To serve and protect

June 01, 2020

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. Pick a small set of non-negotiable rules that matter to you most and enforce them ruthlessly. — Slava Akhmechet

People being people, any group of hundreds will have a few bad apples. Beyond that, people aren't angels—we get mad, and hungry, and say things we don't mean, and come to regret.

That much is a given. So the question I can't help but ask, when a police officer steps on someone's neck to the point of strangulation, is what the other officers on the scene did? What went through the other officers' heads, standing there while their coworker strangled a fellow human? Was that OK? Or was there some reason—rank, personal loyalty, fear of ostracism—that the other officer couldn't say, "You might want to let him breathe; you're killing him".

Firsthand experience has taught me that accountability and a sense of mission—key building blocks of organizational culture—don't happen by themselves. They are intentionally-created things, shaped every day by strong leaders who reinforce good behavior, and speak up when people do things they shouldn't. Over years, sometimes decades.

Without oversight, organizations turn inward. In business, that means forgetting your customers, letting expenses go, and putting your own career/agenda first. In my condo building, that meant a manager who ignored board directives and played favorites, until he sent us a "resignation letter" hoping we'd beg him back—we showed him the door. At the DMV, organizational rot is what causes five-minute conversations about your kids with coworkers, when the line is out the door.

My own views on police accountability have changed. It might be because I'm living in deep blue America, or maybe I've just seen enough organizational dysfunction to understand how things go wrong. But I see now how "serve and protect" might not match on-the-ground reality. "Serve and protecet" certainly wasn't the mantra in my 800-person condo building, why would it be for the police? Doubly so given a historically strong union, muscular political organization, and norms that include going after "cop killers" much harder than others, and letting friends and family walk free from speeding tickets?

I wonder what it will take for these norms to change. The wanton destruction of life and property we've seen this week are a terrible price to pay. (I know the protesters might not be doing the looting, a complex issue in itself.) The price we'll pay for this is hard any time, doubly so during a combination economic meltdown/public health crisis. What scares me is that it might be working. If I was a cop, I'd definitely be thinking twice about how I act after this week.  

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