Police Culture in America Has Lost Its Way

A police officer of two decades opens up about the protests in Ferguson and New York City and implicit bias in policing.

By Lieutenant Richard Goerling
Originally published in Mindful.org.

In the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, communities surge with the pain of human loss, and the rage and suffering of people clashing against their government—in this case protesting actions of members of their police force, the men and women sworn to protect democracy, facilitate peace, and protect others when violence is imminent.

For these communities, and others, trust in police officers has been gradually eroding for decades, perhaps longer, exacerbated by a complex set of social, political, and economic forces. Today, we find ourselves in a perfect storm of these forces colliding.

Fear and anger abound, for varied, legitimate reasons, and in this kind of atmosphere, polarity increases. Yet on both sides of the badge is an American. On both sides of the badge there’s deep suffering, yet the thread of humanity is woven through all suffering. Vilifying either the person behind the badge or the person standing before the badge is not going to help us. We need to try to understand each of them and how they got to where they are today.

We need to look at the complex mix of ingredients that brought us here. If we can do that, working together, we can lead our communities and criminal justice system to a place that effects public safety and preserves justice for all. To get to this better place will require all of us to look introspectively, to mindfully listen, to challenge our own values and beliefs, and ultimately to not believe everything we think.

No Simple Answer

I have spent two decades in civilian law enforcement. Sharing my thoughts on this American crisis in public safety is not easy, nor simple. I certainly don’t hold a monopoly on truth. My perspective is solely my own, from my experience, observations, training, education, lifelong learning efforts, and a commitment to social justice and democracy. Given all of this, I still find myself perplexed, as I reach for answers, for solutions, and like everyone else for the simple explanations we’ve grown accustomed to for complex problems in the 21st Century. Who can we blame? What program can we implement to “solve” the problem?

I have concluded that no simple cause and effect can be identified in our police institution’s clash with its public. There are no easy answers, no clear villains. This may be where I depart from my colleagues who are often understandably forced into defensive postures, operationally, politically, and intellectually, and also from some of those citizens who want to go on the offensive against the police without appreciating that we have deep-seated social justices to address. The men and women who do the incredibly difficult and complex work of policing our streets usually joined this profession to do good. Slowly they become shaped by the suffering and trauma they experience in their communities and within their organizations.

If there is any simple assessment it is this: police culture in America has lost its way.

Implicit Bias

To help us find our way, we need the current dialogue to evolve into a mutually respectful, peaceful, and courageous exploration of the forces —social, political, and economic—that have led to the traumatic situations we’re seeing in communities like Ferguson and New York.

Chief among these forces is the implicit bias within police culture toward persons of color and the economically disadvantaged. Implicit bias is the dirty little secret that leads to discriminatory practices, racism, and oppression of those with less power. The legacy of slavery and poverty in our country is felt most strongly in our inner cities and marginalized neighborhoods and towns. For those of us who are privileged to find employment, health care, and life-long education—and who have limited interaction with police—the injustices that currently rally the voices might be what Matt Taibbi calls “basically invisible,” not part of daily reality. For others, there are clear and present dangers right where they live, and these create and fuel the pain that erupts in “I Can’t Breathe” social action. When their voices rise in protest, we need to listen.

We need to listen and pay attention to the all-too-frequent disparities in justice that emerge from actions of our police institutions, the courts, and the apathy of many of us who quietly turn the other way, hoping to elude harm or inconvenience.

Community

In my professional world, we frequently over-simplify the human suffering we see, through judgment and candy mantras such as “its all about choices people make.” It’s not this simple, yet we need to go every day into the streets and struggle to make our way within the world we are thrown into, with all its disparities and injustices. As confrontations emerge and the day-to-day stresses of the job pile up, it may well lead us to divisive attitudes and opinions. For our part, we must listen, find—maybe regain—our humanity, and sustain the drive for social justice that led us to this path of guardianship. We cannot do this alone. We need our communities.

Healing police-community relations will require non-judgmental exploration and dialogue. It will require us to draw on and strengthen our inherent mindfulness. As our political bureaucracy steps up to this challenge—with reinvented community policing strategies and technological solutions—more must be done to align the American Police Institution with the American Public. We need community building that involves all of our institutions. Our path to healing and reconciliation must take place at the community level, with strong courage of leadership from police organizations and community groups to step into the center of the suffering. This requires willingness to take part in uncomfortable dialogues, engage in continuous learning, and innovate collaboratively. It takes a village to build a village.