When I was 16 years old, I discovered that the police department in the town I grew up in had an explorer program. Since I was interested in a career in law enforcement at the time, I attended a meeting and quickly joined.
I was never a sworn police officer – nor have I ever done any of the difficult work in policing. However, I did spend two years volunteering in uniform at community events, riding along many times with police officers on patrol, and even graduated from a junior police academy. I once witnessed a police officer get assaulted right in front of me.
I had an up-front view of how complex the job of police officer is and, although I concluded that law enforcement wasn’t for me, it shaped a lot of my worldview – especially from the perspective of the police.
If you’ve ever listened to the Coaching for Leaders podcast, you know that I often ask experts at the end of interviews what they’ve changed their minds on. It’s a question I also pose to myself.
It’s relevant to speak on the events of the day, because George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police has direct implications for how many of us in organizations do better.
In the recent years, and reaffirmed in the last month, I’ve changed my mind on at least three things.
First, I used to believe that, unless there was substantial evidence to the contrary, we should generally give police departments the benefit of the doubt, since excessive use of force seemed rare and isolated.
On this belief, I was wrong.
Thank goodness for smartphones with cameras. They have opened my eyes to what Black folks have been saying for years about police brutality. After seeing hundreds of these videos in recent years, it’s clear that many of these incidents are deeply rooted in systemic racism, not only in our policing, but in American society as a whole.
Yes, of course police work is dangerous, but so is commercial fishing, agriculture work, and construction. Yes, there are police leaders who have taken significant action to address racism in policing, but many also have not. I’m done giving police departments the benefit of the doubt.
Second, I used to believe that, it’s just a reality for us as a society to accept some “bad apples” in our police forces.
Comedian Chris Rock points out that there are some jobs that are too important to allow for bad behavior. Take pilots for example. No airline allows a margin of error for a certain number of crash landings each year. No nuclear power plant allows its engineers an acceptable number of meltdowns. No hospital allows surgeons a quota for ignoring the needs of certain patients.
I’m left with the uncomfortable conclusion that, particularly on this issue, racism is why I haven’t held police officers to the same standard I would expect of any other professional dealing with life-safety issues. As a result, I’ve changed my mind on allowing a different standard in policing – and in my thinking.
But the most important thing I’ve changed my mind on is my own contribution.
If George Floyd’s murder had happened five years ago and you asked me who killed him, I would have said, “Four police officers.”
I’ve changed my mind on that, too.
Today, I know his blood is also on my hands. While my contribution is different than the people who physically killed him, I and others with privilege contributed to his murder by:
- Not speaking out against the militarization of America’s police departments.
- Not recognizing that we need better options for responding to complex situations in our society other than just sending in armed officers.
- Not pushing any of my elected representatives on this issue.
- Not having enough empathy for my Black brothers and sisters who have been doing everything imaginable to get attention on this, for years.
I don’t know where this leaves you, but it leaves me with the commitment to do better on what I’m often inviting others to do:
Ask questions instead of assuming, listen for meaning instead of just words, and taking the time to know the stories of others — not just my own.