Following Ferguson, police leaders must build diverse departments

The healing so essential in cities all across the country will come about only through transparency, communication, and embracing the benefits of diversity

Law enforcement, like any other industry, experiences crucible moments that have significant impact and offer the potential to effect meaningful change. Tragic events such as the 1986 FBI Miami Shootout, the 1997 North Hollywood Bank Robbery, and the 2009 Lakewood Four killings prompt critical reflection and help develop and change policies, procedures, and best practices designed to save lives and advance our industry.

As history looks back over the events of recent months in cities like Ferguson, Cleveland, and Baltimore, it will be interesting to see the changes that occur as a result of that reflection.

I am both hopeful and encouraged. I see the beginnings of a shift that will make our jobs, our communities, and our relationships safer and more effective.

Diversifying Police Agencies
Progressive police agencies have already embraced the fact that having more women and minorities represented in police organizations is highly beneficial. Beyond basic moral imperatives like fairness and equality, research clearly indicates that agencies with higher percentages of women and minorities in the ranks enjoy better community relationships, increased trust, increased performance in many specialty areas, fewer complaints, fewer use-of-force allegations and far fewer dollars spent on lawsuits filed for use of excessive force or wrongful death. For an ever-increasing variety of reasons, diversity is now recognized as a best practice for law enforcement agencies.

In our effort to build sound, strong police agencies — and to maintain safe operational environments for officers — we have created an unintended consequence, which has in some instances resulted in an adversarial relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve. 

Both sides feel under attack. Both sides have valid concerns. Diversity will be a key component in addressing those concerns and resolving some of the challenges we now face as an industry. The healing so essential in cities all across the country will come about only through transparency, communication, and embracing the benefits of diversity. 

Giving the Communities a Voice
I was heartened to see pictures from Baltimore of community members standing between violent protesters and a police skirmish line. Those community members took a stand in support of order. The non-verbal message resonated. These community members turned their backs to police, not in protest, but in trust. They stood and faced an angry, potentially violent mob and said “enough.” They took responsibility for helping to protect their neighborhood- recognizing that the police cannot do it alone. 

Then, in McKinney (Texas), community members spoke out in defense of their officers amidst a media frenzy based in part on information and video clips taken out of context before all the facts were gathered. 

That was the beginning of a shift. Those communities invested. That critical investment has been missing in many urban communities as the result of a wide variety of complex social dynamics. 

This erosion of trust has resulted in fear, animosity, or apathy between many urban communities and law enforcement. Community members like those who took a stand in Baltimore and McKinney are the key to healing the wounds. 

We must embrace these communities and make them part of the “us” in the “us vs. them” equation. We cannot afford to maintain the insular attitude that “us” only includes those of us in uniform. 

The “us” must include everyone except the criminals. 

We need our communities. We must welcome them. We must keep them invested. We must encourage them to have a voice - and diversity within our law enforcement organizations is an important part of that voice.

Diversity at All Levels
It will be imperative to not only encourage and welcome more diversity into our organizations, but to mentor and develop diversity in leadership positions so that varied perspectives have a voice and have the opportunity to impact and influence policies, procedures and best practices moving forward. 

Aggressive community policing, “broken windows” efforts such as those implemented by the Monroe County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office, and bold recruiting goals (50:50 male to female ratio) like those made by the Colorado Springs (Colo.) Police Department are a solid start. Strategic recruiting, training, and development of returning minority military service members, student athletes, and assertive, confident, community leaders will help mold and shape police agencies heading into the future. 

This is not the first time law enforcement has stood at a crossroads. It will not be the last. But change is in the air. The way we handle this impending change will define not only how we police going forward, but also the effectiveness and the legacy of policing as an industry. We have a tremendous opportunity. Let us make the most of it.

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