Chief Koval's Blog

The Police are the Public and the Public are the Police

July 8, 2016 3:28 PM

This was a hard week for everyone.  Nationwide coverage of visually graphic officer-involved shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota.  The tragedy of seeing events unfolding in Dallas where twelve officers are shot; five dead and at least three are in critical condition.   It seems as though we are all witnesses to events and stories on a daily basis that describe deteriorating relationships and heightened tensions between citizens and cops.  I attended a neighborhood forum here in Madison and heard people who are angry, upset, sad, and disappointed that conversations are being held around dinner tables instructing our youth on how to stay safe when having an encounter with a police officer.  Many of those who spoke to me at the forum expressed outrage that such a conversation has to be had at all in light of the fact that the police are expected to be trusted servants who are supposed to "serve and protect" everyone.  Hard to take issue with either the pragmatic approach (teaching our kids to stay safe) or the philosophical opposition to this premise.

So it comes as no surprise that I am often asked if there is a "divide" that is so deep, so historically rooted and steeped with institutional racism, that any thought of bridging trust gaps are exercises of abject futility whenever there is another clash between cops and citizens.   I remain an optimist.  I firmly believe that we can do this--collectively---as we all want and desire the same things for ourselves and for our children. Mutual respect, being treated with dignity, accessibility, accountability, safeguarding individual rights and constitutional liberties are not big "asks;" they should be considered "given's" when citizens are dealing with the police.  The vast majority of the transactions between police and public, at least here in Madison, are handled in a way that does not escalate, does not disrespect, does not result in ticketing and arresting, and does not culminate in the use of force.  As chief, I take some measure of comfort in knowing that . . .it is far easier for us to deal with the exception than to have to start from scratch.  There are many positive initiatives taking place throughout the City and we should not let these be overshadowed.  That said, we have work to do to move this community and this country forward regarding these issues. 

We have a work force committed to engaging with citizens on every call and with every contact.  Being relational, listening, and explaining are key components to our outreach.  The more one-to-one encounters we can have, the better.  It is by these incremental, relationship-building opportunities that we have the greatest potential for breaking down assumptions and stereotypes and having courageous conversations.  We must continue to emerge from behind the badge and uniform to show our individuality and humanity to our community members.

In 1829, Sir Robert Peel, the "godfather" of what is now "policing" established the London Metropolitan Police (the "MET") as an alternative to the military, retaining law and order functions for a civilianized group.  One of his fundamental precepts was:

"The police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police are only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the intent of the community welfare."

Then, as now, framing a dichotomy between police and community was viewed as unhealthy.  When you speak in terms of "us" vs. "them," it is difficult to find common ground that enriches desirable outcomes.  When we recruit, hire, train, and reinforce MPD officers, all of our emphasis is placed on identifying those individuals who truly believe in trust-based community policing.  A perfect example of this is reflected in the graduation of our 21 newest officers today (7/8).  Each and every element of their vetting process is specifically engineered with incorporating values into the way we police.

While everyone on the MPD will tell you that "their" class was the "best", the past two classes have earned a special place of respect in my heart.  Why?  Because the individuals in these classes volunteered for service at a time when our country has experienced significant tensions, particularly centered around issues of racial disparities and use of force.  Clearly, the character of those who would still willingly choose to serve under such challenging conditions is nothing short of "noble."  Applications certainly reflect the signs of the times---candidates entering this field are significantly down (fortunately, MPD has not felt this to the degree that other agencies have).  So to be able to find individuals still willing to pursue the vocation of being a selfless guardian against the backdrop of hostilities that are projected into our homes and cell phones on a daily basis, is a blessing and a cause for validation---service as a cop is still considered an honorable calling.

Whenever a community loses one of its own under tragic circumstances, it is a loss not just to the immediate circle of family and friends but to the entire community.  And whenever there are officers killed in the line of duty, the entire profession mourns as if it were a member of their own agency or family.  The vulnerability of our livelihood is starkly front and center and is thrust upon our inner psyche, gives apprehension to our support network, and reminds us that life is not only fleeting, it is fragile. But for the grace go I.  Our phones, our email and our contacts in the streets have been most comforting and appreciated.  Thank you.  Madison cares and we are grateful to be a part of this community.

Posted by: Chief Koval

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