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A letter to the American public: The steps you can take to support quality communities

Concerned citizens must act to ensure equity and opportunity in their communities


Homeless outreach is just one of the many activities police officers engage in to improve the quality of life of the citizens they serve.

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Years ago, when I worked as a patrol officer in a college town, a university police officer who was a close friend showed me some cool things on campus on a quiet midnight shift. One of those things was a soundproof booth in the speech and hearing program area. We took turns going into the little booth and screaming our heads off to see if the other could hear anything. The experience caused a little bit of panic and claustrophobia reminiscent of a nightmare where you’re trying to say something or warn somebody, and they can’t hear you.

I’ve felt that way since the George Floyd video. Suddenly, it’s not just the radical cop haters accusing all police officers of systemic and violent racism. The narrative is so often repeated and so strident that people of goodwill are being swept up in the tide.

Many want to know what they can do besides Facebook keyboard strokes. Here are some things you might suggest.

Encourage quality law enforcement

This means more than saying there are more good cops than bad. It means supporting your local law enforcement agencies. When they get it right, which is the majority of the time, send a note of thanks, a letter to the editor, or a donation to a related cause (foster care, homelessness, victim assistance, domestic violence, etc.) in the name of the agency. Send a book for their break room (maybe even one of mine). When you hear of an officer hurt in a crash or arrest, send a card of concern. If you have a positive encounter with an officer, let others know.

Fund quality training

This means resources. Whenever there is a cry for more training that necessarily means that the seats filled in the classroom are drawn by emptying patrol cars of those officers. Even “free” training costs in personnel and backfill. When 911 calls don’t get answered in a timely way, the complaints about lack of training are forgotten. A 1,000-officer agency was criticized by a political candidate for not immediately agreeing to a 40-hour annual training on mental illness. That’s a thousand weeks of officers off the streets. And that’s just for one topic. Other interest advocates want domestic violence training, animal encounter training and diversity training. That’s in addition to firearms and less-lethal weapons, arrest control and de-escalation, legal updates and a plethora of recertifications. Communities have to support the budgets and staffing necessary to enable quality police training.

Gather quality information

Statistics will seldom overcome preconceived notions with high emotional investment. In moments of cool reflection, there may be some light available from the numbers. Many studies cast serious doubt on assumptions of racial disparity in enforcement, use of deadly force against minority citizens and use of force in general. Arrests by race are roughly proportionate to representation by race in the general population. Although not a welcome argument, the amount of risk to minority citizens from other sources vastly outnumber the risk of unlawful violence by police when over half of all homicide victims are black. This may help to direct one’s activism.

Many people point to the over-representation of minorities in the nation’s jails and prisons as evidence of race-based policing. Institutional racism does not begin and end with law enforcement. Where it is present may be traced from the future inmate’s pre-natal and subsequent healthcare, diet, housing, family structure, education, literacy and enrichment, employment, and a multitude of other social factors constantly debated, discovered and dissected.

Support quality communities

Concerned citizens must act to ensure equity and opportunity in their communities. Isolation along racial lines, whether intentional or by default, does not foster intercultural communication. Individuals must ask if their monochrome associations contribute to a lack of understanding among racial and economic divides. Cooperation and community building without the patronizing presumption that one group must condescend to work with one another builds resilience and unity.

Participate in quality dialog

In our current culture, quality conversation is more a matter of what to avoid than what to affirmatively engage. Being the curator of your own voice and filtering through the voices of others is a supreme challenge. Americans used to get their news once a day from their newspapers or favorite television anchor. Now it is a constant bombardment from media whose objectivity is suspect, and social media whose voices are often angry, misinformed and narrow. Learning to discern is a skill yet to be widely developed in our culture. But we can encourage each other to hear the biblical mandate to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.