Words have profund meaning both positive and negative. So when I read that nine members of the Minneapolis City Council on Sunday announced they intend to defund and dismantle the city’s police department I was both puzzled and disturbed.
I spent most of my career in the business of marketing and branding so I know how easy it is to oversimplify both a public relations problem as well as a substantive problem with the core values of an organization. I don’t want to fall into the trap of oversimplifying the real issues that the city of Minneapolis needs to deal with with respect to its police department. There is no doubt that the Minneapolis Police Department, like so many others, needs significant evaluation and assessment by an independent and objective entity. Such an analysis will no doubt reveal many systems, policies and practice changes that will need to be instituted. And the most challenging of all of these will be a change of organizational culture which for any business or institution is often the most difficult of all the challenges to deal with.
I can’t help but think that the multitude of problems with the American law enforcement sector should at least include the way in which they identify themselves as systems and personnel. The word POLICE is often defined as “the civil force of a national or local government, responsible for the prevention and detection of crime and the maintenance of public order”. When used as a verb, POLICE means “maintaining law and order”. Maybe the law enforcement field needs to abandon the use of the word POLICE and begin thinking about themselves as being in the PUBLIC SAFETY business.
While POLICE certainly encompasses the notion of PUBLIC SAFETY too often and for too many it carries with it the idea that it is a group of armed, frequently macho, night club wielding forces rather than a collection of public servants who walk and drive America’s streets to do what their vehicles often say: “to serve and protect”. If more people believed that the POLICE were there to help them in the same way that FIREFIGHTERS and other first responders do then maybe the image of POLICE would turn from being a menacing and threatening band of civil militia to a group of women and men who are committed to helping maintain public safety… “to serve and protect”.
Perhaps our law enforcement organizations would do well to have more nerds and less knuckles. Officers who are as capable of using their brains as their brawn. It’s a choice and police need to choose wisely.
Community policing, as important a concept as it is, is not new. It is what policing was about when cops walked the neighborhood beat. Admittedly that became more difficult to do as urban communities gave way to suburban development in the post WWII period. But when cops lose touch with those they are supposed to serve the idea of community policing, the process of identifying community problems by police officers in co-operation with the community, is a slogan rather than a core mission value.
Maybe in part it is at least a little bit about branding. And if the POLICE brand is tarnished then maybe it is time to re-brand. So don’t defund police departments and certainly don’t dismantle them. Instead, reallocate the budgets of law enforcement organizations so that sworn officers and associated civilian staff can focus more on improving the safety of their communities and dealing with the systemic root causes of crime and civil unrest. And by all means, don’t expect that even the best run departments in the country can effectively do their jobs well unless and until the there is an equal commitment to bring about change in the judicial system, the way in which we incarcerate people, and the social safety net systems that have been torn to shreds allowing fragile and vulnerable people to fall through.
There is much to be grateful for in the American law enforcement system but it can’t be fixed by adding more testosterone and muscle. Law enforcement leaders need to think about ways in which they can be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Every American wants to live in a safe environment so let’s stop thinking about the inherent threats that police too often represent and start thinking more about the way officers devoted to public safety can be welcomed to their communities when they are seen as helping not hurting those they serve.