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Monday, May 25, 2015

What's in a Name?

During his sermon Sunday morning, Reverend Gary McCann talked about names. Quite simply, the name given to us at birth that we’ve spent our lives growing into. The name we answer to when called upon and what has become the core of our identity.

Reverend Gary talked about how we are much more than the labels given to us and that our name sets us apart as individuals.

As I was listening to the words, I couldn’t help but correlate the message to policing.

Police officers have a tendency to assume the worst in people. This is quite normal given that we see the worst of society and we learn early in our careers that human beings are capable of committing heinous and atrocious acts against one another. This might sound like an excuse to justify clinging to our callousness but the psychology of this is actually quite basic. The result of being lied to is distrust. The fact that most of the people we arrest lie to cover up their transgressions makes not trusting others a natural consequence.  The result of being attacked for no other reason than the uniform we wear results in walking around believing someone is trying to harm us - even off duty.

So when Reverend Gary said that we tend to label others without seeing their humanness, I couldn’t help but think of all the times I have done that throughout my career. Because we often criticize what we don’t understand, I used to struggle in finding compassion for any “criminals”.

And then I started having conversations with people and asking questions.  That’s how I learned about Scott. He’s a heroine addict and he has a felony record for possession. He wears the label “addict” and “felon” but he’s more than that. He is a mechanic by trade but he lost his job, his family and his home as a result of his addiction. Before he was addicted to heroin, he played the trumpet as a hobby. He can hardly remember just being Scott because all anyone sees is “heroin addict” affixed to his chest like a scarlet letter.

Scott has successfully completed drug rehabilitation court and he’s been clean for over a year. I don’t know what it’s like to have an addiction that takes over your life and pushes out the good things in it like family and friends, but I can tell you that hearing his story makes me think twice before putting people in boxes because Scott is a good man fighting the demon of his addiction.

I still grapple with the very concept of gangs. At this time in Aurora when we are seeing an increase in gang-related crimes, I struggle to feel any sympathy for these criminals whose violent acts cast a dark cloud over the city that I love.

The game they play is the epitome of labeling. They hate one another because they are in rival gangs. It’s barbaric and it’s weak and I wonder if they ever stop to think about how preposterous it is.

Then again, humans are conditioned to label and judge everything from appearance to race to socio-economic status. Granted, only the barbaric go around physically harming one another but we are all guilty of carrying out our judgments in other ways.

The police have a tendency to label someone a criminal because they’ve committed a crime. What if we still held people accountable for the acts they’ve committed without defining them? I subscribe to the notion that when people are labeled they tend to behave in alignment with those labels.

Perhaps if we spent less time generalizing one another for the label that is affixed to us and more time learning about the human being behind the label we would begin to see similarities instead of differences in one another.

Maybe it starts as simply as asking someone, “What’s your name?”

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Personal Lessons from the Community Forums

I was skimming through a few of the Aurora Facebook groups where residents convene to post and discuss anything and everything pertaining to Aurora. As a resident of Aurora, I always love to see pictures of beautiful architecture and landmarks that are so prominent in our city.  But I also started to notice that our residents were taking to these forums to report crimes.  It was not uncommon to see a post that inquired, “Did anyone hear the gun shots last night?” followed by blanket statements like, “I’m moving out of this city”.

A few things struck me as I was reading.  First and foremost, our citizens weren’t calling the police about these events.  Second, the blatant misinformation and conjecture that was being communicated was troubling.

I realized that in the absence of bonafide data, people will fill in the blanks.  When you add a dose of opinion to snippets of information, rumor and innuendo are the consequence and that festers into paranoia.

As a result of the increase in gang-related shootings in our city, the Aurora Police Department formulated an internal operations strategy that includes our Intelligence Unit, Gang Unit, Investigations Unit and the Patrol Division.  Our resident experts are sharing intel and formulating plans to combat the criminals who are committing these crimes.

In one of the strategy meetings, it occurred to me that we were missing a vital piece:  our community members.  The community forums were born as a result of the realization that even a police force of nearly 300 strong cannot be everywhere at all times in a city with a population of 200,000.

My first objective in the forums was to communicate factual data for each area.  With complete transparency in mind, our Community Policing Officers broke down each shooting that occurred in their assigned neighborhood.  We wanted people to know that even with the increase in shootings, violent crime is still down.  We wanted to educate people on how we classify shootings and that a shooting doesn’t always mean a person was shot.  We wanted everyone to know that we are concerned about the increase in gang violence but that we are still seeing record lows in crime.  But even one shooting is one too many and we will never stop fighting crime in this community.

My second objective was to get our citizens more involved in the fight against crime.  I want to get people away from their computer screens and out in their yards talking to their neighbors.

We accomplished the first objective and the fact that that over 700 people attended the forums would suggest we achieved the second.  I am so grateful to the citizens who took time out of their busy lives to attend because that tells me how many people care about this city.  I still think we can do better by getting people to start neighborhood groups - especially in the higher crime areas.

I learned a few personal lessons from the community forums.  First and foremost, I obsessed about what we could have done better in each of the three meetings.  I have a better idea going forward of how we can commit to constant self-improvement.

I also learned a tough but necessary lesson.  No matter what we try and do, there is a small microcosm of Aurora that can only see what is wrong instead of what is right.  They are driven by hatred and their own political agendas.  Unfortunately, these people don’t do anything meaningful to be a part of the solution so they sit on the sidelines criticizing those who are out there trying to make this city even better.  At first I struggled with the criticism because it felt futile.  If the police department wouldn’t have held these forums, we’d have been accused of not being transparent.  So we put ourselves out there and we were criticized for our message.  The phrase, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” comes to mind.

It would have been much easier to ignore the fodder on social media and shrug my shoulders.  It was difficult to put together the forums because it required that our officers give of their time to pull data and morph it into a presentation.  Our officers put themselves out there to the community and that takes courage.  But we will continue to do the right thing on behalf of the productive and caring residents who support the police and this city.

A few of the aforementioned critics chided that our only solution was to call 9-1-1.  And yet, that is one of the most powerful things that any resident can do for us.

We’ve had two homicides in 2015 and one of them was solved immediately due to a citizen who witnessed a man running with a gun.  The citizen called 9-1-1 and gave a detailed description and the location of the man running.  Based on that information, our officers were able to swoop in within minutes and apprehend the offender after a foot pursuit.

A homicide was solved because a citizen cared enough to get involved and we could not have done it without him.  To minimize citizen involvement is irresponsible because we are all on the same team.  As with any team, we have different roles.  The residents of this community should be so vested in their respective neighborhoods that they watch and report anything suspicious.  Our role as the police are to move towards the threat as we are trained to do.

We have the same end in mind -- to make this community a safer place to live and raise our families.  When we combine each of our roles with the overarching goal, together we will make Aurora a place where criminals cannot effectively operate.

We want to keep the conversation going with our citizens wherever and whenever we can.  The men and women of the Aurora Police Department will continue to do the jobs they were entrusted to do because they are warriors with good purpose.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Keep Them Between the Lines

The relative of a gang member who was recently shot and killed told the media, "Gang-banging was only a small part of who he was."

I knew what she meant. He was a son, a brother and a friend. He may very well have been a great guy.

This is the irony of criminals whose choices eventually catch up with them. Whether it be through incarceration or the gunshot that proved fatal, there are always people on the sidelines telling anyone who will listen what a great person they were - outside of being a criminal.

As humans, we cannot wrap our heads around senseless murders where innocent victims fall prey to violent and unstable killers.

The operative word is "innocent" in that the victims didn't engage in behavior that made them susceptible to harm. Truly innocent victims like those caught in crossfire, students in schools, shoppers in malls, or anyone else victimized by a dark-souled killer. These are the incidents that make us fall to our knees and ask our higher power, "Why"?

But when you are a person who engages in criminal activity, you must accept the associated risks. Similarly, if you are the parent of a child who hangs out with kids who "represent" by wearing gang colors or post pictures of themselves throwing up gang signs on their Facebook pages, that might be a clue that your child is up to no good.

If you take an active role in what your child is doing and with whom they are associating, it might thwart them from traveling down a destructive road.

I am not going to discount the aggravating factors that contribute to the evolution of a gang member. Social scientists tell us that the socio-economic status into which we are born, the geographic location, our culture, and whether we are loved or abused all play a part in who we become.

Kids oftentimes join gangs because they want to belong. If they don't feel a sense of belonging in their own family, they seek out that security elsewhere. The gang becomes their family.

There are so many reasons why our youth gravitate towards people and situations that are unhealthy. It is our job as parents and members of the community to provide the guidance they need to keep them on the right path.

It is the challenge of any parent to find the balance of structure and freedom.

I think of my kids as traveling on a highway where those solid, yellow lines flank the roadside. We want them to move freely within those confines and make their own independent choices about when to speed up, when to slow down and when to pass. But it is up to us as parents and mentors to monitor their speed, their distance from others on that road and to make damn sure that they don't cross those solid lines where danger lies on the other side.

The ultimate paradox is that kids not only need structure, they want it. One might think that joining a gang means youth break from structure but the truth is, gangs have plenty of it. There is a hierarchy and a fat book of procedures that accompany gang membership.

The first time I saw the bylaws of one of our local gangs, I recall thinking what a solid business model it represented. The organizational chart and its roles and positions were clearly outlined and defined. I wondered how successful the people who thoughtfully carved out the bylaws could be in the business world--- if only they channeled their talents towards positivity.

Knowing that kids need structure, it is all of our jobs to make sure they get it from people and places who will keep them "between the solid lines".

It is true that people are neither all good nor all bad. If it's true that the part of them that engages in gang or other criminal activity is just a small part, it is still the part that will get them killed.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Preparedness | Sharpen Your Ax

The first communication we had with a barricaded subject allegedly armed with a gun came through his mother.  She came to a scene recently, where our police officers had a tight perimeter on the house into which her son ran after allegedly shooting someone.

The son called his mom from inside the house and told her, “I love you and goodbye.”  This was profound insight into the mental state of our 19 year old suspect and meant that we would prepare ourselves for the worst.

Police officers always prepare ourselves for the worst.  When we are told there is one suspect in the house, we assume there are two.  We are always prepared to find a weapon even if we are told there are none.

We never believe what we hear until it is confirmed with unwavering certainty.  Most of the time that doesn’t happen until we can verify information with our own eyes or the eyes of one of our fellow officers.  We sift through information given to us by various witnesses and we separate the grain from the chaff by meticulously following every lead.

It’s not distrust, per se.  It’s just that humans get it wrong.  A lot.  And it is the job of the front line police officers to isolate the person who is a danger, contain them and stop them from hurting themselves or others.  To do that, we must gather and verify intelligence, then act upon it.

So we prepare for the worst.

This takes both mental and physical preparation.  Physical training ensures that the officers have the strength of body to persevere should they be faced with a confrontation and the mental toughness to stay in the fight without surrender.

We prepare not only for the world we live in but for the world we may find ourselves in.  Police officers train for the worst because it would be a tragedy should we find ourselves unprepared.

It’s not unlike anything else in life.  Preparation is what separates the successes from the failures. At those times we have fallen short, we can most likely look back and concede that we were not fully prepared because we didn’t put in the time.

Abraham Lincoln put this notion into context when he said, “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend six hours sharpening my ax”.

Unfortunately, the human condition can sometimes settle for the path of least resistance and we procrastinate when we know we should be preparing.  We put off the hard work because it’s easier to do the things we want to do instead of doing the things we have to do.

Those who are successful know that there is no such thing as being over-prepared.  They understand the sacrifice that is necessary to achieve the end in mind and they are the ones who work harder and smarter after everyone else has quit.  The times in my life where I have fallen short have been because I lacked the will or because someone out-performed me.  Either way, I was ill-prepared.

Discipline is the very thing that determines success.  When you have the self-regulation to push yourself far past the point where you want to quit, you will find that you have achieved self-mastery.

This is why our officers train when they would rather be engaging in less demanding activities.  This is why those who have fitness goals make the time to exercise their bodies and push them to the extreme.  This is why those who are seeking an education (formally or informally) opt to pick up a book instead of turning on the television.

The choices one makes either brings them closer to their goals or they push them further away.  When one makes choices that that are centered on self-discipline, they soon find themselves closer to mastering their craft.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Sometimes You Have to Dance Alone

One of my favorite videos on leadership is entitled, “How to Start a Movement”.  It’s a TED talk and it features Derek Sivers narrating a clip where a lone “nut” is captured on amateur video dancing by himself.

I call him a nut because he dances with such vigor and doesn’t seem to care how ridiculous he looks or that everyone is staring and laughing at him.  He simply dances alone in the crowded park.

What happens next changes everything.  Another person joins him and starts dancing with him and you can still make the argument that they both look ridiculous but that doesn’t seem to deter them.  They continue to dance unapologetically.  Soon, several people get up and start dancing with them, and so on, until it’s no longer cool to be the ones who are sitting on the sidelines watching.

When narrating the video, Sivers places the emphasis on the first follower.  He suggests that it is the person who joins the dancer that is the most important because he turns “a lone nut into a leader” by the sheer act of following.

As it pertains to starting a movement, followers are a necessary ingredient because they create the tipping point - the point at which a series of small changes or incidents becomes significant enough to cause a larger, more important change.


But before there can be followers, there has to be that one person who is courageous enough to not care about the people on the sidelines ridiculing them.


This sounds pretty simple.  It’s the same as saying, “Don’t worry about what anyone thinks about you.”  And yet, the more I watch people, the more I have come to understand that fear is the single most thing that holds people back from nearly every aspect of their lives - the fear of being judged by others.

I’m not fond of aging.  I loathe everything that comes along with becoming more and more distanced from youth.  That is, except for the fact that with age and maturity, there comes a better understanding that so much of our lives is wasted on worrying what other people think.  We may not all get there at the same time, but there comes a moment where the outside noise becomes irrelevant.

I have such clarity now as I watch those who spend most of their time criticizing others.  The people we fear the most are those who are the outspoken judgers.  They are often loud and believable and they don’t miss an opportunity to point out the fallibility in others.  They ridicule with contrived intellectual superiority and they hold dominion over the weak minds who follow them.

Leaders who don’t use their power for good also have followers.  People who are clever and charismatic enough are capable of getting people to stand with them.

These people are powerful because they shatter the confidence of those of you who are trying to do good and if you aren’t careful they will break your spirit.

Who you choose to follow and why you choose to follow them reveals everything about who you are.  Do you simply follow those who can benefit you the most? Or do you follow those who genuinely care about other people more than they care about themselves and put the organization before their individual needs?

We need more people to rise to leadership who have their values in alignment with solid principles.  That’s a scary thing to ask of someone because for every principle-centered leader, there will be another who rises to ridicule and judge.  There is strength in numbers and so we must be the ones who stand with those who use their power for good.

If no one is leading, don’t wait for someone to rise up and take charge of the things you care about.  Stand up and dance.

Even if you have to dance alone for a little while.

Friday, January 9, 2015

In Darkness We Must Glow

The concept of “de-policing” has been used in the media to describe a de facto police strike, where the police withdraw an aspect of their crime prevention services.  It has been suggested that NYPD is engaging in this practice as a result of the officers who were assassinated following the public outrage of the deaths of unarmed, black offenders.

De-policing is a product of morale and morale is a living and breathing animal that is always influx.

For each one of us, there have been times in our careers where we have felt disengaged and disenfranchised because of something that has happened to us personally.  My morale has suffered over the years as a result of bad leadership, inequity, and the pressures of the job.  When it happens individually, it’s hardly recognizable.  If we are resilient, we pick ourselves up, stop feeling sorry for ourselves and move on.

However, when morale affects the collective whole, it is difficult to ignore.  In this moment in time, police officers are struggling with the notion that public trust has been eroded. This, along with the very real threat to their lives (even greater than on a typical day) means that officers are suffering an internal struggle that begins with the question, “Why should I even bother?”

Let’s face it, police officers are acutely aware of their image problem.  They are responsible for enforcing laws and if you happen to be on the offending end of that scenario, you probably aren’t adding cops to your Christmas card list.  The police typically show up when things aren’t going particularly well so they aren’t associated with rainbows and butterflies.

Police don’t enter this profession for recognition and I can promise you that responding to a domestic violence call and thwarting a violent offender rarely results in a thank-you card.

This is why it’s so important that officers find ways to show the community their softer side.  By engaging with all members of the community in times of peace, citizens will understand that we have a job to do in times of crisis.  When we educate our community by engaging in dialogue with them about our mission and our methods, they better understand why we do what we do.  When they understand the “why”, they can accept the “how” while still holding us accountable.

It has always been my philosophy that those with negative views of the police are usually those who are breaking the law.  In the aftermath of Ferguson and New York, it suddenly seemed as though the entire world turned their back on us and painted every law enforcement officer with the broad brush as a murderer.

And now, officers are being targeted and killed for no other reason than the uniform they wear.

Why should the police risk their lives for people they don’t even know when even the good citizens question their intentions?  The easy answer is that police officers may disengage in some areas but ultimately they will go back to their default.  They will get back to work because they understand that the work they do is not for their bosses, but for the citizens of the community that they swore to protect. They will get back to work because they are guardians of the community.

I will speak on behalf of every police officer and say that even though pro-active production is down at NYPD, there is not one cop who won’t rise to action when it’s necessary.  Law enforcement officers are people of action and they will not sit idle when duty calls to protect life.

Officers in New York City and all over the United States must realize, however, that the little things will turn into big things if they are ignored for too long.  With that, officers have to get back in the game and re-engage.  It is in this darkness that we must glow.

The police must rebuild trust with the community one contact at a time and the community has to be reminded that the majority of police officers are selfless human beings committed to upholding laws and protecting the people they serve.

It is not an option to give up.  The safety of our respective communities depends upon finding our way through this together.

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.