FEATURED IN TRAINING
As this issue was going to press, an incident involving a veteran police sergeant and a tenured Harvard professor triggered the most intense discussion over race relations in recent memory. President Obama became a key player when he said the police had acted “stupidly.”
Considering our audience, it would be easy to rail against the president’s comments and point the finger squarely at the professor. But there’s a lot to learn from this situation if we look objectively at why people are so strongly divided in their perspectives. To do so, you’ll have to suspend the “I’m a cop, and we’re right” belief.
There’s been a great deal of focus on the word stupidly, but the more telling comment came moments later when the president said, “There’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.” This pronouncement, by the president of the U.S., sums up one side of the great debate. Many people in this country—not all of them minorities—truly believe that law officers routinely target individuals solely because of their race. This is one lesson that should be learned from this incident: For those who believe the police are biased, their perception is their reality, and it doesn’t matter whether you believe it or not.
Few terms are more divisive than racial profiling, and that’s exactly the card that was played by the professor, the press and the president in this incident. That’s both interesting and unfortunate, because this clearly was not a racial profiling incident. Sgt. James Crowley, the officer at the center of this controversy is, by all accounts, the antithesis of a racially biased officer. He has been a stellar cop longer than Obama has been a politician, and for the past five years, he’s worked alongside a black colleague, teaching academy cadets how to avoid targeting suspects because of their race.
So what lessons can be gleaned? Here are a few:
- When you have an incident unfolding like this, it makes sense to have another officer there with you. (A fellow sergeant, who was on scene and is black, backed up Crowley’s account of what happened, saying that he supported Crowley 100%.)
- A record of doing the right thing pays dividends. A press hungry for a story on a racist cop found that Crowley had a good record and was actually involved in teaching racial sensitivity classes.
- The value of a voice recorder in a situation like this cannot be overemphasized. Every day, thousands of cops go to work wearing a recorder on their belt and touch the record button when a contact like this unfolds. Although there are jurisdictions that limit or prohibit this option, it certainly is something that should be considered. It is not difficult to imagine the value that a recording of this incident would have. And the act of pushing the record button has the added benefit of being an inward reminder to “get it right and do the right thing.”
- When a situation like this plays out in front of witnesses, it makes sense to get a brief statement about what they saw. Most experienced supervisors would recognize this event as one likely to generate an inquiry or complaint. Determining who was there and what they saw helps lock in the truth.
- Never underestimate the need to have the facts before making a statement in front of the media. And never underestimate the power of words and the power of a position. Our new president learned these lessons the hard way, and he later dialed back his comments, saying he could have “calibrated those words differently.” Unfortunately, in the minds of many, our president confirmed that police routinely engage in racially biased policing.
- It really helps to recognize that however slanted the perspective of another, it’s their reality, and you must work at overcoming that reality if anything is going to change. I can’t help but wonder what might have occurred if Sgt. Crowley had somehow found the words to rise above this confrontation and demonstrate that Gate’s belligerence would not dictate Crowley’s actions. What could Crowley have said or done differently? Perhaps nothing, but I’ve seen officers involved in similar incidents turn the entire situation around by simply asking, “Sir, how can I help you?” Or: “Is there anything I can do to help you understand?”
Considering the players—the professor, the police sergeant and the president—I wonder: Who overreacted, and who let the actions of another dictate their own actions? I’m not going to make the mistake of making a sweeping statement without adequate information, but I think it’s fair to say that all three of them can take lessons away from this incident.
—Dale Stockton, Editor in Chief