What Police Taught Me About Racism & Reconciliation

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After the Dallas shooting in July 2016 I received an outpouring of support from law enforcement agencies around the country, and even the Deputy Director of the Dubai Police. I was inundated with letters, emails, phone messages and weighed down with challenge coins.

However, there were some who shared their displeasure about remarks I made during the press conference held days after the shooting. It is one reason, as mentioned in a previous post, I was uneasy when invited to speak at an annual conference for police chiefs in Bend, Oregon. I was an African-American man, with no law enforcement credentials, whose lecture integrated topics related to police use of force. That could be a disaster.

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This time I stood at the podium facing a roomful of 150 command level police officers. Each had decades of law enforcement experience. Looking upon an intimidating sea of white faces I moved onto the historical connection between law enforcement and slave patrols, white supremacists, and mass incarceration. I then transitioned to my own experiences while simultaneously explaining my personal fear of police.

There was rapt silence in the room. Unsure if this was good or bad I pressed on while thinking, “how did I agree to this?!”

Well, months prior I did agree. And weeks before the conference, while finalizing my travel arrangements, I made another critical decision – pushing through my comfort zone into the unknown.

Usually after a speaking engagement I caught the first available flight back home to my family. This time, deviating from routine, I chose to stay for nearly the entire conference. It was the best decision I made.

I had extensive discussions with dozens of chiefs and captains. I sat through hours of their training sessions.  I attended their awards banquet, met their spouses, and shared a few excellent local craft beers (I’m partial to Imperial IPAs).

What I learned:

These men and women taught me many lessons about the type of leadership necessary for racial reconciliation. They showed me how humility, vision, and courage are necessary to bridge this divide. That despite generations of racial animus with black Americans, there are leaders within law enforcement willing to accept this challenge.

Could I have gained this  perspective had I not to stepped out of my comfort zone, respectfully spoke my truth, and actively listened to their responses? Would this opportunity have occurred if Sherwood Police Chief Jeff Groth had not extended the invitation in the first place?

It started with two sides willing to walk in the shoes of the other. One inviting the other to sit at the table and just talk. I applaud the leadership of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police (OACP) who gave me the privilege of the podium. I’m not quite sure they knew what they were getting!

 Chief Jeff Groth, Chief Geoff Spalding, Chief John Teague, and Kevin Campbell (CEO – The Victory Group) – OACP Annual Conference, Bend, OR (Apr 2017)

Chief Jeff Groth, Chief Geoff Spalding, Chief John Teague, and Kevin Campbell (CEO – The Victory Group) – OACP Annual Conference, Bend, OR (Apr 2017)

Still the remnants of racism are tightly woven into the fabric of our society. And this type of leadership is not the purview of law enforcement, nor the domain of black Americans. My friend, you also have a critical role.

Your call to action:

What actions, large or small, have you taken within your families, professional circles, or communities to enact positive change regarding bigotry and racism? Do you have the humility to step out of your comfort zone and do something courageous in the future?

I also recommend:

Watch Terrence M. Cunningham’s remarks at the 2016 International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Conference where he acknowledged the history of police as the “face of oppression” to many citizens and the need to end the cycle of distrust. The video is less than five minutes.

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Brian H. Williams, MD