Policing in America: The Accountability Crisis

Let’s talk about accountability in law enforcement and community policing. A few years back, in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, I made a point of visiting Ferguson while the protests there were going on. I wanted to connect person-to-person with some of the people in the community there. One of the gentlemen I talked to was a teacher in one of the public schools in Ferguson. At one point this man asked me whether I had children. I told him that I did. He then asked:

“How often were your kids in the situation where they could not do their math homework because it was not their night to take the math book home?”

That question startled me. Initially, I thought it might be a trick question of some kind, or even a joke. But no. This really was part of his daily experience as a teacher: Having so few books in class that the kids needed to share them back and forth. I told him that that had happened to our family exactly zero times. Our problem had been that our kids’ backpacks had been so heavy with books that my wife and I were afraid our children were going to hurt their backs. The problem he described had never even crossed my mind as a possibility. The idea of two kids having to share a single book, in an American public school classroom, blew my mind. That conversation gave me a clearer, personal sense of what his challenges were and what his community’s challenges were.

Another gentleman I spoke to while I was in Ferguson, a barber, asked me how many times I had been stopped while driving for no apparent reason by a police officer. I answered, honestly, that that had never happened to me. It had happened to this man seventeen times. He was 34 years old. Do the math. He had only been driving since he was sixteen or so. The police had stopped him for no reason almost once a year. This was something he had simply been forced to get used to. It is something millions of black Americans are asked to get used to. And it is unacceptable.

I believe that the current crisis we are dealing with in the United States — a crisis that involves the role and decisions of the police — is, at its heart, an accountability crisis. And I believe an accountability revolution will be required if we are to resolve this crisis.

I am talking not only about a transformation in the way our police operate and the way they keep the communities they serve safe…but a transformation of society as a whole. Transformation always goes through people. An organization will not be transformed until the leaders are transformed. And yes, that definitely applies to police departments. By the same token, though, I believe we as a nation will not be transformed on the issue of discrimination until enough private citizens make the conscious choice to become leaders…by walking beyond the self-constructed lines that define their world, and making an effort to create a deeper understanding of the community in which they live.

I am not trying to point fingers at anyone here or throw anyone under the bus. That is counterproductive. What I am saying is that we are all part of this: officers, community leaders, and citizens. And we are going to need to start some new conversations.

To address the problem of discrimination — not just in our police departments but everywhere else in our country — we are all going to have to become part of the solution. That means we have all got to stop making excuses for discrimination and prejudice…and we are going to have to stop making excuses designed to defend ourselves by making it seem like we aren’t involved. We have to create a vision for our community and our country that includes other people. And we must all be willing to start conversations, as equals, with the people in our community.

We all agree, I think, that the mission of the police is to protect and to serve. That is, to be sure, a great and important mission. But it begs the question: How can officers serve or protect people if the officers do not have any idea what kind of challenges those people are facing?

Accountability begins with a conversation. My conversation with the teacher about the lack of books in the classroom, and with the barber about being pulled over for no reason, created a deeper awareness in me about their lives. Nothing happens without a person to person connection. There is no commitment and no accountability if we do not interact with and know each other on a personal level. And without accountability, teams and organizations and cities start to collapse.

Our task now must be to start more conversations that will uncover for us what the challenges of the people in our larger community really are. So we can connect with them as individuals. And serve them better. Yes: That is certainly a challenge that police officers face. But I have news for you. It is a challenge that each and every one of us faces as citizens. We need to reach out to the officers who are sworn to protect our community, most of whom are doing a magnificent job, and we need to engage with them as human beings. We need to learn what their challenges are.

If we do not take the time to learn about someone else’s problems, we cannot make a difference. And it is everyone’s responsibility–yours and mine–to make a difference and to help to resolve this crisis. This is why I am now reaching out to people in law enforcement and starting a conversation about accountability. I will keep you posted on how it unfolds.

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October 2020
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