Finding Common Ground with Law Enforcement
As summer comes to a close, I'm reflecting on an image that was seared into our national consciousness at the beginning of the season. It is that of Officer Eric Casebolt subduing 15-year old Dejerria Becton, an unarmed girl clad only in a bikini, at a pool party incident in McKinney, TX. This image, and the accompanying video recorded by Brandon Brooks, sparked a national conversation on the abuse that some law enforcement officers inflict on the citizens they are sworn to protect.
Photo: Brandon Brooks
While most of the 780,000 law enforcement officers in the U.S. are "good cops", a few abuse their authority and inflict enough harm to damage individuals and divide our communities. Last weekend, I spoke with a group of middle- and high-school students at the School House Rights Rock Summit in Jackson, MS. Upon asking them to write the first three words that come to mind when they see a uniformed police officer, they responded with words like these:
Are these the words we’d hope our kids would use when talking about police officers?
Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell speaks about how some people seek a career in law enforcement with a spirit of adventure - to be warriors against crime - versus a spirit of service - to be guardians of the community. In Brandon Brooks' video, we see these two archetypes in action. Officer Casebolt invokes the warrior, searching for "the enemy" (in this case, unarmed teenagers) and forcing them to the ground, shouting epithets, and even pulling out his weapon. His unnamed colleagues take on roles of guardians, calmly speaking to the kids and maintaining a de-escalated body stance.
My Five Elements framework suggests that situations like these result from an imbalance of Metal and Fire. The purpose of law enforcement - establishing and maintaining law and order - are Metal traits, requiring structure, detachment from emotion and machine-like efficiency.
Fire arises in these situations as an outgrowth of stress and crisis. By the time an officer arrives, situations are likely at a flashpoint level. Officers enter on high alert, even if the situation may not call for such a response. Guns, tasers, pepper spray and batons also represent the firepower that law enforcement uses at their discretion.
Combining Fire with Metal requires careful regulation of temperature. If the temperature is too low, there is no transformation. If it is too high, even by one degree, there can be a complete meltdown, as witnessed in McKinney and many other situations. This dynamic is articulated the following equation.
These types of meltdowns have resulted in the deaths of 161 unarmed civilians and 30 police officers this year, and the numbers continue to rise with each passing day.
While we expect police officers to regulate the temperature, recent incidents have shown that these warriors can come in blazing, leaving it up to the citizens to turn down the heat. In other words, the hotter the cop, the cooler we need to be. How does an individual accomplish this?
I asked police officers in San Francisco, New Orleans, Indianapolis and Detroit for their ideas on how to regulate the temperature in these interactions. Their messages were very similar -
Earth is the element that balances Fire and Metal, and it was no coincidence to me that the officers were speaking in Earth metaphors - grounding, relationships, and understanding. When we add these characteristics into the equation, the chances for a peaceful outcome increase.
- "It's important to build relationships and find common ground."
- "People don't come to us on a good day. They call us when they're in crisis, and sometimes it's hard for us to see them in any other light. If they reached out to us in times of non-crisis, it would help a lot."
- "I always try to be aware of my breathing and stay grounded. If others can do that too, it helps."
- "When I'm responding to an incident, there's no time to listen for understanding. But if I know that you're affiliated with this church or rec center, or that school, we can establish a firmer standing with each other."
The students in Jackson affirmed that relationships are key. When I asked them to write down the first three words that come to mind when they see a uniformed police officer that they know, their responses invoked a sense of comfort and relief.
Compare that to the encounter with an officer they don't know.
The situations are identical, save for the relationship. In order to make our communities safe, both for citizens and police officers, what can we do to build common ground?
At La Plazita Institute in Albuquerque, the community hosts a monthly "People Making a Change" gathering, where community members - many of whom are gang involved and/or formerly incarcerated persons and their families - break bread and talk with police and parole officers, members of the justice system and elected officials. "PMAC creates the space for us to practice 'La Cultura Cura,' (Culture Heals), and share our values of respect, honor, love and family," said Albino Garcia Jr., Executive Director. "It is in these gatherings that they see us not just as criminals and thugs, but as parents, children, grandchildren, and vital contributors to the landscape of the broader community."
The students in Jackson came up with their own solutions.
We can and must make demands of law enforcement to deal with police brutality and violence. But the system is large and complex, and change is likely to be slow. We cannot afford to wait and risk any more lives. We can be proactive and invite law enforcement and criminal justice representatives to our places of worship, community centers and cultural gatherings. We can stop by the precinct and say hello. We can build relationships and a place of la cultura cura. By building stronger foundations and finding common ground, we can, together, save lives.
- "We could invite them to our sports tournament."
- "We can organize an appreciation day at our school or church."
- "I can stay calm and cool. Take deep breaths."
- "I can visit my local police department and thank them for their service."
Questions for Reflection and Discussion -
- What are the first three words that come to your mind when you see a uniformed police officer?
- Do you see law enforcement officers as warriors or guardians? Why?
- How can you facilitate the kinds of communication that build relationships with local law enforcement?