A number of years ago, I worked in a village whose police chief was a man of few words whose body language conveyed an air of dominance and intimidation.
My first direct encounter was shortly after I set up my office as a publishing freelancer. My car needed to be moved because of some road construction. He called my place of work and screamed at me, as though I should have known that emergency repairs would be made. I met him immediately at the site and thanked him for letting me know. He did not respond.
My second direct encounter with him came several years later, when I was on the board of directors of our local business association and had volunteered to edit and produce the newsletter. Because parking is a perennial issue, I walked into his office in the town hall, introduced myself, and asked him if the department had any plans to enforce the two-hour ordinance. He did maybe once a year.
I was met with a bafflingly hostile and belligerent response that accused all business owners of parking in front of their own businesses, he closed down the conversation, and he damn near chased me out of his office.
Along the way, every single time I would pass him on the street, I would make a point to say, “Hi, Chief.” Not once did he respond. He would look right through me.
Several years later, I hired a young assistant right out of high school. She came to work sobbing one day. It turns out that a senior officer of this department had pulled over a car in which she was a passenger and had proceeded to detain four recent high school graduates for almost an hour, individually interrogating, berating, and terrifying them to the point where my employee had a panic attack on the spot.
This was not the first time I had heard such rumors. When a colleague confronted the chief about this abuse, his response: “I wasn’t there, and neither were you.” Wouldn’t that response tell you all you needed to know about his willingness to condone unacceptable behavior in his subordinates?
Fast forward about 15 years. When a friend posted an exchange she had with one of this chief’s successors, my first reaction was simple: what a long way that department has come. The new chief — a new generation — wrote words disavowing racism and articulating a kindness and an empathy that sets a tone of leadership. It is abundantly clear to me that he wants to be part of the solution.
As a footnote, the former chief’s two children piled on my comment. His daughter was upset and thought me ungrateful. (Fair enough; I can’t blame her for defending her dad.) His son accused me of spewing hatred and threw in some blanket accusation of media conspiracy.
I was gracious to both of them, and I steadfastly left the thread with two responses: that I did appreciate the efforts of the two individuals I named in keeping our community safe, and that if I am wrong and misjudged them in any way, nothing would make me happier.
I still believe that.
In the end, I might, in fact, have gotten this former chief all wrong. After hearing out his children, I’m willing to make space for the idea that he was a kind and compassionate man who cared deeply about his community and put it first, at great personal expense. I’m willing to concede that he might not have actually been an asshole.
But man, he sure went out of his way to build a career out of behaving like one.
* * *
This exchange and my memories of this type of law enforcement have been eating at me for a couple of days.
As a civilian, I deserved better. That community deserved better.
As we as a nation contemplate these issues today, I can’t tell you if this former chief was racist — I sure hope he wasn’t, and that’s what I’ll assume. I’m sure the former chief’s relatives will write to me anyway to complain.
What I can tell you is that for years, as a local resident and a business owner in his jurisdiction, as a leader in the regional business community for several years so long ago, this police chief had no interest in treating me as a peer. He would not speak to me. His method of policing was to project — with practiced deliberation — an unrelenting air of snarling, judgmental intimidation.
But I have to wonder: if this is how this police chief treated me — a white professional dude of privilege who would generally wear my tie to work and who was trying hard very publicly to work on volunteer community projects — how did he treat people who were members of vulnerable communities? How did he handle situations that required deescalation? How did he get information to solve crime?
These questions are not only essential this week, they are legitimate and urgent.
Looking at past policing through a critical eye and with an eye to a better, more responsible, future is not hatred. Change in policing culture comes squarely from within. Communities have a choice, and some of them — too many of them — will need to ask themselves if they still want a police department that is made up of bullies from high school, white dudes with a military and riot gear fetish, and cultists who think that even the mildest of efforts to hold them to public account is an act of betrayal, disrespect, and hatred.
What gets me is that over the past few years, so much criticism gets deflected and excused by police officers acting professionally, in the line of duty — that things like implicit bias and racial prejudice can’t possibly come into play. Yet the minute bad police behavior is held up for public scrutiny, so many in the law enforcement community take it nothing other than personally.
As a country, we must get over the noxious vision that true strength in law enforcement comes from a culture of authority and dominance that hides behind Blue Lives Matter flags, treats any difference of opinion or politics as disrespect, and demands uncritical, unwavering, fawning appreciation no matter what any of their profession do while in uniform.
True strength in law enforcement — all over this country now — comes from discipline and public accountability, from humility and depth of character, of willingness to grow and to keep the peace through bringing communities together. (I’m not talking about letting murderers walk free or not taking public safety seriously.)
May communities hire people who have the maturity, judgment, and attitude to take the vast power they have and apply it sparingly, meaningfully, thoughtfully, respectfully, civilly, equally, compassionately. The best cops I know and admire already do that, with honor, bravery, and personal distinction. The others need to go.