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Stop ‘othering’ to connect with your community

By focusing on “othering,” it is furthering a narrative that creates more divisiveness, tension and resentment within your community and department

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There is a way to toggle safety and respect in policing.

Photo/REP

Fresh out of academy and field training, I was a new officer working the graveyard shift. My city had (and has) a high crime rate – plenty of guns, drugs and gang activity. Vehicle and foot pursuits were frequent and resistant, and combative arrest situations followed in tow.

My 22-year-old self quickly soured in the environment. I took the lead of senior officers; everyone up at those wee hours of the night was (expletives) and everyone out there was trying to kill me.

Everyone who wasn’t immediately cooperative became a confrontation. It was me or them; I couldn’t show weakness or they’d take advantage.

Smiling was weak. So “mean-mugging” and stare-downs were de facto tools.

Fortunately, one adage of the academy was still part of my life: “Live outside the blue world.”

At the time, I was living with my college buddies and though we did not frequently cross paths with my night-shift schedule, I was clearly sullied: negative, cynical and toxic. Everyone was a (expletive) and every political narrative was (expletive) and everything was the same.

Fortunately, my friend was a true friend and told me the truth: I was being the (expletive).

I was always saying something negative. As you may imagine, I didn’t immediately receive this critical feedback, but it marinated and I’m grateful it did.

In a short period of time, my immaturity revealed itself and I demonized the community I was sworn to serve. I asked him and my other friends to call me out if I started turning that way again.

‘The other’

I had made the community “the other.”

Through “othering” a group or idea, we dehumanize them. We create walls and barriers. To address readers thinking I am saying to let your guard down in the face of danger: Let me put your concerns to rest.

That is not what I’m saying. I am saying there is a way to toggle safety and respect in policing.

Care and empathy must be at the forefront. We would not and could not do this job appropriately if we did not care for others … if we did not care for people. We would not stick our necks out (literally or figuratively) without that compassion.

I can develop a strong, ready mind with responsible vigilance and not let it manifest as anger. As an adult, I can be aware and responsive to my emotions. I can control them and not allow them to override and control me. This is professionalism.

Throughout my career, my ability to remove “othering” took time to develop.

As a K-9 handler, I had to do school visits and community presentations. To be honest, I was put off being “voluntold.”

I wanted to be on the streets, catching bad guys … that was my role.

But I can, again, say that I’m grateful for the dose of medicine I was administered, as it helped me connect and understand the kids in my community better. It helped showcase a deeper, stronger purpose for me – especially not being a father yet.

Meeting with community members provided more reminders of why I was doing the work, beyond the competitive nature that is cops vs. crime.

Bringing down the walls at the department level

There are many meaningful efforts and discussions on humanizing the badge to the community, which often leads to transparent relationships. However, throughout my years in law enforcement, highlighted by several years as a sergeant, we don’t do a good job with each other.

What do I mean?

In my mid-sized department of over 150 officers, I hear the same complaints over and over again – and the same goes for my colleagues in small and big agencies in my area.

I know it’s so much of a thing that highly subscribed and viral meme accounts exist purely on these “othering” themes, such as:

  • “Admin doesn’t care.”
  • “Officers are entitled and whining.”
  • “Sergeants aren’t accountable.”
  • “Detectives can say whatever in their ivory towers.”
  • “Patrol is lazy.”
  • “What does ___ unit even do?”
  • “The union is protecting the garbage we need to fire.”

To be clear, I have said and subscribed to every one of these lines – depending on where and when I was in my career.
Do these statements derive from specific examples of truth-like stereotypes? Sure! But hopefully, we know the catastrophic damage stereotypes foster. This article won’t be able to help you if you don’t.

And although it feels better to say these things, it is destructive.

It furthers a narrative that creates more divisiveness, tension and resentment.

Why officers must have empathy

When I was in patrol, I may have felt frustrated with how some investigators communicated with some officers. But if I kept my thoughts in check, I could list spades of amazing leaders in investigations, working harder and more patiently than just about anyone else in the department.

When I left patrol for smaller units in support services, I recognized how much behind-the-scenes work there was. My team was working way more overtime hours than I had in patrol!

I was the officer mad at sergeants.

But I promoted and understood quickly how hard it is to pinpoint and document the lazy cop who everyone knows about with convincing evidence.

I was the sergeant complaining about “admin” until I had the audience to talk to members of the command staff to learn the situation was far more nuanced and complicated than I could see from my view.

If we take the time to connect and have meaningful conversations, then we can build empathy.

That empathy then builds trust and collaboration.

We can save precious time and bandwidth for creating solutions rather than driving dissension.

Organizational culture is key to efficacy, legitimacy and progress. Leaders need to be visible and approachable. Before you call out my finger-pointing, there’s more.

Line-level officers need to give grace, listen and bring their walls down.

By focusing on empathy and removing the use of the “other,” we can remember we are on the same team – albeit with different hats and roles. By building trust and safety, we can connect on our unified mission and direction to get the job done.

NEXT: The Leadership Beat: ‘I know work culture is everything’

Commander Eric Tung has been a police officer for 16 years in Washington State. He currently oversees patrol operations and his department’s wellness and peer support programs. He has led and innovated recruiting, hiring, training, community engagement, civil disturbance and field training programs. Eric was a 2022 “40 Under 40" honoree, recognized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He develops wellness and leadership content on @bluegritwellness on Instagram, bluegritwellness.com and the Blue Grit Radio podcast.

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