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Thursday, December 30, 2010

8 Police Officers and the Void they Leave

Effective January 1, 2011, we will lay off eight patrol officers - 8 members of our police family.

These eight officers chose the noble profession of law enforcement believing that they would spend their careers with the Aurora Police Department.

They have been members of our family for several years and there is no easy way to watch them walk out the door. As each of them hand over their equipment within the next few days, the reality becomes painfully intolerable.

There are many fingers pointing blame in all different directions and the mud being slung only means that no one walks away clean, but none of that really matters. How we got here and who is to blame only adds distraction to the fact that our brothers and sisters in blue will leave a void of great magnitude in our police department.

As the Commander of the Patrol Division - where each of these officers are assigned - I can confidently state that their individual contributions to our police department will not be forgotten.

We must continue our police mission because that is the oath we have taken. But we do so with Officer Ray Morris, Officer Scott Carter, Officer Steven Pacenti, Officer Chris Moore, Officer Mark Carey, Officer Aendri Decker, Officer Erin Lapp and Officer Kyle Hoffman in our thoughts and as part of our history. Godspeed.

Courage versus Bravery

There is no shortage of bravery in the Aurora Police Department. I have worked alongside of many men and women throughout my career who did not hesitate to run towards the sound of gunfire or to jump fences in pursuit of an armed suspect.

I originally believed the law enforcement profession attracted these “fearless” individuals who think nothing of putting their own lives on the line for strangers in the name of preserving justice. Since bravery is the ability to persevere despite fear, pain, and risk of danger, it would seem that those without bravery need not apply.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that bravery is not as difficult as it seems. Ask any person who has put themselves at risk to help another and they will tell you that they simply acted without thought. When a person falls, it is our instinct to extend an arm and help. This is why a soldier or police officer often refutes accolades after an act of heroism by responding, “I was just doing my job.”

Because it is inherent in our nature to help each other, we are all just “doing our jobs” as human beings. The only difference between police officers and the common citizen is the hours of training that make officers more confident and equipped to face dangerous situations. As Aristotle pointed out, we become brave by doing brave acts.

I’m sure many will dispute this belief by saying that they could never do the job of a police officer or firefighter. Over the years, I’ve heard many people say that confronting a suspect in a home invasion or running into a home engulfed in flames is not on their list of things to accomplish. I challenge that when confronted with a situation where you must act immediately in order to prevent a catastrophe or save a life, most would do so without pausing to consider the risk.

Bravery is not as difficult as it appears to be. Courage on the other hand, is quite rare. Bravery and courage are often used synonymously but they are not the same. Physical bravery is to act upon instinct while moral courage is the thing that sets the truly courageous apart from all the others. It can manifest in seemingly minuscule ways or it can be magnificent in magnitude. It is the strength to stand firmly grounded while those around you scurry to align themselves to the majority opinion.

The “Thin Blue Line” is an emblem representing the camaraderie of police officers signifying their unity and solidarity. Over the years, the term has taken on a negative connotation and may now depict corruption and cover-up of those officers who tarnish the badge. Fortunately, policing has evolved whereby the thin blue line of protecting those corrupt officers has faded considerably because of courageous police leaders who in their own organizations have declared it intolerable. Even more courageous are the line level officers who stand up in defiance of corruption and boldly police themselves and their comrades.

Being courageous might simply mean thinking differently from everyone else and declaring as much. It is more common for a person to avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking for fear of being seen as foolish, to avoid embarrassing themselves, or angering other members of a group. Cowardliness is choosing to protect one’s own interest rather than opposing an injustice. True courage means doing what you know is right, even at personal risk.

Resolve this New Year to practice more courage. Resolve to fight the urge to sit in silence when you know you should be speaking out. Resolve to stand up against a wrong when you know it would be easier to allow it to occur. Resolve to defend someone who deserves defending even if it will make you uncomfortable or unpopular. By practicing courage, you will become courageous.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Solution to Red Light Cameras: Don't Run It!

When I first learned of our city’s implementation of red-light cameras, I was vehemently opposed. Not because I saw them as a revenue generator, as has been the main accusation against them, but rather, I saw them as taking away discretion from police officers. For example, if an officer pulls you over for a traffic light violation, he or she might find it more advantageous to issue a warning rather than a citation. I know in my patrol career, I weighed many factors before deciding which course of action would ultimately change a driver’s behavior — which is the ultimate goal of law enforcement at its very core.

After the cameras were installed, I asked our Traffic Division supervisor, Sgt. Scott Mantzke, to educate me on the cameras and the ticketing process. Operating under full disclosure, I offered my trepidation. Sgt. Mantzke proceeded to show me how he and his staff watch each video and view still photos of each violation to determine if a ticket should be issued. He explained that questionable infractions are not ticketed, thereby blowing my discretion complaint out of the water. I then accompanied him to several citizen meetings where he gave a presentation on the cameras.

I learned quickly about the many concerns to quell. For example, some felt as though rear-end collisions would go up as a result of stopping quickly at a red-light camera intersection. They haven’t. A comparative analysis shows that rear-end collisions have not increased. Another complaint was that the yellow lights do not allow for adequate stopping time. They do. Each stoplight is set to show yellow for a minimum of four seconds in a 30-mph zone. If you are traveling the speed limit, physics proves that you will be able to stop in 2.4 seconds. If you are speeding, it takes longer. It was interesting how each presentation to the community started out with the audience thrusting their hands up in the air to voice their concern. The hands slowly went down as each myth was dispelled.

One gentleman identified himself as an attorney and offered to the audience that he received a red-light violation in the mail and could recall the precise moment he traveled through the intersection. He was adamant that he cleared the yellow light and planned to fight the ticket. Because a ticketed driver can go to a website where they are able to view their violation, he did so confidently. The scenario that played out in his mind’s eye was very different than the footage that showed him blatantly running the red light. He hung his head and paid the ticket.

I found the same reaction from those who chose to fight their ticket in front of a hearing officer. I sat in during one of the sessions and watched as each driver pleaded not guilty only to be shown the video. Upon watching one video where a female obviously drove through a red light, the hearing officer looked puzzled as to why she was pleading not guilty and asked if she had any explanation. The female lowered her mouth into the microphone and stated, “I was going to buy beer” and then quickly fled the courtroom. The audience roared with laughter. Her comedic performance was a hit but she was still cited.

Part of the problem is that we have been conditioned to speed up when the light turns yellow. This means that we have to re-program the way we drive. Red-light cameras don’t eliminate crashes as evidenced by the terrible accidents we have captured on video due to someone running a red light. They do, however, reduce the risk. Some might still believe it’s a revenue generator. To those people I simply state, don’t run the red light.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Stereotypes does cops disservice

I haven’t had my coffee yet so please bear with me as I spew forth some of my pet peeves through my lens as a police officer.

As in many professions, I’m sure there are things that get under your skin as it pertains to your work at hand. For example, those who work for the United States Post Office likely have abhorrent feelings when they hear the phrase, “going postal”. It’s an unfair generalization and a negative stereotype that those in the postal profession must endure.

I’m sensitive to these generalizations because I have had to sometimes smile politely after telling others what I do for a living. When I inform them I’m a police officer, I’m often met with, “YOU, are a police officer? You’re so small!!” My canned response is generic laughter with the playful comeback, “I may be small but I can maim you in 17 different ways.” Surely I jest but it is quite frustrating to be judged on physical stature. Now that I spend more time in an office, I tell people not to worry because I leave the real policing to the muscular police officers on the street. (The only thing I have wrestled with since entering a management position is a stubborn staple and a staple remover. I always win though.)

While I’m venting, I speak on behalf of all police officers when I say that parents should stop telling their young children that the police will arrest them if they don’t behave. I have been enjoying a meal while on duty when parents at the next table point to me and say, “You see that police officer, Johnny? She’s going to arrest you if you don’t clean your plate!” This is just one of the many examples I’ve heard over the years. (My favorite was a father who told his son that I had handcuffs and would use them on him if he didn’t stop wetting his bed at night.)

I realize that this may seem like a harmless threat imposed upon children with the intent to get them to fall in line. In reality, it only serves to make children afraid of the police. We work very hard to teach children to trust police officers so if they find themselves in danger, they will seek us out. The conditioning that occurs by well-meaning parents is counter-productive and actually does us and your child a disservice. If children fear we will put them in jail for not cleaning behind their ears, they won’t come to us when they are in trouble. If you are a parent that has done this at some time, don’t worry. Just make it a point to set the record straight. It’s your job to get your kids to eat the green stuff and brush and floss - not ours.

My coffee is still brewing so I will continue my rant…

If you ever have the unfortunate experience of getting pulled over for a traffic violation, please don’t ask the officer if they have better things to do. Furthermore, please do not utter, “Why don’t you go after the real criminals?” If you ask any police officer, you will most likely hear that the least favorite part of their job is writing tickets. Unfortunately, we have to uphold all of the laws - not just the felonious ones. This means that if you are caught speeding or running a red light, we must use enforcement. I realize that committing a traffic violation does not make you a dangerous criminal. However, traffic laws are enforced to prevent serious injury or death from car accidents. Although it may seem like we are targeting law abiding citizens, I assure you that we do it with your safety in our minds and try to convince you to correct your behavior.

My coffee is done brewing and I am done spewing.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Dark Side of Facebook

I am the meanest mom on the planet. If you don’t believe me, ask my 12 year old daughter. She recently advised me that she is the only person at her middle school that doesn’t have a Facebook page. I found this difficult to believe and set out with a series of interrogating questions to prove that there is at least one other middle school student that doesn’t have a Facebook page, thereby negating her argument that she stands alone. Judging by her face, I clearly missed the point of her message.

I explained to her that the Facebook terms and conditions clearly state that you must be 13 years of age to have an account. I do not judge other parents who allow their children under the appropriate age to partake, but the argument that “everyone else’s parents lets them...” falls deafly upon my ears because I have never altered my principles based on what others are doing (or not doing).

Truth be told, I don’t even believe that 13 is an appropriate age to have a Facebook page. I am keeping an open mind about allowing her to access the site when she turns 13 in ten months but that will depend greatly upon her maturity and will also come with stipulations. Since social networking has exploded into our daily lives, the world has become more flattened. We can talk to people from different countries via video conferencing and digital communication. We are removing barriers with other parts of the world by meeting in one place to discuss ideas and share our blogs. There is much to be said about all the positive aspects of connectivity but there is a dark side that cannot be ignored or discounted.

A venue for sharing pictures and status updates can quickly become a cesspool for cyber-bullying and harassment. Bullying has been an epidemic since schools have been existence and those who suffer at the hands of harassers now have to contend with a digital venue. Before the digital age, bullying and harassment were confined to the school yards. As if that were not enough, it is now even easier to torment a victim through social networks because the bully (who is often a coward beneath the exterior) can hide behind a computer screen to impart even more damage through sheer volume.

Tormenters are becoming cleverer in the way they victimize their prey. It is not uncommon for kids to “post” altered pictures of a person, create a fake page of their victim on Facebook, or threaten violence. These messages and postings are read by everyone in the network and if you have had occasion to check out the Facebook page of a high-schooler near you, there is no shortage of connections.

I’ve heard some people pass it off with the “kids will be kids” mantra. I reject this vehemently because we are seeing a number of teen suicides that can be linked to cyber-bullying. Nine teens were charged in connection with the death of a 15-year-old Massachusetts girl who committed suicide after weeks of bullying on Facebook and at her high school. The bullying included disagreements over teen romances at school and it continued with taunting text messages and harassing postings on Facebook.

The police are discovering a new realm of methodology in the commission of crimes and appropriate laws are being enacted to make electronic harassment illegal. But that doesn’t change the fact that parents need to police their kids’ Facebook pages and text messages and look for anything unsettling. If my daughter gets a Facebook account, she can be assured that my terms and conditions are that I have access to her site and privacy is not an option. As parents, we can be far too trusting when it comes to our child’s cell phones and in-boxes.

As for being labeled the meanest mom in the world, I’m okay with that.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Don't Over-Share!

*Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News

The number of Facebook users has exceeded the United States population. The online social network is fast becoming the most powerful social interaction tool in the world. It closes the gap between friends and family from across the miles and allows us to get to know our neighbors a little better.

Some argue that Facebook allows people to hide behind their computers rather than have real, social interaction with others. I disagree. I see it as another communication tool that enhances the relationships we form with our friends and acquaintances. In our busy lives, we don’t get to connect with those we care about as often as we would like so Facebook is a nice way to stay in touch. We share our thoughts in the form of a status update, we link videos and articles that resonate with us, and we post our vacation pictures in real time.

Although posting vacation pictures is a great way for others to share in our travel experience, believe it or not, it also puts us at risk for thugs breaking into our homes and robbing us blind. (You had to know I was going to take it down this road!) It is so tempting to share our hardships while in the security line at the airport and then post the picture of the long awaited umbrella drink as soon as we’ve landed at our destination. I am guilty of this myself. In fact, I fell into a false sense of security because I assumed that since my profile is set to “private”, unauthorized people will not see my content. However, after sitting down with a computer guru for a few minutes I quickly learned that my assumption was incorrect. Hacking Facebook is a cottage industry and does not pose much of a challenge for a tech savvy individual with dishonorable intent.

Websites are now popping up that prey on unsuspecting Facebook and Twitter users. A website created by a Danish web developer uses what people post on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to reveal the location of empty homes. (The site shall remain nameless because I refuse to give the developers a free plug.) The site works by sifting through status updates to pinpoint users who are advertising their vacation destinations. Once they’ve hacked into a page, it’s not difficult to pinpoint a location by searching a name in one of the many Internet search engines. You would be astounded how easy it is to determine where a person lives from the white pages on-line or from real estate transactions that are easily searchable with merely a name.

Facebook is making it even easier to share locations with your connections with the introduction of a new feature called “places”. If you are using Facebook on a smart phone, the internal GPS sniffs the air for local Wi-Fi networks and compares them to a map of known network locations. If you are at the movies, your phone will quickly figure out which cinema you are in. While it won’t identify that you are in Theater 5 watching a Steven Seagal film, it is easy to surmise that you will be gone from your home for roughly two hours. Armed with that knowledge, I could conceivably break into your home in that time frame and steal your belongings before you’ve had the chance to wipe the popcorn butter from your chin.

People use these technologies to connect with friends and find things that may be of interest to them. The risk comes when too much information is put out there. Be conscious of over-sharing, the potential risk that might result, and the unintended consequences.

We all want to see the pictures from your family reunion in Tulsa, but it might be smarter to share after you get home.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Play Like You Practice

Before Jim Carrey catapulted to fame on the big screen he was a cast member on the sitcom, “In Living Color”. He portrayed a character named Fire Marshal Bill whose scarred face and safety advisories included demonstrating (usually on himself) the very disaster he was warning against. The slapstick comedy was a hilarious parody of Fire Marshals everywhere which is why I began looking for similarities when I met real life Fire Inspector Marty Wolding.

I’ve been attending school safety inspections throughout Aurora as a police representative and I wondered if anyone else at the meetings was attempting to parallel Fire Marshal Bill with Fire Inspector Marty. Fortunately for the well being of every school-aged child in the City of Aurora, Marty bears no similarities to Jim Carrey’s character. (My thoughts otherwise were only short-lived senses of private amusement in my own head which is not uncommon for me).

In fact, Fire Inspector Marty takes his job very seriously. This is evidenced by the posse of school officials that follow him around school campuses scribbling feverishly as he barks out the not-so-obvious hazards along the way. I don’t think like a firefighter so he has my undivided attention when he points out the seemingly harmless dangers in the school environment. During our visit to a west side elementary school, Inspector Marty advised the principal that the artwork on the walls was nearing the 50% accumulation rule and no more could be affixed. He explained that if the artwork were to ignite, the paper would accelerate the flames and sternly advised that flames travel faster than people. At one point, Marty actually began removing chains made of construction paper because they were dangling in a hallway corridor. What I see as children’s’ art, he sees as a fire hazard and makes no apologies for removing anything that would compromise the safety and well being of a child.

I attend these meetings with several other police officers so we can offer a perspective on the procedures to take should a dangerous incident occur on school grounds. Police officers and fire fighters are first responders but the situation dictates who will take the lead. When responding to a fire, the police assist the firefighters to make their jobs easier. Conversely, if an incident is criminal in nature, the fire department will stage on the scene and follow our lead. Since we work in tandem, it is crucial that these inspections are attended by representatives from each of our respective professions.

You may not often think of the planning and preparation that goes into critical incident training. You may not even know that your child had a fire or lockdown drill since school went back in session. Most people don’t concern themselves with preparedness because they honestly believe that tragedies only happen to other people. That very mind-set could be the difference between life and death and so it is imperative that you talk with your kids about the importance of these drills.

People like Fire Inspector Marty, along with scores of dedicated Aurora firefighters and police officers, work very hard behind the scenes to make sure tragedies are prevented. We work even harder to prepare ourselves and our schools should a serious incident occur. We also encourage school officials to impress upon their staffs the seriousness of the drills. First responders have learned that you play like you practice so it is crucial that school administration lead the charge in getting as close to perfect as possible.

I was very pleased to hear from my daughter that they had a drill at her school and had to run through it again because they weren’t quiet enough. In a real disaster, that school will be prepared thanks to a dedicated staff who understand the importance of training. In the police and fire professions we believe the more you sweat in training the less you will bleed in battle.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Two questions that can change your life from Daniel Pink on Vimeo.

A Little Empathy Goes a Long Way

My best friend’s father has owned a business in a surrounding city for nearly 30 years. Like many small businesses in this economic climate, he has been forced with the difficult task of closing his doors. With this comes the harsh reality of displacing his employees – one of whom has worked for him for 15 years. Unfortunately, this employee did not take the news very well and his anger at the situation manifested in the form of threats of violence against my friend’s father.

He called and told me that he has had to fire many employees over the life of his business but none left him with such an unsettling feeling as did this employee. For the first time, he felt as though a person was capable of harming him.

Workplace violence is a very real phenomenon as evidenced by the recent shooting of 8 people by a disgruntled employee in Connecticut. For this reason, I advised my friend’s father to call his local police department to report the incident.

But this column is not about workplace shootings. It’s about police service and how one interaction with an officer can formulate a reputation about that police department – and all police officers.

When the officer responded, my friend’s father explained the words and actions that lead him to believe that his employee may be capable of coming back to harm him. The police officer’s response was this: “You may as well hire a body guard because the police can’t protect you 24/7.”

Because I think like a cop, I will admit to you that the very same thought has crossed my mind in some situations. In fact, when people are victims of property crimes and ask for a full forensic work up, I have to fight the urge to make a sarcastic statement about watching too much C.S.I.

But then I remind myself that no matter how many similar reports I have taken, there are human beings that were victimized and the crimes against them are significant and singular to them. Now, I know for sure that my friend’s father was under no illusion that the police were going to provide him with a 24-hour bodyguard. He wanted the incident documented in the event that the employee returned. Furthermore, he needed some direction from a person who was equipped to give him some advice about keeping himself safe. What he didn’t need was a cop who seemed bothered by the fact he had to show up.

I realize that poor attitudes are not exclusive to the police profession. I have had many encounters in my role as a customer or client when I wondered how the person assisting me had come to loathe his job so much. I suppose it has less to do with the job and more to do with his or her overall attitude about life in general but that is a column for someone in the field of psychology.

Most people are reasonable and understand that a police officer cannot solve all of their problems. What citizens come to expect, however, is an attitude of service when they encounter a police officer. Service comes in many different forms but the most effective thing a police officer can do is provide people with a sense of empathy for their plight. It wouldn’t have taken much for that officer to tell my friend’s father that his fears were understandable and provide him with some tangible resources and reassurance that the police where there to assist him.

The most successful police officers I know have achieved levels of success by treating people with dignity and respect – whether it is a citizen to whom they are providing a service or a person who breaks the law. An important lesson for police officers is that people will forget what you said, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Going Above and Beyond

I know that Aurora Police officers provide excellent service to the citizens of Aurora on a daily basis. If you are rolling your eyes, perhaps you were the unfortunate recipient of a traffic citation or other incident of misfortune. Even so, I believe the majority of the police officers you encounter are polite and professional even when enforcing the law. Like your own profession, there are only a small percentage of police officers that skew the perspective with a bad attitude.

Despite the overwhelming majority of good police officers, unfortunately it is the negative encounters we remember much the same way we tell more people about bad customer service we have received in a restaurant or a store than we do about good service. Being treated badly evokes such emotion that we go out of our way to warn anyone who will listen about a negative experience. As customers, we expect good service and when it is delivered we simply go about our lives without giving it much thought. If you are like me, you will make a mental note to express thanks for good service but then never follow through. My head is filled with good intentions but thought that does not follow action may as well not have been a thought at all.

When someone does take the time out of their busy day to compose a note or an e-mail for good service they have received from the Aurora Police Department, I am always extremely grateful. Deb Czajka, a kindergarten teacher and mother of two, probably doesn’t have a lot of free time in her schedule. And yet, she found the time to write a letter about an encounter she had with Aurora Police Officer James Zegar.

On a recent afternoon, Deb noticed the air in one of her mother’s car tires was very low so she followed her to a nearby gas station to inflate the tire. Deb was having difficulty with the air pump when she spotted a squad car parked nearby. She rapped on the window and asked Officer Zegar to assist her. According to Deb, he willingly assisted, inflating the tire while educating her about the equipment.

Officer Zegar noticed that Deb’s children were craning their necks from inside the car and asked if they would like to come talk to him. She told him her six year old would love to meet him but her three year old was afraid of police officers for reasons unbeknownst and may have some reservations. She described Officer Zegar as being genuinely concerned that her youngest son was fearful so he set out to change that impression. He allowed both boys to “help” him inflate the tire and then allowed them inside his squad car where they got to turn on the overhead lights. She offered this:

“A casual observer might wonder why a police officer would help to fill a tire or take the time to play with kids while on-duty. I would tell that person that Officer Zegar was building community relations with my mother and me. He was also educating my children. Through his kindness and actions Officer Zegar set a wonderful example for my six year old and reaffirmed his idea that police officers are “really cool” and helpful people..”

In Deb’s letter, she said that Officer James Zegar made a difference in her life through his willingness to assist her outside of an emergency. Think about the magnitude of that statement. The single most compelling thing a person can do is to make a difference in the life of another. Police officers have the opportunity to do that every day by going above and beyond what is expected of them.

Come to think of it, we all do.

Friday, May 21, 2010

When You Think No One is Looking...

I received the following e-mail from Aurora resident Rick Hernandez in response to my recent column about honor in policing:

I live around the corner from the new police station and a couple of months ago I noticed a little boy outside shooting baskets. He kept shooting and shooting and missing and missing. I could see from my vantage point that he was too close and shooting to the front of the rim. I've coached a little grade school basketball (at St. Joe's in Aurora), so I decided to give him a couple of pointers. I found out that his name was Christopher and that he was smart enough to tell his Grandma that I was there. I showed him how to use the backboard when shooting in-close and told him about fundamentals. He talked a mile a minute and we spent about 30 minutes outside shooting baskets.

A couple of weeks later, as I turned onto Trask from Indian Trail, I noticed a Paddy Wagon on our street. I thought "Oh great, they've set up radar on our street." As I continued past Christopher’s house, I saw a young Police Officer out in the driveway standing next to Christopher. I continued down the street and put my car in the garage. When I got out to unload my things I looked down Christopher's way and saw that the young Officer was actually shooting baskets with Christopher. I was overwhelmed! After some deliberation, I decided to go down the street and tell the young officer that he had "made my day." He said that his name was Officer Petchke (I'm not sure of the name or spelling), but I was impressed. He said that he had seen me out shooting with Christopher before. I'm not sure if he had stopped to check on me or if he was just spreading good-will with an impressionable grade-schooler but either way he was doing the right thing and the honorable thing.

It was exciting for me to see a young Officer take time out of his day to spend on an impressionable child. Young Christopher had his first one-on-one encounter with a Policeman be a positive one and that is something that I will carry with ME for a very long time. If you see young Officer Petchke, please tell him that I haven't forgotten him.

I was so moved that Mr. Hernandez had taken the time to write me and I responded in kind. Furthermore, I went to roll call where I knew Officer Petchke would be beginning his shift and read the letter to him with all of the officers present. I took the opportunity to remind the group that while a great portion of policing is upholding laws and maintaining order, there is a component that is equally important - - building relationships with the community.

Over the years, policing has evolved from traditional (reactive) policing into a community-oriented (proactive) approach. This simply means that we have finally realized that the citizens and police can only be successful in combating problems in the community by working together. This paradigm shift has altered the negative perceptions and the adversarial relationship between the police and the citizens they serve.

I don’t believe Officer Nathan Petchke fully realizes the impact of his actions on that day. A citizen of Aurora “caught” a police officer doing something extraordinary. On the surface, it was a cop shooting some hoops with a child. But on a deeper level, it was a police officer giving a child his attention and teaching by example the art of human connection.

Someone’s true character is revealed by what they do when they don’t think anyone is watching. Someone was watching and the full implication of Officer Petschke’s actions may never be known but suffice it to say, that child might now have a favorable impression of police officers that he may not have had before that day.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Perception is Reality? Really.

Our own perception is based on the way we see the world. Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Nin’s statement is especially true when it comes to leadership styles and managing others.

Policing is notoriously based on hierarchy and militaristic structures. The autocratic leader is ordinarily the style that is equated to police chiefs and command level officers. Autocratic leadership has been described as a dictatorship. In this situation, the leader's word is "law." The typical autocratic leader does not involve others in the decision making process. And this type of leader might resort to manipulation or even threats to accomplish their goals. I’ve worked for several supervisors that ruled with an iron fist and the only thing they accomplished was short-term compliance. I’ve learned through the years that you can buy a person’s back but you cannot buy their hearts. Under this leadership style, officers don’t feel valued and they won’t give any more than they are required.

On the other end of the spectrum are the laissez-faire leaders. This leadership style is also known as the “hands-off¨ style. It is one in which the manager provides little or no direction and gives employees as much freedom as possible. All authority or power is given to the employees and they must determine goals, make decisions, and resolve problems on their own. I’ve always associated this style with leaders who are lazy and ineffective. Perhaps there are highly technical vocations where skills sets of employees allow for such autonomy but policing is not one of them.

Somewhere in between the two extremes lies the democratic leader. The democratic leadership style is also called the participative style as it encourages employees to be a part of the decision making. The democratic manager keeps his or her employees informed about everything that affects their work and shares decision making and problem solving responsibilities. This style requires the leader to be a coach who has the final say, but gathers information from staff members before making a decision.

Democratic leadership can produce high quality and high quantity work for long periods of time. Many employees like the trust they receive and respond with cooperation, team spirit, and high morale.

In my experience, I’ve found that extremists on any subject matter are often incapable of seeing an opposing viewpoint. However, in policing, it is difficult (and perhaps unpopular) to find yourself labeled as a democratic leader. The very term gives the perception of weakness and lack of discipline. If orders aren’t being barked at subordinates and general orders aren’t being recited along with the throwing down of the proverbial hammer, then the leader is somehow ineffective.

Those critics couldn’t be more wrong. I’ve long struggled with the molds we create in policing. Leaders often create other leaders in their own image and the “like think” produces more clones that lose their individuality and personality attempting to fit in. When I was promoted to sergeant, my lieutenant told me that I was too “kind” to the officers. My daily roll call was a dialogue and not the monologue to which he was accustomed. He operated in the autocratic style and felt I should as well. And so I tried. For a solid week, I morphed my personality and tried on my dictator persona only to find it wasn’t a very good fit. I marched into his office and told him that my way was different but it was equally effective.

In my present position as Watch Commander of the midnight shift, I am often told about the perceptions that other command level officers have of my leadership style and their assumptions about how it manifests on my shift. Interestingly enough, giving discipline has never been a weakness for me. In fact, I find that if it is administered fairly and consistently, most officers accept it. I use it as an opportunity for coaching and redirection and find that officers respond very well to correction when offered respectfully. The key is to discipline without judgment and understand that the actions are being called into question and not the person. Then we move on to the work that needs to be done.

The most effective leaders are those who know precisely which leadership style to apply given the circumstances. In emergency situations, the autocratic style is the most appropriate. In most other situations, it is the least effective.

And so I reject the phrase, “Perception is reality”. In fact, most of the time our perception of things is just our own skewed lenses. Because something appears to be one way does not necessarily mean that it is. Never mistake kindness for weakness.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Colorblind Leadership Starts Within Ourselves

Published in the Sun-Times on January 24, 2010

Over the past few weeks, there have been an influx of racial-related headlines in the news.

Our former governor declared in an interview that he is "blacker than President Obama." In a frenzy of creative back peddling, Rod Blagojevich's attorney offered that Rod merely meant to convey that he identifies with African-Americans. I'm still unsure what Blago's comment actually meant. It's such an interesting statement that I would really like to get inside Rod's unbelievably hair-styled head to understand the idiocies that live in there.

This mea culpa came several days after it was reported that Senate President Harry Reid referred to President Obama in 2008 as a "light-skinned" African-American "with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one."

These remarks seem more likely to have come from stereotypical bigots who are stuck in the 1950s rather than from modern-day elected officials and lawmakers that hold (or have held) positions of power and speak on behalf of entire states. Aside from the obvious fact that these "gaffs" made national headlines followed by vehement apologies from both men isn't what troubles me. These gentlemen aren't sorry about what they said. Rather, they are sorry that someone recorded them saying it.

Much like our politicians and lawmakers, it is just as important that police officers are colorblind. We see the world through lenses made up of our own experiences and values. If those values are askew, our line of sight will be, too, and it will affect the decisions we make. Police are given the power and authority to take away freedoms as a means of protecting society from harm. When exercising that power, they had better do it without bigotry or biases of any form. Best-selling author Dr. Stephen Covey said "service, justice and fundamental fairness are the foundational principles for which every police action must be grounded." This epitomizes the demand for impartiality even when triggered by our own personal experiences.

From time to time, a citizen may feel as though he or she was targeted by the police because of race. These complaints are few, but they are taken very seriously by the Aurora Police Department and investigated thoroughly.

Each officer and civilian employed by APD has been through diversity training as a means of educating and preventing prejudice. But no formal training can ever take the place of the mirror we hold up to ourselves. Each of us (police and citizens alike) should look within and constantly challenge our own belief system. Sometimes we find that our systems are not centered in rational thought. Rather, we may realize that our beliefs originated from those who imposed their own views upon us.

Our children don't seem to have a problem with diversity. Generation "Y" has grown up with social networking and instant messaging that bridges the communication gap and flattens their world so people don't seem so far away. While I grew up writing and mailing letters to a pen pal, my children are e-mailing and video-chatting with kids who live across the divide. They don't seem affected by different skin colors or different cultures. We could learn so much from their progression.

If we don't constantly re-evaluate, we will go on seeing the world through distorted eyes.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Our New Police Headquarters

In the sergeant’s office of the current police department, there is a mysterious powder falling from the ceiling. It has become common to walk into the office with a cup of coffee and instinctively place a piece of paper over the cup as we set it down at a desk so the unexplained substance doesn’t find its way into our java.

The drinking fountain just outside the roll call room has duct tape affixed to it--- not because it needs to be held together--- but it serves as a reminder not to drink from it. It seems the water that flows from the fountain also contains chemicals it shouldn’t.

The dispatch center is synonymous to a dark, dank cavern--- only it has exposed wires throughout. I’m no technological guru but even a layman like myself understands that wires hanging from the ceiling are not ideal.

I share a computer with another lieutenant in an office that was once a closet--- literally. Ordinarily this would not be a big deal but it gets interesting at the end of the shift when I have to literally pick up my desktop computer and move it over to his desk. The wires are usually entangled and I have to maneuver the mouse and the keyboard over while keeping the unit in tact.

Several times a month, both the men’s and women’s locker rooms have sewer back up problems that result in unpleasant aromas filling the hallway. These backups really come as no surprise considering the sewer system supporting the current facility was installed during the same timeframe as the building itself--- 1966. Back then, Aurora’s police force consisted of around 85 officers and 15 civilian employees. Today, we have over 300 officers and 100 civilians.

Since my office is in the basement, I can only speak of the challenges I face every shift. However, I’m sure the 2nd and 3rd floor occupants can contribute even more workplace hardships.

There is no argument that we have needed a new police station for many years. I have yet to hear people say that we should maintain our current building--- especially after they have set foot into it. However, I have fielded some politely inquisitive and carefully worded questions about the new headquarters. Frequently, these are to the tune of, “Do you guys really need something so massive?” (Judging from my experience in the basement alone, I’m probably the wrong person to ask because I want to sing a litany of “Yessssses!” whenever I am asked.)

To be honest, I look at these questions as an opportunity to educate whoever is asking. I am a citizen of Aurora. I pay taxes here and I send my children to the public schools here. Because I wear two hats, I understand the citizens who wonder if too much money was spent on our new headquarters especially in light of the current economic climate. (The new building began taking shape years ago and well before the economic downturn.) As taxpayers, it certainly is appropriate to ask the difficult questions to keep our city government accountable.

Speaking as a citizen, I also know that public safety is crucial to a successful city. I want our firefighters and police officers outfitted with state of the art tools to do their jobs.

As an Aurora police officer, I can tell you that our new police facility will change the way we do business. For you, it means if you are ever the unfortunate victim of a crime, we will have resources and equipment that we have never before had. And yes, it is housed in a beautiful, energy-efficient building that as police officers, we will be proud to call our own. It is a building that we will grow into as our force expands to meet the needs of an abundant city for years to come.

This police department is yours as much as it is ours.

Don't Bring a Gun to a Snowball Fight

In Washington D.C., hundreds of people gathered on a major street for a snowball fight. You heard me right. The snowball fight was organized through the popular social-networking site, Twitter, and citizens of D.C. showed up armed with earmuffs and long underwear with the intent of launching dollops of packed snow at each other all in good fun. Fun is a relative word and one person’s idea of entertainment is not the same as another’s. Suffice it to say, the adult attendance for this impromptu event was abundant giving credence to the idea that snowballs make us regress to our 10 year old self.

Because we are in the information technology age, naturally the event was captured on and posted to the web almost immediately. In the video, snowballs of white filled the sky and one snowflake mass struck a vehicle in the roadway. A man, obviously angry that a snowball struck his Hummer, exited the vehicle and brandished a gun. The police were summoned and in the video of the event, sirens are heard in the distance obviously responding to the scene.

Unbeknownst to the snowball enthusiasts, the man in the Hummer is a police officer. He is an off-duty detective and the victim of the snowball shenanigans. From the video, it isn’t clear whether the detective points the gun at anyone but it is easily seen in his left hand as he stands outside of his vehicle yelling at the trouble-makers.

As a police officer, you would probably assume that I would be able to clearly see the perspective of that detective in this situation. After all, there are some scenarios for which police action is necessary for officer safety. These reasons may be unclear to the common citizen until explained.

This is not one of those scenarios. In fact, I’ve got nothing. I’ve watched the videos depicting the incident several times and it is unclear to me why the officer felt it necessary to even exit his vehicle and pull his duty weapon in response to a snowball striking his vehicle. If I owned a Hummer and were safely nestled inside the armored mass of metal, I can only imagine that my reaction would be that of amusement as a snowball launcher tried to infiltrate.

The video reveals the crowd’s disbelief as they learn the man with the gun is a police officer after he shifts his jacket to reveal his badge. The uniformed police officers respond to the scene with their weapons drawn believing that there is an armed man threatening the crowd. Well, technically there is an armed man threatening the crowd but the patrol officers have no idea it is one of their own.

It was interesting to watch the scene unfold on as a completely objective bystander. Naturally, I do understand the potential for problems that may unfold when hundreds of people gather in one place for an unplanned event. Police presence certainly would have been warranted just to keep the peace and ensure no one got out of hand. Perhaps we would have issued an order to disperse if we felt that it was impeding traffic or putting anyone in harms way. Having said that, I can hardly imagine having to unholster our weapons.

Obviously, I don’t know anything about the police detective who reacted to this extreme. I wouldn’t be surprised if we learned that he is a decorated officer and a great guy who just reacted angrily after getting pelted with wet snow. If that’s the case, my hope is that he can admit to such.

One thing is clear: You shouldn’t bring a gun to a snowball fight.