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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Who are you and why should I believe you?

I got accepted into the Naval Postgraduate School to pursue a second Master’s Degree in Homeland Security and Defense in June of this year. I decided to move outside of my comfort zone in quest of this degree because I feel as though state and local government needs to be more in sync with the Federal initiatives that involve keeping our homeland secure. When agents interrupted two Aurora natives just prior to their joining ISIS earlier in the year, I started to pay attention to ways our local police might be able to assist in the Homeland Security Enterprise. In short, I need to learn more about what I don’t know.

I’m only months into the Department of Homeland Security program and my mind has already been expanded beyond it’s original proportions. When I met my classmates during our first “in-residence” stay at the Naval base, I was certain that the officials would realize their mistake by allowing me into the program so I didn’t fully unpack {smile}. My classmates represent a facet of Federal entities and are experts in things like: all-source intelligence operations, Foreign Intelligence Services, border protection, emergency management, technology in Homeland Security (to name a few).

In other words, they are really smart people with really high security clearances.

I quickly regained confidence as it became more and more clear to me that local police agencies have a great deal of resources and intelligence that can serve as a force-multiplier when it comes to protecting our city. It didn’t take long to understand that this “enterprise” works when all the players come together to share information.

My first research paper was due yesterday and I decided to write about the current plight of policing and the trust that has been eroded as a result of high profile incidents in our nation. I turned my focus on “soft power” in contrast to “hard power” and set out to explore how the former is not “soft” at all and how we can build better police officers by instilling empathy, compassion and respect as the foundation of training. Skills like defensive tactics, firearms proficiency and arrest techniques are crucial but employing the former during the initial interaction might actually keep officers from having to resort to the latter.

I was pretty proud of the final 16 page product. That is, until I received feedback from my professor. He turned my words into a sea of digital red ink and the common theme in his criticism was my lack of evidence to back up my claims. I began my paper with the following sentence: “The public has lost trust in the police.” It’s a pretty bold declaration and the red font inserted by my professor was:

“Who are you and why should we believe you? Where is the evidence to back up this statement”?

I was thinking, “I’m Kristen Ziman and I’m a cop and I know this because I feel it.”

As it turns out, I am not a reputable source. Mind blown!

I should know better. After all, I’ve been a police officer for 21 years and I have tons of experience writing police reports and from our first day in the academy, we are taught that the foundation of report-writing is to report only the facts.

There is no tolerance for rumor, conjecture, opinion any other descriptive word that isn’t based on fact.

I’ve been a columnist for the “Beacon News” since the mid-2000’s and in my columns, it’s pretty common knowledge that I offer my editorial - my opine. My writing is based on my knowledge and experience but it is merely my personal thoughts on police-related matters through my lens.

I like writing in that style because it’s important to me that people know where I stand on most topics and it offers an opportunity for respectful discourse. I adore it when a reader disagrees and shows me a different perspective that I might not have considered.

There’s a time and a place for editorials. However, in order to achieve a degree in Department of Homeland Security, it’s time to get back to basics of research and report only the facts.

Now I just need to stop retorting to people during conversations, “Who are you and why should I believe you?”

Without fact or supportive evidence, there is only opinion — and that’s pretty much the same as fiction.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Choose Your Own Adventure

When I was a kid, I used to read a book series called “Choose Your Own Adventure”.  I loved the books because the stories were formatted so that the reader would be faced with two or three options, each of which leads to more options, and then to one of many endings. Making the right choices led you to the best ending, while making the wrong ones led you to one of a myriad of horrible and agonizing deaths (pretty gruesome for a 10 year old now that I really think about it).

The concept of these books flooded from memory into consciousness while having a conversation with friends about the choices we’d made in life (many of which resulted in failures) and how those experiences were what brought us to that very moment in time. We wondered where we would be and who we would be with if we’d opted for another path. 

Everyone pondered for a few moments and I went on a vacation in my mind back to my childhood where I hid under my covers and read with a flashlight well past my bedtime.  In the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, the one and only rule was that you couldn’t randomly flip through the pages.  Being a rule follower, I would go back to the beginning and make a different choice when prompted and it would alter the outcome of the plot. I would continue reading and re-reading until I was satisfied with the ending.  

What if life were actually like that and we could go back and make a different choice that would alter our existence?  As a police officer, I have watched people err time and time again.  One bad choice can put a once promising future on a different trajectory.  I think of those who committed crimes without having a deep understanding of the consequences and wonder what would happen if they could alter the outcome of their lives.  

In cases of addiction and substance abuse, might one want to turn back to the moment in time they took the first hit of the poison that now imprisons them?  Life is usually understood in retrospect so when we connect the dots of our lives backwards, we see so clearly where we went wrong.  Unfortunately, reality doesn’t allow us to go backwards and make a different decision. What is done is already etched in permanence.  We are victims of our circumstances and much of that is a result of the decisions we’ve made.

So we are doomed by our bad decisions and there is no happy ending and we all die.  The end.

The more I pondered, I realized that life is more like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book than I thought and we actually can alter the trajectory of our lives even after a wrong turn.  While I have seen lives devastated, I have also seen lives completely turned around.  I have had the pleasure of seeing rehabilitated felons and reformed addicts change their future by deciding to do so.  It’s never easy (in fact it’s really difficult) but nothing worth doing is ever easy.

The people who settle with an unhappy ending are those who practice learned helplessness.  This is when a person decides to be a victim of their choices and circumstances thus figuratively paralyzing them from change.  Fortunately, you can unlearn what you have learned by changing your mindset.

I don’t care how bad your bad decision was that landed you where you are; you still have the power to create a new outcome.  Obviously you cannot go back to the the beginning and undo what happened, but you can most certainly turn the page and start a new chapter.  

So if you don’t like the story you’re in, write a new one.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Navigating through the Gray Areas

Bertrand Russell said "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

If this is a true statement, I must be borderline genius given my consistent grapple with uncertainty. Choices that confront us are so easy when we have to choose between right and wrong. If we are of sound mind and moral character, we know the difference between the extremes because social norms and the laws of our land help us to distinguish them.

It’s the complexities that life presents us when we are at a proverbial crossroads of “two rights”. These situations arise when we look closer at a complex problem and determine that many different variables exist that distort the “right versus wrong” formula.

Even the mother of all commandments is subject to some gray area. “Thou shalt not kill” seems pretty clear at face value. For some, no ideological or political conviction would justify the sacrifice of a human life. The value of life is absolute, with no concessions. It's not negotiable.

For others, it’s merely a guideline with a magnitude of exemptions.

“Thou shalt not kill.”*

*unless someone makes you angry, they are a rival gang member or they have different beliefs, etc.

The bloodshed in our cities is evidence that this barbaric mindset exists. Because we are a democracy that follows the rule of law, there are consequences for taking the life of another so one must be willing to capitulate to that punishment.

But there are other exemptions for the taking of a human life that fall within the parameters of legality. If one is provoked to a point where they have to defend their own life or the life of someone else, it is acceptable to kill.

If even the greatest of all commandments has some gray area, suffice it to say that the lessor-important things in life do as well.

To traverse through the gray areas, we need a clear line of site to purpose and morality because when we don’t align to our ethical “truth north”, there is no visible path. When there is no path, we lose our way.

Think of the magnitude of this concept. Religious people have a guidebook to follow (the Bible, Torah, Quran, Buddhist Sutras, ect). In these books, it clearly stipulates the path you should follow. If eternal salvation is the end it mind, one of these books will get you there.

What keeps the non-believers from committing atrocities? How on earth are human beings expected to behave if the notion of a burning inferno isn’t constantly fearing them into behaving properly? Even religion isn’t foolproof since so many have been killed in the name of it.

Perhaps it is the rule of law and the fear of losing our basic fundamental right of freedom that keeps social order. I secretly wonder what kind of hullabaloo would ensue if people succumbed to their own instinctual desires without consequence.

Whether it’s religion or obedience to laws, we seem to have most of the bases covered when it comes knowing what is acceptable and what is not. And yet we still commit atrocities against one another in love and war and all things in-between.

I guess life is just that - a vast quantity of gray area for which we have to navigate. But maybe if we try and do as much of that navigating with the right end in mind, our paths would be more clear.

Maybe if we stopped being detoured by pettiness, hatred and revenge and spent more time seeing the value of other human beings, the natural consequence would be improved organizations and communities.

If religion and laws cannot keep us on the right path, seeing one another as living and breathing people rather than objects might do the trick. If we were able to see (really see) that people are made up of the same fears and hopes that we are, we might not be so quick to pull the trigger, steal from them, or bully them.

Given my propensity for uncertainly, I’m probably not correct about any of this.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Respect is the Cornerstone of Policing

A few years ago, video was captured of Baltimore police officer Salvatore Rivieri confronting some kids who were skateboarding in an area that was prohibited.  In the video, Officer Rivieri approaches and advises them in a rather stern manner that they cannot ride their skateboards in the area.  One of the kids replies, “Okay, I didn’t hear you” and Rivieri immediately becomes confrontational with him.  He tells the skater that he’s going to put him in "juvie" and call his father.  When the kid responds, “I don’t have a father”, Officer Rivieri threatens to “smack the kid upside his head” and when the boy says, “I didn’t do anything” the officer charges at him, rips his skateboard from his hands and puts the kid in a choke hold to take him to the ground.  The situation escalates even more violently.

I resurrect this story from several years ago because it closely parallels the interaction that McKinney, Texas police Sergeant Eric Casebolt had with the juveniles at the pool. The video begins with two officers sprinting towards what I assume is a disturbance involving other officers. An unidentified officer drops his flashlight during his sprint and the teen who is videotaping catches up to him to return it.  The officer expresses his gratitude to the teen and addresses a group firmly by advising them not to “take off running when the police arrive.”  He displays a command presence while being extremely respectful. As a result, the kids not only cooperate with the officer but provide him with additional information about the incident.

Sergeant Casebolt then enters the video frame in what can only be described as a volatile demeanor and the footage depicts him taking a male to the ground. He screams to all the kids to “get their asses down on the ground” and then confronts two males in the street and tells them to “get the F#$* down”. The males can be seen immediately dropping to the ground in the street and Casebolt screams, “get to the grass” and they comply.

Casebolt has no control over the scene because he’s lost control of himself.  The kids are not following Casebolt’s profanity-ridden commands to disperse and girl gets mouthy with him.  He takes her to the ground forcefully which incites the crowd. Casebolt draws his weapon when a few teens close the gap towards him.

In these two incidents I’ve described, it’s important to point out that laws were violated by the teens.  In the former, skateboarding was prohibited.  In the latter, the teens disobeyed a lawful order to disperse.

I have heard arguments on behalf of the police officer in the latter situation that the girl was mouthy and not following his orders. I recognize that in many cases, the scenario begins with a violation of law and even people being disrespectful, however, the police officer’s demeanor in both of these incidents are what I opine to have escalated the situation.

It’s hard for me to watch these videos because I know what it’s like to be on a chaotic scene where it’s difficult to control people as the “mob mentality” sets in. I know what it’s like to feel vulnerable of my own safety in these situations.

But I also know by learning from the best what it’s like to calm a crowd down by talking to them respectfully. I learned very early on in my career that I didn’t have the stature to prevail physically against someone wishing to cause me harm so I had to develop communication skills to gain compliance. I started to watch and learn from the most successful police officers (no matter what their size) and it became apparent to me that the more you treat others with respect — even those who break the law — the more they will cooperate. Sadly, I have also learned precisely what not to do from those officers who always seem to agitate those with whom they interact.

Giving the benefit of the doubt, I surmise the police officers depicted in these videos are good human beings at heart. But I can say with certainty that they could have handled these situations better and in doing so, neither would have escalated to use of force.

The majority of people respond to being treated with human dignity and respect. Whether it be kids or adults, the manner in which a police officer engages a person has the propensity to alter the outcome.  Certainly there are those individuals who will be non-compliant no matter what, but I have found that most people respond in kind to the way they are treated.

I always describe our police officers as warriors because they are first line of defense in our community. I still feel that way because we need our officers to have a warrior mindset when they engage the violent part of society that holds hostage the law-abiding citizens. A true warrior learns to master his emotions and acts purposefully and for the greater good. There is a time and a place for this mindset where human life is being threatened.

But in the majority of encounters, police officers should have the guardian mindset and not the warrior mindset. Guardians are responsible for the safekeeping of a city and every police action must be built upon trust and respect.  When police lose trust in the community they serve, they can no longer be effective.

Police officers need to embrace the mindset of guardianship and the first step in doing so is to look at all people with whom they interact instead of looking down upon on them.

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.