THROUGH THE FIRE: To Better Serve and Protect

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By BILL WATANABE

Ever since the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis, there have been cries for dismantling or “defunding” the police. The idea of dismantling the police should not be equated with disbanding the police altogether but rather the idea that the entire mission and implementation of police work needs to be re-examined, critically analyzed, and restructured from top to bottom.

It is not easy to be a police officer in these times – especially in the context of a proliferation of guns in a nearly unfettered atmosphere of easy access to weapons of almost unlimited capacity. The NRA true believers’ opposition to any kind of restriction on gun ownership means almost anyone can be carrying a lethal weapon – and the police have to deal with this reality.

How does a police officer try to enforce the law (or the peace) when every encounter may potentially be a threat to their lives? This is indeed a challenge and yet somehow changes must be made because too many lives, especially black lives, are being taken too often at the hands of the police.

I am not an expert on police work but I have done a lot of community organizing for positive change. Based on my experience, changing the police should be viewed as an inside-out problem. Many police forces across the country have developed a culture of self-protection, and a mentality of “us versus them” that makes it difficult to exercise civility and flexibility in performing an incredibly wide range of law enforcement duties.

As a social worker, I have witnessed how a group of people can work to improve conditions and make real change for the good. Perhaps brazenly, I offer some principles that I believe are necessary for police departments to make real and lasting change for the common good:

• Change must take place and be led from within and cannot be imposed by outside forces no matter how well-intentioned; existing police culture will resist any change.

• Rank-and-file police officers have to understand and accept that radical change in police culture is needed; the status quo is not working and must be jettisoned.

• Police leadership must initiate a process of overhauling the entire department from the very top to the bottom, with a new mandate, programs, policies, and training – creating a new culture.

• The overhaul must be given top priority and must be led from start to finish by the chief, who takes full responsibility, and not relegated to a subordinate. The chief needs to preside over a broad-based task force composed of community representatives, police officers, and city representatives; the task force should be small enough to be nimble and able to work together over a short but intensive period of time.

• A preliminary report of changes being considered should be made public after six weeks for feedback.

• A final report with concrete recommendations and an implementation plan of action is issued six weeks after the preliminary report with specific timelines and achievable goals. The mayor and other city leaders should sign onto the action plan for implementation.

If the chief and the committee come up with a good plan, the entire community will recognize it and get behind the plan and support it. The plan may not be perfect for everyone, but a good plan should pass the “smell test” and get broad buy-in from the majority.

This may end up just wishful thinking on my part – but I believe they are necessary parts to true police reform process that will better serve the community and better assist the police towards achievable goals with less lethal outcomes – creating a win-win for everyone!

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Bill Watanabe writes from Silverlake near downtown Los Angeles and can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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