“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
-Martin Luther King
Picture several adults sitting around a table in a conference room at city hall, they represent several public and private organizations tasked with tackling some complicated social and economic issues that have a negative impact on a traditionally underrepresented section of their city. They formed the group with these particular members because of their concerns and expertise, not because they had similar views or thoughts on how to address the situations. They each demand to be heard on the issues and arrived convinced that when the others listened to what they had to say they would be persuaded to change the way they think and adopt the speaker’s path forward. They expect to reach a consensus in a couple of hours.
As the meeting and conversation progressed, differing attitudes and viewpoints moved them further apart instead of closer. The rift grew deeper and wider as some participants dug their heels in, unwilling to accept the suggestions or points of view of others in the room. People are interrupting and talking over one another, some feel bullied by others attempting to control the conversation and silence those with differing viewpoints. A couple of the attendees have egos and agendas so large they seem to suck all of the air and energy out of the room. While they all live or work in the same district, they aren’t neighbors, friends or schoolmates and aren’t likely to socialize together. There is limited commonality between them. As time goes on, frustration builds, and resolutions appear unlikely.
The questions raised in this environment are simple but finding and agreeing to solutions can be extremely complex. The source of their disagreements is due to the personal and professional histories everyone brought to the table. Each has strong, unwavering beliefs but their nearsightedness also reveals a narrow perspective with no concern for others or the broader implications their thoughts and ideas present. This choke point repeatedly blocks the discussion from moving forward. This is where the problems lie, and where the answers often simply die.
How we think, perceive, and make decisions ties directly to our observations and interactions with others. Your memory bank is what you draw on to shape the views and opinions of the world around you. Simply said, your history is the fertile ground that plays the prominent role in how you develop and think, and where your stereotypes form and implicit biases grow.
We all do it and we all have them. Some are positive, some negative and a few are somewhere in the middle. Solutions can only come when we recognize them, learn how to deal with them and then move beyond them with a clearer vision. By the way, if you insist you have no biases you aren’t being truthful with yourself and need to spend a little time self-evaluating, preferably in front of a mirror. Even at my age with fifty years in the business, I check on my biases and question my decision making all of the time.
How do we develop this way? Consider everything you have seen, heard and remember from an early age and think of each segment as a separate lens. Those lenses will multiply and overlap to create a customized vision that determines how you see and perceive the world and everything in and about it. Your culture, religion, color of your skin, socio-economic positioning, home life, family structure and history, education, personal experiences as well as those told to you by others, all merge to provide your unique vision of the world you live in. Your lens combination is particular to you alone. Personal history is a wonderful thing, but not without complications and constant revision.
Let’s return to the conference room table. Identifying the root cause of personal barriers is a start but breaking through the impasse is a difficult but solvable challenge. There has to be both leadership and followership in the group and a pact between them for authentic efforts to work together. Stonewalling, boycotting or quitting cannot be an option. There are no shortcuts, magic bullets, or divine intervention. Success will require dogged, relentless, difficult work. Everyone needs to understand there will be points where concessions are necessary for the greater good. They all need assurances that no one will perceive them as “selling out” on the issues. Negotiation and a willingness to compromise are the overriding principles. Without that agreement, everyone is wasting each other’s time.
Only then can they start to identify the real problems, separate facts from anecdotal hearsay and begin to build from the roots up and not the leaves down. As the saying goes, “you are entitled to your opinion, but not to creating or adopting fiction as a basis for your thoughts and arguments.”
There must be a facilitator designated and that person’s first task should be to order lunch and pay for it from his or her pocket. That’s where good will begins. It also creates a natural break and a time for people to introduce themselves on a personal and not professional level. The interactions need to begin with baby steps. As trust and respect for one another builds, so should their willingness to work together. It is where team development begins to form, a necessity if problem solving is the goal.
Everyone has to commit to listening to and more importantly hearing each point of view. It is the beginning of understanding how each member of the team has developed their beliefs and reached their conclusions. This is the start of a series of dialogues with a purpose. The next step is to get a consensus on prioritizing what needs accomplishing. Once they struggle through the hard stuff, the smaller stuff becomes the smaller stuff and is more easily resolved or even disappears once the major topics are settled.
This cannot be a one-off meeting or bitch session. This is the beginning of trust building and maturing and creating respect for one another. It is about working together to resolve issues that have a long-term effect on all of the community residents, store owners, etc. This isn’t easy. If it was, anyone could do it and there wouldn’t be a need for the team to come together in the first place.
The process can start immediately, but it may take weeks, and will likely be months and years for some to move from a handshake to a meaningful and heartfelt hug. The template does not guarantee perfection and sometimes team members need to be replaced because they lack the will to work hard or make concessions or see things through another’s eyes. You don’t build successful teams from resumes; but rather on commitment to one another and to the overall mission. When it works though, the feeling of accomplishment is incredible.
WHERE THE HELL AM I GOING WITH THIS
After sifting through the comments above, it is easy to conjure up several types of similar scenarios related to where you live and work. Because it is always best to talk or write about what you know, I’ve chosen a simplistic, but real example of police efforts to address a neighborhood issue.
There was a steady increase in crime at a park in an inner-city neighborhood. Residents complained that drug sales were skyrocketing, and there have been several assaults and gang related activity at all hours of the day and night. Publicly they announce they are scared and concerned for their families. In response to criticism from city politicians and scathing media reports about the lack of police action and activity, the Deputy Superintendent of the district has designed a response to crackdown on all crime in and near the park. He has added uniformed patrols and brought in additional assistance from the gang and drug units. For the next few months, reported crime is down, arrests are up, and drugs and several guns are off the streets.
The Deputy and his superiors are convinced the plan worked and laud their work in a public relations statement to the media. He and his street supervisors receive a summons to a community meeting. They think they are going to receive a pat-on-the-back and an award for their efforts. Instead, angry residents blind-side them. The people are upset about the methods and tactics employed by the police at the park. They believe the police unfairly target some youths and arrest them for petty crimes resulting in police and court records. They think the police are more interested in statistics and not the people. They complain that no one consulted them about how best to address the situation and want more input when it comes to dealing with crime and the problems in their neighborhood. The safety of their families is their main concern, but at what price? They believe no one is hearing their voices and a sizable rift is growing between them and the police. It is amazing how both sides saw and recognized the same problems but where one side thought they found the solution the other side found failure.
Where do the two sides go from here?
Well, it clearly isn’t the time for a community relations event with buckets of free ice cream and circus clowns painting faces and making balloon hats. This is where true community policing comes to the forefront to solve the issues and reinstate police legitimacy in the neighborhood. Community policing is a comprehensive philosophy that guides policy and strategy aimed at achieving more effective and efficient crime control, reduced fear of crime, improved quality of life, and improved police services. To be effective, it has to begin with a proactive reliance on community resources that seek to change crime-causing circumstances.
The template for success in this scenario is the same as the one discussed earlier; bring the police together with the members of the community including the outspoken activists. Expand the group by adding the stakeholders: elected officials, social services, school officials, representatives from the court system, religious leaders, merchants, and business owners. Let them all voice their opinions, and reasons for them, and then get to work to make the community the better place to live, grow and succeed.
It is possible. I served on the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Community Policing Committee for the past six years. My eyes opened wide to the best strategies and tactics to work within communities, not just to enforce the law, but also to be an integral and relied on part of it. Each year the committee hands out a series of national and international recognition awards at the annual conference. Our committee members were the judges and we each sifted through dozens of applications from Departments in small, rural towns with a dozen police officers, up to and including Departments with several thousand officers in some of our largest cities. Some wrote about proactive community involvement spearheaded by progressive chiefs, while others changed the way they thought and acted because a crisis forced them to embrace and adopt a reconditioned philosophy of policing. Individual circumstances caused differing approaches, but they all included strong input from diverse people and organizations representing every segment of their community. Regardless of the why and how, the bottom line was every intervention resulted in positive changes and gains.
In an upcoming blog, I will write about my experiences as a police chief in a college environment. I was admittedly naïve to the concept of community policing at first, but the more I learned and the more we engaged as a department, the quicker we were accepted, and our input valued. Even old dogs can still learn new tricks when we open our eyes to what is right in front of us.