I recently had the privilege of speaking at a regional meeting of state motorcycle riders associations. A few minutes into my presentation an audience member stood up and forcefully objected to what he thought were my unfair and ill-informed comments about the nature of traffic enforcement.
I asked the man if we could discuss his concerns after I had finished. He ignored my plea and continued to heckle me as I tried to continue with my presentation.
It became clear that he had a background in law enforcement and thought I was being biased as I described some examples of egregious police behavior toward motorists. I suspect he was sensitive to such critiques given the widespread anti-police backlash in the aftermath of recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, South Carolina and New York City. My critic asked why I didn’t focus on all of the good things police do for their communities.
It’s a fair question—one I have been pondering since. In my line of work, I’m confronted daily with accounts of police actions that range from mildly objectionable to downright criminal. Maybe I need to balance that perspective by seeking out instances that show the positive side of policing, I thought.
I then heard a National Public Radio story that seemed emblematic of the inner conflict I felt in the wake of my own encounter with an angry police officer. The story discussed ways to prevent violence between police and citizens by changing the way police officers are trained. The director of the Washington state police academy, Sue Rahr, made the following statement:
We changed the training environment itself. We removed a lot of the symbols and the tools of the trade that were on the walls with murals of the Constitution. And we spent a great deal of time talking about the Constitution and what it means to a police officer. I tell my recruits in the first week there at the academy, my entire career, my training on the Constitution, consisted of how to work around it so that I could make an arrest and prove a case. It never occurred to me when I was working the street that I was there to support the Constitution.
What a startling admission, I thought. The top police trainer in Washington just admitted that she had been trained to circumvent the Constitution. She also said that to change the behavior of the officer on the street, you must first change the internal culture of the police agency. Department leaders must model the positive behavior they wish to encourage. Some police agencies clearly understand this.
In Madison, Wisconsin, where I live, a police officer shot and killed a young, unarmed African-American man in March. The officer was cleared of any wrongdoing just last week. And while the case received national attention, protests have been peaceful, and police have not engaged in any heavy-handed tactics. Why such a vastly different outcome from the violence and unrest in other cities after similar events?
First, protest organizers committed themselves to peaceful demonstrations. Second, Madison police officers have shown restraint, thanks to their training and the culture in which they work. Madison Police Chief Mike Koval set the example when he met with the victim’s family the night of the shooting to express his condolences. From a personal perspective, I can also say that my few interactions with area police officers have all been non-confrontational and generally positive. They do a good job.
So, if I ever have a chance to sit down and speak calmly with the man who got me thinking about all of this, here’s what I would say:
Not all police officers abuse motorists on the side of the road, but even one questionable vehicle search is one too many, and it tarnishes the entire profession. I would also mention that at some point Sue Rahr realized she was supposed to uphold the Constitution, not tear it down. Her enlightenment, along with my own observations of the Madison approach, give me hope for the future of police/community relations.
But we still have a long ways to go.