our training is so intensive and why we are held to a higher standard and why any use of force incident is dissected and scrutinized.  It should be. 

What happened in Ferguson on that fateful day that divided our nation and the public from the police is bigger than police policy.  We know that a police officer confronted a strong-armed robber and the physical evidence is pretty clear about what happened inside the officer’s squad car.  By virtue of the law, the officer acted justly.  The witness accounts are on the spectrum of polarization about the events that unfolded that lead to the fatal shots.  Unlike the proclaimed “experts” that will not hesitate to tell you their opinion, I’m smart enough to say that I’m not sure if something different could have been done.  I wasn’t there to experience it.

A grand jury didn’t indict the officer and some think our justice system worked while others say it failed.  This alone tells you that the answer is not easy.

The only thing I know with vehement confidence is that the police are not the bad guys.  There are bad cops out there who do our profession a disservice (just like any profession) and we must constantly hold them accountable. 

Police officers are the good guys and I boldly proclaim that the aftermath of looting and violence in Ferguson would be far more commonplace but for the police officers who act as guardians of our communities every day.

It is easy to choose between right and wrong when there is a glaring line between the two extremes.  But life doesn’t often provide us with such simplistic scenarios and instead, we are faced with multiple facets of truth sprinkled with perceptions and judgments. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Do Law-Breakers Deserve a Second Chance?

Everything that happens to us has the propensity to teach us something if we are willing to heed the lesson.  If we view failures as opportunities to grow, resilience is born from those experiences and we become stronger.  Hopefully we are wise enough to not repeat the same mistakes again.  

Alas, many of us do repeat mistakes and we find ourselves reliving the same reality as we move through our lives.  These patterns of behavior can be difficult to break because we are creatures of habit and we tend to live out what we know.  It is the same reason we continue to battle our own demons over and over.  If we are lucky, our loved ones continue to forgive us and we forgive ourselves.

That same pattern of behavior also correlates to recidivism rates for offenders.  We want to believe that our criminal justice system is one where a person can serve their time and then assimilate back into society after having paid their debt.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way at all.  May repeat offenders continue their pattern of crime because we don’t allow them seamless entry back into the free world.  But surely I cannot compare those who break the law with the rest of us law abiding citizens.  

We have a tendency to judge others so harshly by their transgressions because they sin differently than us.  In other words, we attach value to wrongdoing by ranking it.  Violent crimes rank high on the list but as we move down in descending order, I’m certain we’ll find our own bad behavior.  We rationalize the bad things we do but have no problem condemning others.  

We draw a line in the sand between breaking the law and crimes of morality but the reality is, they are all just different degrees of bad behavior.

I recently was part of a panel discussion in Chicago sponsored by the Illinois Justice Project where smart and caring people came together to collaborate on “reentry”.  That is, prisoners who are released from jail and transitioning back into society.

It turns out, we don’t make it very easy for them.  Now, I can hear the voices of the contrarians declare that it shouldn’t be easy.  After all, they are criminals.  The universal paradox is that we are free to choose but we are not free from the consequences of our choice.

But what about those who have paid their penance and wish to live honorably thereafter.  The truth is, they have trouble finding people who will give them a chance.  If I were a business owner and someone with a felony burglary record applied to work for me, I can tell you I would have trepidation about hiring them.  After all, past behavior is typically indicative of future behavior so why on earth would I put my livelihood at risk when I could hire someone with no criminal background?   Therein lies the problem.

Those who break the law, serve their time, and wish to assimilate often resort to committing crimes once again because no one will give them a chance to succeed.  When you factor in societal circumstances that were more than likely to contribute to the delinquent behavior, there is seemingly no way out for a person who genuinely wishes to reform themselves.

If you were lucky enough to be born into an existence where food, shelter, affection and boundaries were prevalent, chances are you turned out okay.  Those who weren’t so fortunate have to unlearn what they have been taught.  There must be a pattern interruption for them so they can see that there is another alternative.

People are going to continue to fall from grace.  But after atonement, it is in the best interest of all of us that we commit to finding ways to reform offenders so they can be productive members of our society.  

Who among us hasn’t benefitted from a second chance?

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Redefining Success

In order for you to be successful, you do not have to be the smartest person in the room.  This is relieving news for someone like me who is of average intelligence.  Many studies have been done on Fortune 500 CEO’s who have achieved success in their respective careers and it was learned that there were a few traits that many of them had in common.  Humility and empathy were among the virtues that they possessed. 
After learning about the study, I started to pay attention to the people around me in formal leadership roles.  I watched how they worked and how they related to others and it started to become abundantly clear that the ones who were effective were the ones who had a high level of emotional intelligence.  But then I started to notice all the people in informal roles that were doing great work and I started to question what it means to be successful.
Merriam-Webster defines success as "getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame,” but I think it’s so much more than that.
Rising to the top executive level of an organization certainly would translate into achievement; however, some people don’t aspire to move up to a formal position in the hierarchy of their organizations.  Furthermore, we have all had experiences with those who have attained positions of authority who we would not consider successful leaders. 
Success for me is loosely defined because the benchmark is always different. For example, I would consider a police officer successful who uses their skills and influence to achieve the best possible outcome for a citizen.  The men and women who put a uniform on every day and enforce the law with compassion and even-handedness; the ones who do their very best in every encounter – they are successful even if they aren’t in a position of rank.
I received an e-mail from a citizen not too long ago who told me that she had an interaction with a police officer that made her lose faith in our police department.  The incident occurred near her home where officers responded to a person with a weapon.  The citizen said she remained in her home watching the action from an upstairs window when she noticed a man walk to a truck and get into it after most of the officers had left the scene.  She felt as though she needed to pass that information onto the officers who remained so she came outside to speak with them.  Apparently the officer responded by saying, “Do you want my badge?” implying that she was attempting to do his job. 
This citizen was so offended by his comment and she said he made her feel worthless.  When I spoke with the officer, I learned that humor was his intent but he realized by her reaction, that it was a failed attempt.  On his own volition, he advised me that he wished to go back and speak with her.
I received a follow-up e-mail from the citizen whose faith had been restored in this officer and the collective police department. 
The officer involved is one I know to be empathic and compassionate but at the moment, he made a mistake in judgment.  In being confronted, he chose to right the wrong.  When a person can stand tall and admit their mistakes and attempt to correct them, I consider them successful.
It’s showing up every day and giving your very best and not losing your enthusiasm even in the midst of failures.
My favorite poet, Brian Andreas, says this:  “Anyone can slay a dragon.. but try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again. That's what takes a real hero.”
So success is not just in the big milestones.  It’s actually better defined in the small moments of our lives when we bring the best of ourselves.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Learn to Use Criticism as Fuel

*Published in the Sun-Times Beacon news on Monday, October 27th

I recently had the opportunity to attend a law enforcement conference and listen to Sandra Hutchens of Orange County, California, share with the nearly 700 attendees, her experience after being appointed Sheriff in 2008 by the Orange County Board of Supervisors by a 3-2 vote.  The appointment came after her predecessor was indicted on federal corruption charges in the middle of his term.  

Sheriff Hutchens has since run for election and is currently serving her first full term after the initial appointment. She jokingly stated that the bar wasn’t set very high by her predecessor. She quipped that by not getting indicted, she’s already a head above him.

But what I found extremely interesting was her account of the headlines that ran when she was originally appointed.  Sheriff Hutchens read though a stack of scathing one-liners such as, “They Picked the Wrong Sheriff” then stated with a chuckle, “Not a very warm welcome, huh?”

I began thinking about the immediacy in judgment and how quick the public (and the media) vilified her before she’d even had a chance to prove herself.  Given that the previous Sheriff was convicted for witness tampering after being investigated for accepting secret cash payments, engaging in illicit sexual affairs and taking political favors, it is interesting that Hutchens would be met with such opposition.

We have a tendency to see elected officials and people in positions of power as open-season for target practice and those who assume the positions have to be willing to take the hits.  

Don’t misunderstand and assume that no one should be questioned.  In fact, legitimacy is based on fact-finding and accountability to those we entrust to positions of power.  I’m referring instead to the constant barrage of criticism accompanied by the loose interpretation of the truth. 

What I find particularly amusing is how so many people stand on the sidelines doing absolutely nothing meaningful but still manage to criticize those who are trying to do good work.

It reminded me of the famous Teddy Roosevelt quotation:

“It's not the critic who counts. It's not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled. Credit belongs to the man who really was in the arena, his face marred by dust, sweat, and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs to come short and short again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming…”

This is a great lesson for those who get frustrated with the “anonymous” bloggers and posters on the internet and those who bark judgments while doing nothing of value themselves.  You’ll never see those critics offer solutions or roll their sleeves up to help.  Instead they remain on the sidelines lacking the courage to put themselves out there.

If Sheriff Hutchens had believed the critics, she might not ever have showed up to work.  And if she took the time to correct the misinformation, she’d never get any work done.  The same goes for the majority of the do-gooders who are trying their very best to fight the good fight with honor and integrity.  

Just the other day I was accused of teaching in Arizona on the Aurora taxpayers’ dime.  Had I not corrected the person in the highly populated venue, some might have believed the accusation to be true when in fact, I used my personal vacation time.  But what about all the untruths that are never corrected?  

It is extremely important to understand that someone simply stating something does not make it true.  

Those who are doing the work press on in spite of the criticism because they have learned that there will always be people sitting on the sidelines watching and judging those in the arena.

If there is one thing I have learned in this life, it’s this:  If you learn to use criticism as fuel, you will never run out of energy.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Role of Respect in Policing

I taught a class for our police department entitled, “Customer Service for Police Officers” and in it, I stood on my soapbox and said that I believe everyone should be treated with human dignity and respect.  I have written many columns citing the same and I will tell anyone who will listen that the day everything changed for me in policing was when I stopped looking “down” at people and I started looking “at” them.

This seems to be a difficult concept for many to grasp because we have a tendency to withhold respect from those who have broken the law.   Many police officers struggle with the notion that they should “respect” a criminal – especially one that has committed a violent or heinous crime.

The struggle to understand this concept is not lost on me but what I’m trying to convey is that we (the police) have a very specific job to do.  That job is to uphold the constitution of the United States and to use the tools afforded us to enforce the laws of our land.  Nowhere in the constitution does it tell us to cast judgment upon or to mistreat those who fall short.

But humans are complex and driven by emotions.  And cops are human.  With that, it’s difficult not to withhold our emotions when we are confronted with a child molester or someone who has committed an equally devastating crime against humanity.

Thus, we tend to disrespect the wrong-doer and that can manifest itself through excessive force or verbal abuse – neither of which is particularly helpful in the process of an arrest. 

The majority of police officers do not violate the law or policy and will carry out their duties in a respectful manner but they simply draw the line at “respecting” the person being arrested.  I think this is precisely what we should expect from those we entrust to uphold the law.

Besides, respect is esteemed.  When you stop and ponder those people you respect, you will likely note that they possess positive virtues.  But that’s not exactly the way “respect” is defined.  Respect is an active process of non-judgmentally engaging people from all backgrounds.  It is practiced to increase our awareness and effectiveness and is demonstrated in a manner that esteems us both individually and those with whom we interact.

Simply put, respect isn’t reserved only for those who have a moral compass.  If I interviewed gang members, I would probably find that they respect someone in the hierarchy.  I imagine I would also find someone who respects Hitler or another infamous person.

We all align to different principles and those we hold in high regard differ for each individual.  Police officers value the law and protecting the public.  When a police officer can carry out those duties and still be conscious of the fact that even those who commit crimes against society should be treated with dignity, the better cops they become.

In some abstract way, I came to understand during my years in patrol that the more I treated people with human dignity and respect, there was less propensity of my being hurt.  Respect is not trust so I never let my guard down, but I have found that when a person feels respected, it has a disarming effect. 

I may not respect the action that brought me in contact with the individual but I can certainly treat them respectful in the process of holding them accountable.

So, if it’s too much to ask to grasp the notion of “respecting” those who break the law, I can reframe it simply by changing the verbiage.  Treat those who have committed transgressions in a dignified manner while still holding them accountable for their actions. 

I’ve always felt that if we treat people merely as they are, they will remain as they are.  But if we treat people as if they were what they should be, they just might become what they should be.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Tree Huggers and Warriors

This morning I posted an article on my Facebook page written by Mary Anne Case, a Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, where she cited lessons from the 1991 Christopher Commission after the investigation into the police practices that led to the Rodney King beating by LAPD officers.

In her article, she claims that the police mistakes in Ferguson are the forgotten lessons learned 23 years earlier as cited in the Christopher Commission report.

I have no intention of dissecting the Ferguson incident, as I tend to be a collector of facts before spouting off an opinion.  After an emotional event, information of biased or misleading nature tends to be used to promote a particular point of view.  Having been a police officer for over 20 years, I’m smart enough to know that facts continually unfold and evidence is uncovered during a criminal investigation that can alter its course.

But I will speak to the premise in the Christopher Commission report that argues “macho tactics of the police and police-academy training overemphasize the paramilitary and physical and underemphasize interpersonal skills, sensitivity, politeness and the ability to communicate.”

Immediately upon posting this article on my Facebook newsfeed, a comment from one of my favorite dissenters surfaced (who also happens to be a police officer):

“We are paramilitary regardless of what all the tree-huggers think. If we start to turn soft while the world gets more violent we will have more dead cops.”

Therein lies the problem at its core.  Interpersonal skills like empathy, compassion and communication are labeled “soft” and those who emphasize the need for these skills in police officers are labeled “tree-huggers”.  I personally have never hugged a tree but I vehemently believe that the best police officers are those who know have both a servant heart and a warrior spirit.

We [police] are afforded the tools necessary to fight wrongdoing.  The United States Constitution affords us the right to search someone’s home or person.  This 4th Amendment Right is precious and when used in compliance with the laws of our land, we can seize evidence for criminal cases.  We can also take away a person’s freedom through lawful incarceration.  And the most mammoth of them all is the right to take a human life in order to protect human life. 

These are monumental and as such, they should be given careful responsibility.

But what we [police] sometimes fail to utilize is the most powerful tool of all:  our human influence.  These so-called “soft” skills are the reason that successful police officers don’t have to move to force so quickly and don’t agitate offenders to the point of becoming violent.

Police are the first line of defense for our communities and with that, we need to be ready for warfare at all times.  I don’t discount the necessity that our police forces comprise the militaristic maneuvers necessary to fight violent offenders.

What I’m suggesting quite vehemently is that those skills can be taught.  Give me a police officer that is a skilled communicator and is hard-wired for empathy and compassion, and we will train them to become a warrior. 

The argument is there are some who simply do not possess the skill of warriorship and to that my response is that police departments should recognize this while those recruits are in the academy and in the Field Training Program.  Not everyone is cut out to run towards gunfire.

In my humble opine, police departments should spend as much time training officers in interpersonal skills as they do in military tactics.  We should be recruiting officers who have elite communication and problem-solving skills.

There is nothing “soft” about a police officer with a servant heart who treats everyone – even those who break the law – with dignity and respect.  They can still hold the line and be a force against evil when they must.

Now I’m going go find a tree to hug.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Be Vigilant and Unafraid

As it approached midnight on December 31, 2012, I was eager to count down to the midnight hour so I could ring in the New Year. Like most people, I was ready to celebrate -- but for a slightly different reason.

I was watching the clock, listening to my police radio and holding my breath all at the same time.  On the final count down before the clock struck midnight, I raised my glass because we made it through 2012 with zero homicides in Aurora.

It was as though the planets had aligned and all the hard work done by the men and women of the Aurora Police Department, our citizens, partnering law enforcement agencies, and the State’s Attorneys had paid off.  We all worked tirelessly with the same end in mind.

Unfortunately, we’ve not been able to replicate that success. We have experienced seven murders in Aurora thus far in 2014 and the people we serve want to know why.

Interestingly enough, we have had roughly the same number of shootings as last year at the same time.  The difference is that death has resulted in seven of them.  While we can look at the numerical difference and not see much flux, the fact that lives are being lost is the cause for concern.

As criminologists will explain, crime fluctuates as a result of many causal effects.

There are social causes that stem from class, race, gender, family and neighborhood environment.  The health of the economy and the job market plays a role as well.  In short, just as there were many variables that contributed to zero murders in 2012, there are just as many that contribute to the ebb and flow of criminal activity.

I understood that we would enjoy a “moment in time” with no murders but I knew from historical data that it wasn’t a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” we would see an increase.

Like most large cities, we have gangs.  The majority of the shootings have been a result of violence stemming from rival gangs (and sometimes in-fighting within the same gang).

I can promise you that, as a police department, we are working diligently to solve these homicides and put the shooters behind bars.  These violent offenders are wreaking havoc on our community and it is our mission to “cut the heads of the serpent” (the gang leaders) so the gang organization will crumble.  Contrary to what most believe about gangs, they are very structured and there is a dominant hierarchy.

Our patrol officers are the first to respond to the scene of a shooting and it is their initial actions and observations that can lead to the apprehension of the shooter(s). Locating evidence and witnesses is crucial to the outcome of the case.

Our gang unit works tirelessly to collect data on current gang members and our investigators are subject matter experts on the different factions of gang membership.  They work on preventative measures as well as intelligence-lead tactics to combat violence.

Every division in our police department has a part to play in the apprehension, charging and closure of a case and we all have a clear line of sight to the end in mind: to eradicate these crimes in our community.  We will never stop working towards that end.

With that, we are not lone warriors.

As a member of this community, you are just as vital as the front line officers because it is from your eyes and ears that intelligence is gathered and crimes are solved.  You are an extension of our front line and the more vigilant you are in observing and reporting what goes on in your own neighborhood, the more criminals will not be able to thrive.

These are your streets and your neighborhoods.  This is our city.  Evil is powerless if the good are unafraid.