Friday, August 15, 2014

Classroom Lessons for Cops

Are the Saint Louis County police feeling stupid this morning? I hope so. They should be. The difference between Wednesday and Thursday nights in Ferguson was the difference between chaos and community, between war and peace.The difference certainly wasn't in the crowd; Ferguson's population didn't change over night and they had, if anything, more reason to be enraged after Wednesday's mess.

Some of the press has framed this contrast in terms of different behavior from the crowd or a different attitude or behavior from the crowd, but that's baloney. There is one clear and obvious difference between the two evenings that easily accounts for the different outcomes. This is not rocket surgery-- if you send police determined to preserve and protect, you get a different result than if you send an army to control and command.

Any good classroom teacher can see the lessons of exercising authority (what we usually file under the heading of "classroom management") in the last few days of chaos and unrest in Ferguson.

Own your mistakes. We can hope that the focus on the unrest and subsequent return to peace in Ferguson does not distract people from the event that sparked all of this-- a police officer shot down an unarmed teenager. I have no doubt that as the story continues to unroll, we'll find additional details, conflicting stories, much more information about both Michael Brown and the man who killed him. Like much of America, I'll pay attention to all of that.

But here's the thing. Nothing you can tell me could possibly change the fact that Michael Brown's death should not have happened. Nothing you could possibly tell me would make me go, "Okay, well, I can now see that maybe the police officer did the right thing." Nothing. Michael Brown has been implicated in a "strongarm" robbery. So what. The penalty in this country for boosting baby cigars is not death.

Classroom teachers know-- when you make an inexcusable, obvious mistake, you don't try to stonewall and exert your authority to demand that your students view Something Clearly Wrong as Something Right. I know the impulse-- if I admit I screwed up, it will lessen my standing as an authority figure. But the opposite is true. By insisting that up is down, blue is red, and hot is cold, you only make yourself look ridiculous and, worse, untrustworthy.

All authority is earned. You don't earn authority by being untrustworthy. "I messed up. That never should have happened," may feel very vulnerable, but you can't say anything else and maintain integrity or leadership.

And most importantly-- owning it is the first step in fixing it. And when something is way out of whack (like, say, shooting down an unarmed black teen), then it desperately needs to be addressed, and the causes need to be changed.

Don't bring a tank to a tennis match. Over-reaction is deadly to authority. If I ask a student to sit down and scold him when he balks, that's a proportional response, and he'll feel like he received a just response to his action. If I ask him to sit down and two seconds later start screaming at him and write him up for twelve detentions and tear up his test paper, he no longer sees any connection between his behavior and mine. He will simply see me as an attacker.

When you bring a SWAT team, armored vehicles, and a sniper rifle to a peaceful demonstration, that's not a response. It's an attack.

Don't confuse your enemies and your purpose. One of the striking difference between the police stances of Wednesday and Thursday was that Thursday's police were there to make sure the protesters could exercise their rights.

The assault of the journalists in the McDonalds contains a detail that may seem minor, but I think it's right on point. One of the journalists reported that he was directed first to one door and then to another, and then assaulted when he couldn't quickly sort out the confusing directions. This is exactly what happens when you are not trying to help the person succeed, but have already assumed that he is failing.

We've all met teachers at the point in their career where they haven't worked this out. They complain about a class, complain "How am I supposed to teach that bunch of ignorant barbarians?" Most go on to figure out the answer which is, of course, that you must first stop treating them like ignorant barbarians.

As a person with authority, you have a group of people who are your charges, your responsibility. Your whole purpose is to help them. When you start to view them as your enemy, an obstacle to your work, then you have lost sight of your purpose and you need to check yourself.

It is true that some of our clients are less than ideal. Doesn't matter. You will always deal with people who are different, who have different values, different ways of expressing themselves, different cultural background, different families of origin, and most of all, different levels of ease in dealing with those who wield authority. The job is still the job, and a good wielder of authority recognizes that a person in trouble is a person who needs help.

In short, the Saint Louis County police could have upped their game simply by consulting any experienced first grade teacher. Here's hoping more capable heads prevail in the time ahead.


  1. Good article. Respect people (including young people and students, who are also people.)

  2. Agree that it seems impossible that this killing was justified.

    But I have sympathy for dedicated professionals who struggle to do their jobs without adequate funding or training and are often single handedly expected to overcome all the problems of poverty. Such as teachers and police officers.