As protesters around the nation continue to call for police reform, they are regularly reminded of an important fact: While some officers abuse their power, the majority are "good cops." For every officer who visits harm on someone or violates the public's trust, there are countless others who follow the rules and who want nothing more than to protect, serve and return home safe at the end of their shift.
It's a point that many activists are aware of. Just as corrupt and racist officers don't represent American law enforcement as a whole, so are the minority of radical protesters who have called for violence against the police not representative of the demonstrators who have gathered again and again since the grand jury decisions not to indict officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
If bad cops are those who abuse their power, what does it take to be a good cop? Some of those same peaceful demonstrators have suggested the following: professional conduct; good relationships with the community; and the humility, or simply the pragmatism, to admit that calls for accountability, transparency and improved training are not indictments of every police officer, but rather objective critiques of a law enforcement system that has substantial flaws.
Part of what makes reform so difficult is the insular culture that reportedly exists in many police departments. Numerous former officers have described a "blue wall of silence" that compels them to place loyalty and secrecy above all else. This often keeps police from reporting misconduct among their colleagues, due to the risk of retaliation. There is little room for officers, no matter how good they might be themselves, to speak out about individual bad actors or the larger structural issues that enable them.
But not everyone in law enforcement has taken such a rigid stance. Below are a number of police officials who have denounced the idea that cops and protesters need to have a "them or us" mentality. These officers have shown a willingness at least to listen to the criticism and calls for reform, and their approach shows that cooperation and meaningful dialogue are possible as people on both sides of the line work toward solutions. Of course, the fact that there are so few officers publicly expressing this viewpoint also speaks volumes about the complexity of the issue.
Police Chief Chris Magnus, Richmond, California
In December, Magnus joined protesters -- including some of his fellow officers -- and held a sign that read "#BlackLivesMatter," which has become a rallying cry for activists who want to see an end to racial profiling and police discrimination.
Along Macdonald Ave . . . Richmond pic.twitter.com/NBR8p0PxAp
— Allwyn Brown (@brownae) December 9, 2014
The gesture drew immediate backlash from the law enforcement community, with the Richmond Police Officers Association accusing the chief of politicking in uniform, a violation of state law. But Magnus told the San Francisco Chronicle that while he understood the issue is divisive, he didn't see the statement on the sign as political.
“I looked at it for a minute and realized this is actually pretty innocuous,” he said. “When did it become a political act to acknowledge that ‘black lives matter’ and show respect for the very real concerns of our minority communities?”
“It was intended to be a humane statement,” Magnus continued.
The chief, who has been credited with reforming his department's use of force and significantly reducing crime rates since he came to Richmond in 2006, later received support from dozens of community activists at a city council meeting.
Police Chief Steve Anderson, Nashville, Tennessee
In November, when Nashville police greeted protesters with hot chocolate and an open line of communication instead of handcuffs and tear gas, a member of the community took umbrage, listing his grievances in an open letter to Anderson. In response, Anderson posted a letter of his own addressing each one of the citizen's concerns. In his letter, Anderson urged the individual to keep an open mind and be "respectful of all people," even if their views challenged his own:
It is only when we go outside that comfort zone, and subject ourselves to the discomfort of considering thoughts we don't agree with, that we can make an informed judgment on any matter. We can still disagree and maintain our opinions, but we can now do so knowing that the issue has been given consideration from all four sides. Or, if we truly give fair consideration to all points of view, we may need to swallow our pride and amend our original thoughts.
You can read Anderson's full response here.
Police Officer Adhyl Polanco, New York City
Polanco, who in the past has publicly criticized the department he works for, appeared on the news show "Democracy Now!" in December to denounce a decision by hundreds of his colleagues to turn their backs on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio while he was speaking at the funeral of Rafael Ramos. Ramos was one of the two officers gunned down in the line of duty as they sat in their patrol car in Brooklyn last month. Polanco characterized the display as divisive and disrespectful of the calls for peace and unity that had been made by Ramos' family and other activists.
“How come we cannot honor what they are calling for?” said Polanco. “Mayor de Blasio came to the police department that had a lot of issues before he got to this police department. Mayor de Blasio came with the attitude that 'I can fix this police department.' But this police department has a culture that is going to make whoever tries to change that culture, like, impossible, including the mayor.”
Later in the interview, Polanco offered a response to Patrick Lynch, the head of a top NYPD union who'd recently objected to de Blasio's comments about his own son, whose mother is black. The mayor spoke about telling his son to be cautious when dealing with police, and Lynch claimed de Blasio's words had helped incite anti-police violence that led to the two officers' deaths.
“How can a parent who has a black child, how can a parent who has seen millions of kids been stopped by stop and frisk -- and you know the statistic of that -- how can the parents of black kids see kids get killed by police over and over, how can parents that see kids be summoned illegally, being arrested their own building for trespassing, and ... the treatment they get from the police department -- not from all officers, because not all officers are the same -- how can you not responsibly have that conversation with your son?” said Polanco. “I have to have the conversation, and I’m a police officer.”
Polanco also spoke out about his own rough treatment by police during times when he was off-duty. He said officers have thrown up against a wall and frisked him. His comments were similar to those made by a number of other black NYPD officers, some retired and some still serving, in a December Reuters story. In that article, all but one of 25 officers said they'd been a victim of racial profiling while out of uniform. Most chose to speak anonymously.
Watch Polanco's comments below, beginning at the 49:00 mark.
Police Chief Cameron McLay, Pittsburgh
At a First Night parade earlier this month, members of a local activist group known as WHAT'S UP?! Pittsburgh photographed McLay holding up a protest sign. The photo promptly made the rounds on social media.
The president of a local police union was quick to interpret the photograph as a direct affront to the entire force. “The chief is calling us racists," the officer told a reporter. "He believes the Pittsburgh Police Department is racist. This has angered a lot of officers.”
In a letter to the Bureau of Police, McLay said he was sorry if he'd offended anyone in the department. He was, he wrote, simply making a call for awareness.
The sign indicated my willingness to challenge racial problems in the workplace. I am so committed. If there are problems in the [Pittsburgh Bureau of Police] related to racial injustice, I will take action to fix them.
To me, the term "white silence" simply means that we must be willing to speak up to address issues of racial injustice, poverty, etc. In my heart, I believe we all must come together as community to address real world problems; and I am willing to be a voice to bring community together.
I saw no indictment of police or anyone else in this sign, but I do apologize to any of you who felt I was not supporting you; that was not my intent.
The reality of U.S. policing is that our enforcement efforts have a disparate impact on communities of color. This is a statistical fact. You know, as well as I, the social factors driving this reality. The gross disparity in wealth and opportunity is evident in our city. Frustration and disorder are certain to follow. The predominant patterns of our city's increased violence involves black victims as well as actors. If we are to address this violence, we must work together with our communities of color.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has since offered support for McLay and his message.
The Sanford Police Department
In 2012, neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, inflaming local and national tensions. Years later, the country is grappling with different cases but many of the same underlying issues. In November, activists in Sanford held a peaceful march following the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, then a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, in the shooting death of Michael Brown. A number of Sanford police officers led the group through town. Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith also met with organizers before the demonstration and offered his support.
"We're changing who we are. The community is starting to change their perception of law enforcement here in Sanford," he told WKMG.
Smith has also said that his department has stressed communication and cooperation with the community since Martin's death, and that this approach has helped to repair the relationship between local police and the public.
Police Chief Scott Thomson, Camden, New Jersey
Thomson appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation" in December to discuss his city's new approach to policing, which was completely revamped about two years ago and has since led to a significant reduction in crime. In the interview, Thomson highlighted the importance of engaging with the community and forging relationships through one-on-one contact.
"We did this without militarizing neighborhoods, without polarizing the community," Thomson said. "We established a culture from very, very early on that the relationship that would bind us with our people was one based on building community first and enforcing the law second."
Thomson also spoke about the need for the law enforcement community to listen to the public in order to regain the sort of trust that's required for police to be effective.
"It's a critical moment for law enforcement for us to not circle our wagons, to get defensive, but to keep our ears and our minds open and move forward in a way that has a collective, universal agreement of how the justice system should operate," he said.
Similarly, in the aftermath of Brown's death and subsequent protests in Ferguson, which were met with a heavily militarized police response, Thomson spoke about the broader problems laid bare by the clashes.
"Ferguson serves as a reminder to all of government the certainty of disaster when the people you serve no longer view you with legitimacy," he said. "The best remedy to prevent this is to maintain a constant, sincere dialogue and inclusion of the public you serve."
Police Sgt. Bret Barnum, Portland, Oregon
When 12-year-old Devonte Hart held up a sign for "Free Hugs" at a November protest in Portland, he probably wasn't expecting a police officer to take him up on the offer. When Barnum saw Devonte crying, however, he called the boy over to ask what was wrong. Devonte reportedly explained his concerns about police brutality and injustice, which turned into a bigger conversation about activism, school and life. After the talk, the sergeant and the boy shared a moment of humanity that immediately spread around the world.
Freelance photographer Johnny Nguyen captured the image above, which has since been shared hundreds of thousands of times across social media. Nguyen told The Huffington Post that he interpreted the hug, as well as the photo's viral popularity, as a sign that there's hope for real change to be made as a result of this debate.
"We all have hurt in our heart, but we have to turn that hurt into hope, hope for humanity," he said. "We need to find a way to come together and find a common ground and find peace."
It's since been pointed out that while the photograph may offer a feeling of hope, the hug between Barnum and Devonte didn't banish systemic racism from the world, nor did it suddenly create a nationwide culture of police accountability. Critics have argued that the significance so quickly assigned to this image suggests that many people are eager to simplify and sugarcoat the difficult issue of race in America.
Others questioned Barnum's sincerity after discovering that he'd "liked" a colleague's post on Facebook that carried a pro-Darren Wilson message. Barnum later said he was showing support for the police profession, not the actions of Wilson, but the controversy illustrates how emotionally fraught the past several months have been, for officers and activists alike. But regardless of Barnum's sincerity or the true significance of the photo, one thing is undoubtedly true: We could all benefit from more "free hugs," especially between police and the civilians they serve.
SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III, Philadelphia
Nestel, who oversees the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, has been an outspoken supporter of the protests that have taken place around Philadelphia over the past few months. Nestel is highly active on social media, and in November tweeted a number of updates from a demonstration in which he participated following a grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.
“Protestors have arrived at City Hall,” he wrote as he accompanied marchers on their way downtown. “Peaceful protestors + Professional police = Successful democracy. Well done Philadelphia!”
Citing the importance of civil liberties and fostering trust between law enforcement and civilians, Nestel has also endorsed a plan to outfit his officers with body cameras.
"I think the police and the community are on the same page on this. I think body cameras will strengthen the bond between communities and the police,” Nestel told Philly Mag. "The police officers who are using them are completely sold."
This story has been updated to include SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III.
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