Check-the-Box Training Won't Work. Communities Of Color Must Drive Policing

Capt. Ronald Johnson
Capt. Ronald Johnson (R) of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, who was appointed by the governor to take control of security operations in the city of Ferguson, greets demonstrators on August 16, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Scott Olson/Getty

I am a policeman who wore the uniform and badge for over thirty years, and for twenty-six of those years still worried about police encounters with my black son.

I joined the law enforcement profession because of the good I saw in itand also because of the inequities I saw. I am honored to have served the citizens and visitors to the state of Missouri and to have served with the brave men and women across the country that adorn the uniform. I'm proud to have served as Commander of Protest Security in Ferguson during the demonstrations in reaction to the 2014 police-involved shooting of Michael Brown Jr.

Law enforcement must not be managed by policies and procedures that are compromises between agencies and unions. Communities themselvestheir voices and expectationsmust drive policing in America. Some will call this unrealistic, but this is the kind of successful policing environment that has always existed in wealthy communities throughout America. Environments of shared ownership must also exist in communities of color. Just putting an African American in charge of an agency without giving voice to those they serve will not change the culture of policing in America.

We've heard a lot about providing officers with de-escalation training; I agree that's very important. The larger issue in police culture, though, is why we see de-escalation tactics being used liberally in encounters that do not involve African Americans. If de-escalation training is to truly transform law enforcement, then officers must be put through comprehensive personal-awareness training. In some cases, outside training consultants must be used instead of in-house training by peers.

In more than three decades as a trooper, I never received racial training from a person of color with relatable experience but only cookie-cutter "diversity training." For training around race to have real impact it must be taught with a credible voice. Check-the-box training does not challenge the implicit biases that exist in all of us, or systemic racism, or the racism which manifests in some situations. Law enforcement agencies must create internal departmental alert systems that track an officer's physical enforcement interactions, citizen complaints and department internal policy violation investigations.

Many police officers are not residents of the communities they patrol. In some of these communities, officers are responding to heavy call loads which do not allow for non-duty-related interactions with those they serve. In communities where officers live and work, there is an opportunity to interact with citizens through events like schools, sports, church, dining. This allows law enforcement officers to see citizens through positive experiences.

A young man I once worked with, who later became a friend, and I were riding together. He pulled over a vehicle occupied by two African American teens and began harshly questioning them. Because of their attire and the expensive vehicle they were drivingit belonged to a parentthe trooper assumed they were gang members. He began questioning them in a way that I had never heard him do to any other violator. I asked about it, and he told me his actions were based on the indicators associated with their hoodies, matching pants, expensive tennis shoes and jewelry.

We'd never spent time together socially, outside of work, so I had to tell him that I too wore hoodies with matching pants, expensive tennis shoes and jewelry.

You're kidding, he said.

He perceived me as a "different" African American because of the title of Trooper. And after we talked, the young trooper began to cry and apologized for his actions with the teen. He said he'd grown up in an all-white neighborhood and attend schools without any African American classmates. His college had a small percentage of African Americans; he had no personal contact with them. After graduation he attended flight school where there was not an African American in his flight class. All he knew about African Americans, the trooper said, was learned through news reports, movies and conversations with others like himself.

If my friend had been trained by another white officer with his same implicit biases, then the culture that challenges us today would only have been reinforced.

Communities that allow officers to live outside of the area could mandate that as a condition of employment, officers must volunteer a certain number of community service hours. Law enforcement agencies need to create opportunities for interactions that foster acceptance and trust.

There are nearly 18,000 police agencies in America with varying leadership philosophies: a huge pileup of differing policies and procedures. I challenge government officials to form a decision-making body with authority to review, revise, or create new, nationally standardized policies for all law enforcement to follow. The choke-hold that killed George Floyd would most likely have been prohibited if such a governing body existed.

As I said, I had fears about my own son's safety in encounters with police. I remember having that talk with my son about dealing with police, while reflecting on the conversation my dad had with me. My son's response was a defiant "why?"the same response I gave my father. I remember as a small child overhearing my grandfather having a similar conversation with my father. I wondered why my grandfather was telling my hero he could not stand like a man but needed to be submissive to ensure he would return to his family.

I pray that one day these conversations between black fathers and sons will no longer be necessary.

Noise researchers have found that most people get used to a sound that they hear often. Their brain tells them there's no cause for alarm. If you live near train tracks, after a week or so you may no longer be awakened by passing trains because your internal monitor tells you that there's no danger, that you can safely ignore even the loudest sound. You have become deaf to the sound of the train.

White America has become deaf to the pain of African Americans, believing there is no cause for alarm. After all these centuries together, white America is no longer awakened by the cry of an African American voice.

If we can hear each other, we can begin to go forwardtogether.

Retired Captain Ron Johnson led protest-security law enforcement during the demonstrations that followed the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. He is the author of "13 Days in Ferguson" and the founder of Lodestones Solutions Group.

Ferguson Ron Johnson Michael Brown demonstrations shooting
Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol speaks to media during a protest on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri on August 18, 2014. Police fired tear gas in another night of unrest in a Missouri town where a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, just hours after President Barack Obama called for calm. Michael B. Thomas/AFP via Getty Images