I’m now a cop in my hometown, Savannah, Ga., and I don’t want to fight another war — our “war on crime.” But I’m not going anywhere. I’m just speaking up, to propose that we end what never was a war to begin with. We need to change our mind-set about what it means to “police” in America. At this moment of maximal national tension and outrage, when national leaders are calling the streets of America a “battlespace,” with police officers as warriors who should “dominate” and give “no quarter,” I am telling whoever will listen: Police are not warriors — because we are not and must not be at war with our neighbors.
For decades, the United States has funded and created police departments that resemble occupying military forces, unable to protect and serve. We armed ourselves literally and spiritually for a war on crime, and to quote Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, “And the war came.” What we now see deployed in many cities and towns is anti-policing. It’s the death of true community police work and, too often, the death of our neighbors. The well-documented militarization of American police departments has inevitably produced officers who see themselves and their roles as “warriors” or “punishers” or “sheepdogs.” Much of what our society finds so distressing and unacceptable in police interactions with their neighbors — disrespect, anger, frustration and violence — is not a result of “flawed” training; it’s a result of training for war.
In my limited experience as a police officer in a high-crime, high-tempo city, I and my colleagues who trained me have tried a different mind-set, a neighbor mind-set. It sounds simple, and it’s not complicated — but it is certainly not easy. I approach every person I meet on the streets as my neighbor. Often this is literally true because I live where I work. That was a deliberate choice for me, but I respect whatever others choose; I was just trying to figure out how to be a good cop, and, for me, that meant being a good neighbor. I needed to trust my neighbors if I ever wanted them to trust me. This was the opposite of how our “war on terror” was and is being fought. I finally had home-field advantage, and I was determined not to squander it.
So I began my career as a local cop by calling people my neighbors, in my reports and in my conversations. I approached every 911 call from that space and mind-set. I still do. As I handled more and more calls for service, I began to savor the differences between my job as a CIA operations officer overseas in our war on terror and now as a local cop in what I was refusing to accept was a war on crime.
For example, if there was a phone number associated with the 911 call I was dispatched to, I called it from my personal cellphone and spoke to the person needing help while I was en route. This littlest of things has proved immensely valuable to me as I try to slow everything down while racing to an emergency. I got real-time accurate information about what colleagues and I were heading into, which was often not as serious as it was portrayed initially. I remember being dispatched to deal with a “domestic fight, he’s destroying the house,” a call that generates understandable tension and momentum in the police response. I called the number at the bottom of my computer screen and spoke to a woman, who told me her autistic brother, whom she cares for, had acted out and, having broken stuff in the house, was now standing in the yard motionless. All we needed was to know what name her brother liked to be called and what to avoid doing to make things worse, and the potential drama and risk evaporated before we ever stepped out of our cars. Conversely, sometimes the brief phone call lets us know that the situation is much worse than it seems.
Apart from providing us a clearer view of what crime or emergency was in progress or had just occurred, my phone calls with neighbors gave me the chance to step out of my patrol car, often into dramatic and loud scenes, and say this powerful truth: “Hi, I’m Officer Skinner, we just spoke.” That brief connection was often enough to buy the time we all needed to avoid more drama. Another benefit was that we had each other’s phone numbers. I told my neighbors that if they needed emergency help, call 911; if they needed anything else, call Skinner.
And they do call. Or text. Or wave at me. Recently a struggling neighbor waved me over and told me that she couldn’t get in touch with her parole officer. Failure to check in could lead to an arrest warrant for parole violation. Plus, she was running out of minutes on her prepaid cellphone. We stood on the side of the road, and I let this sworn enemy in our war on crime use my phone to check in and video-chat with the officer. Many times, we deal with neighbors who are teetering on the edge of some collapse; as cops, we can either tip them over or pull them back. Our job is to pull them back at every opportunity.
As I got better at being a rookie cop, I kept asking myself this question: “If I didn’t have a badge and a gun, how would I handle this call?” Whatever I came up with that was legal, transparent and kind, I would try. Mostly, that just meant listening to people, letting them vent and slowing everything down. I’m not saying police should not have a badge and a gun, I’m just saying that we must not rely on them. It also placed on me the rightful burden of not bringing what I call “drama” to my calls. If there was going to be violence, it wouldn’t start with me. I wasn’t worried if a use of force was justified; that was the lowest of legal and ethical bars to meet. I obsessed about whether it was inevitable or whether I could do something to avoid it.
As I got closer to my neighbors, I developed an empathy that has served me better than any gun or vest. It lets me give them the benefit of the doubt every time. I’m often wrong, like anyone else, in initial assessments of chaotic loud scenes, but I try to be wrong silently and without acting on my rush to be wrong. I never understood why people say police should not second-guess themselves because that would be dangerous to the officer; I second-guess myself constantly and replay every encounter to see what I can learn because not doing so is dangerous to my neighbors.
Most police training, as befits training for war, is about “force protection” and officer safety above all. The training revolves around the idea not just that anyone could harm me, but that they will. This is where terminology such as calling people “civilians,” however well-intended, creates the impression and the actions of war. I have found that the closer I get to my neighbors, the safer we all are. Once we change to that mind-set, we can change police training to match.
A funny thing happened on the way to becoming a better rookie cop by being a better neighbor: I became a better person. This is the opposite of what wars do. Wars make monsters of us all. Overseas, our war on terror was fought and lost by mistreating entire communities while looking for a handful of people, all the while saying we were doing no such thing. That war has left behind fragile communities, not entirely our fault but certainly our responsibility. Our war on crime is producing the same fragile, anti-resilient communities in which an inevitable spark produces inevitable conflagration. This issue of blame versus responsibility wraps around me in my work as a cop. I’m not to blame for the misconduct of fellow officers across this country, but I am responsible. I’m not to blame for the historical and ongoing injustices in law enforcement and the judicial system, but I am responsible. Anyone who wears a badge and swore an oath to serve and protect their neighbors is responsible. We are collectively responsible and bound by oath not just to protect our neighbors with the power of the state but to protect them from the power of the state when needed.
The current political division and social madness see us collectively teetering. Doing more of what brought us to this brink — state violence against our neighbors in an endless war on crime — will tip us over. At the CIA, I worked in failed states where there was a shortage of everything but weapons and strife. We are replicating our failures abroad here at home. The rhetoric and the tactics and the aggression of war have no place in local police work. Making matters worse is the unseemly urging of the White House to federalize an armed response to local protests against local policing; to do so is to pour gasoline on a burning house and give the firefighters guns to fight the fire. Progress in police work in our communities is measured in years and generations. It can be destroyed in hours.
Refusing to fight this war on crime has, improbable as it seems at age 49, become the fight of my life. And I am not alone. Because my neighbors are not just the point of being a local cop; they are how I can be a local cop. It is their consent that enables me. It is their trust that empowers me. And it is our truth that drives me: that we all matter, or none of us do.