The True Heart of American Law Enforcement


One of the best things about my job is the opportunity to get to know the leadership of American law enforcement. Over the last three years, I have had the good fortune to know and talk with many of you. And although I haven’t walked in your shoes, I thought it might be useful to share a perspective from where I am, as part of an organization that is in all of your communities, depends upon you, and constantly learns from you.

I have learned from you that this is a uniquely difficult time in American law enforcement. I realize that “unique” is an overused word, but I think it applies here. And enough of you have told me that this is the hardest time in your career that I suspect you agree.

Your people are caught in difficult and dangerous riptides. Your patrol officers, your deputies, your detectives, your agents face challenges that those who came before them could hardly imagine.

There is water rushing in and water rushing out, and your people are standing where these unpredictable currents meet. They are being pulled in different directions. They are being pulled by the communities they serve, by their colleagues, by expectations, by their leaders, by the media.

There is a very real chance of drowning in the currents.

There is a need for leadership in the middle of those riptides. There is a need for people to stand tall, plant their feet, speak the truth, and calm the waters.

So what kind of leaders are we looking for standing like that among the riptides?

First of all, they are leaders who know their people. They know they became cops and sheriffs to do good. To help others. To serve their communities and to serve all the people who live there—whatever race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation they may be. Your folks signed up to serve all of the people, all of the time.

Second, the leaders we need know what good policing looks like. They know it because they have lived it. Up-close, respectful, disciplined, firm, fair, lawful, and transparent law enforcement is what has always worked best, even in neighborhoods with the most significant crime problems. The leaders we need understand that a combination of kindness and toughness, of humility and confidence, of decency and determination, delivers the best results.

Third, the leaders we need know their neighborhoods with the greatest need for police and they know the people who live there. In particular, they know the history and journey of black America. They know the hopes, the dreams, the disappointments and the pain. They know the history of law enforcement’s interaction with black America, because the black people of America know it and remember it for reasons that make good sense. They know that African-Americans, like all Americans, want good policing because they know it is the path to safety and prosperity.

Fourth, the leaders we need understand that our challenges are multiplied by a narrative that is forming about American policing. It is a narrative that has formed, in the absence of good information and in the absence of actual data, and it is this: Biased police are killing black men at epidemic rates. That is the narrative. It is a narrative driven by video images of real misconduct, possible misconduct, and perceived misconduct. It is a narrative given force by the power of empathy. It is also a narrative pushed forward by the surprise and shock of civilians at seeing how fast and complicated police activity can be.