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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 youtube.com 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 youtube.com 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.