Dec 23, 2014 by

By Barry E. Stern,
Education and Workforce Development Consultant

At a symposium I attended as a college junior over 50 years ago, “The Role of the Whole Person in a Divided World,” famous anthropologist Margaret Mead opined that the defining markers of civilized society is how people treat the most vulnerable – the sick, elderly and very young – and how the police treat everybody.

Regardless of whether people agree with Grand Jury decisions in Ferguson, New York City or Cleveland, it appears we have a police problem in America. Not only are minorities aggrieved, but majority groups also see evidence that many police out of touch – always looking to catch residents doing things wrong as opposed to promoting public safety through establishing positive relationships and respect.

In my own community in northern Virginia a white officer fatally shot a popular high school student, also white, who was having a particularly bad day. The crazed and depressed youngster was shot because he rushed at the officer with a knife. The officer was not indicted, nor should he have been, but one wonders whether he might have tried something other deadly force, like not confronting the kid or giving him space till he cooled off.

Not only do our police often fail to de-escalate, but many go out their way to intimidate. Despite the fact that Main Street still hasn’t overcome the Great Recession of 2008-9, cops throughout the country are still handing out tickets for speeding only a few miles over the limit even when no other cars are around. Few get warnings. Other egregious things police do is to arrest people for growing food in their backyards or producing raw milk on their farms. What people buy every day in grocery stores tends to be far worse for their health than the products from either of these practices.

Police seem to think of warnings as missed opportunities to meet quotas and add to government revenues. Indeed, cops are evaluated on the number of arrests and penalties they can inflict on people. In contrast, the kinds of police most residents want are those who look for opportunities to meet and help people while always being vigilant to counter delinquent behavior.

Communities throughout American are having conversations with police to not only repair their images but to assure they are promoting public safety and not making life difficult more than it is. Each community will do this in its own way. In mine, because the teenager who lost his life was mentally ill, meetings were held to suggest ways the police and everybody else could recognize mental illness signs and make appropriate referrals.

Yet mental health systems are mostly broke in America with poorly trained and underpaid personnel operating in overly rigid bureaucracies. Some that are supposed to provide just-in-time emergency care are merely information brokers providing phone numbers and websites in lieu of trained people to immediately address a problem. How many killing tragedies and mass murders must the public endure before this system is fixed? Mental health needs the equivalent of firefighter teams to stop mental eruptions before they get out of hand and to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

In my view dissatisfaction with police is only one indicator of growing unhappiness and dissatisfaction with this country’s direction. Here are some others:

  • Stagnant wages of the middle class that haven’t grown in over 30 years.
  • Extremely high youth unemployment, particularly among minorities.
  • Taxing full-time employment through the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act which in effect is an incentive for employers to hire part-timers without benefits rather than full-timers. How does that help the economy?
  • Massive increases in health care costs for Americans with insurance in order to improve access for those without it.
  • Lowest labor force participation rate in history among Americans in their 20s and 30s, particularly among recent college graduates who can’t find jobs (about half).
  • Increasing skills gap where employers and educators have vastly different perceptions of whether high school and college grads are prepared for available jobs.
  • Continuing high rates of divorce and children born out of wedlock causing considerable family disruption and economic insecurity and which are great impediments to eliminating poverty.
  • A tax code that is unintelligible to most and which is frustrating America’s economic growth and sense of fairness.
  • Tainted food and water that is overloaded with toxins such as pesticides, hormones, drugs, and hundreds of chemicals yet whose collective impact on public health has rarely been studied and likely put many at risk of cancer, Alzeimher’s, and neurological disabilities such as autism and attention deficit disorder.
  • Processed foods that have little nutritional value, addict millions, contribute to rising obesity and chronic disease and thus raise health care costs.
  • Genetically engineered foods such as GMO corn, soy and sugar beets that have not been tested sufficiently to rule out their potential to cause disease and alter the genetic make-up of humans. Most European and Asian countries have banned GMOs. In the U.S. processed food companies, corporate farmers and the GMO industry have lobbied successfully to stop food labeling that would enable shoppers to make informed choices of what to feed their families.
  • Outrageous incompetence or corruption in many of the agencies that are supposed to preserve our health and welfare:
    • Veterans Administration hospital waiting lists
    • Conflicts of interest in Center for Disease Control studies of vaccine safety
    • Bungled roll out of website in its first year
    • Guns going to Mexican drug cartels courtesy of our Department of Justice (“Fast and Furious”)
    • Illegal admission of thousands of undocumented children who recently crossed our southern border.
    • Grossly inadequate governmental responses to fast growing neurological disabilities such as autism that have left the vast majority of affected children with divorced parents who are financially unable to care for them. A major reason is the paucity of talent in 90% of school districts to educate these children; and nobody is being held accountable for this.
  • And finally, radical Islamic terrorism and tyrannical regimes that have spawned little understood and extended wars in far away places, made air travel a nightmare and resulted in a tsunami of suicides and mental illness among returning veterans.

No doubt our anxieties would be relieved by effective governmental leadership in addressing these issues. Job #1 has to be policies that beget faster economic growth, more well-paying jobs and a larger middle class. Job # 2 in my view would be ensuring greater governmental competence, policy clarity, integrity and transparency. But we citizens need to do our share of heavy lifting starting in our own communities.

First, we must acknowledge that all people do racial/ethnic profiling, which has been built into our genes over millions of years of evolution. Profiling protects our species from danger. We form tribes of those with whom we have things in common and naturally suspect those who look, talk or behave differently. Successful cultures figure out how to overcome our tribal nature by accepting and nourishing diversity. Yet most societies don’t. Indeed, most wars and human rights violations occur in parts of the world characterized by religious intolerance – which savior is the true savior? Which bible the true bible? Which way of life the most pure? And so on.

Along with not adequately addressing our economic doldrums the U.S. culture is fraying because we haven’t worked hard enough to bring people together from diverse walks of life to solve our problems. Police have their culture. Social workers and teachers have theirs. So does every religious, racial, ethnic, age, school or college group. Yet the U.S. culture hasn’t adjusted quickly enough to its rapidly changing demography, conversion to a global economy and technologies that tend to replace face-to-face with virtual communication. So it’s become easier to remain comfortable in our silos – ethnic, religious, occupational, socio-economic or political. Many feel it’s too inconvenient to try to understand other ways of being. So we remain isolated in our homes rather than continually reaching out. Three examples:

  • Playgrounds in most suburbs are empty even on bright sunny days. Kids are at home texting, playing video games, or cramming for high stakes tests at school. They’ll show up at playgrounds and recreation centers for adult supervised sports practices and competitions, but parents fearing for their safety are reluctant to let them loose to meet other kids and invent their own games. Along with missed opportunities for social and emotional growth are health consequences, i.e. less physical fitness and more obesity.
  • Compared to years past politicians are less likely to interact socially and make friends with those from the other political party.
  • People are less likely to know their neighbors than several years ago, even in fairly stable communities.

How to come together and renew the American spirit of tolerance and intergroup understanding is perhaps the greatest challenge before us. By and large, governmental efforts over 60 years to socially engineer this by desegregating neighborhoods and schools have not yet achieved Martin Luther King’s vision. Just look at the recent demonstrations that have rocked many of our nation’s cities.

Government must steer. But we the people must “row” with even more vigor to ensure our national morale and prosperity—indeed, our way of life. Below are some modest suggestions.

Police organizations

  • Reach out to various community groups beyond leaders and the clergy. For example:
    • Bring back community policing where residents and police get to know one another.
    • Conduct discussions about law enforcement in high school and college classrooms while listening carefully to students who may have reservations about how police treat residents.
    • Provide meals to low-income and homeless individuals and engage in discussions about how they feel about police treatment while learning about health and social services available to make their lives a bit better.
    • Have local police meet with parents of children with autism and other neurological disabilities to gain a better understanding of their unusual behaviors and mannerisms, and to learn how to de-escalate occasional outbursts that can be destructive.
  • Expand number of Police Athletic Leagues. Members of the police force coach young people, both boys and girls, in sports, and help with homework and other school-related activities. The purpose is to build character, help strengthen police-community relations, and keep children off illegal drugs.
  • Require police officers to take a sabbatical every 5-7 years with half pay and thus acknowledge that high stress over several years can affect judgment and demeanor vis-à-vis the public. To make up remaining pay, establish educational savings accounts to facilitate further education or exchange programs with employers from other industries whereby police and those from other occupations can work in each other’s shoes for 6-12 months.


In the community:

  • Have a 5-minute conversation with at least one person per week whom you’ve never met — a neighbor, someone at work or at school, someone on the bus, train or subway or at the grocery store.
  • Hire staff or obtain volunteers to facilitate after school youth recreation at public playgrounds and other spaces. Kids would count on caring energetic adults being there to teach sports and other useful skills.
  • Establish more neighborhood teen centers with sports, library, music and meeting facilities. Too many teens have no place to go after school and on weekends, particularly during the winter and inclement weather.
  • Encourage local school board to consider alternatives to the traditional high school such as career academies that keep students together with their peers and a team of teachers from different disciplines for several hours a day and that provide team-taught courses with project-based learning. Like after school sports teams such formats enable students to get to know one another and their teachers far better than in the traditional high school.
  • Encourage community block parties and social events that travel from home to home where neighbors supply food, refreshments and small gifts as ways to meet and laugh with one another.
  • Opportunities for families to enjoy recreational and fitness activities with public safety personnel such as police, firefighters and rescue squads.
  • Volunteer opportunities for young people to engage and interact with the elderly in senior centers, nursing homes and the like.

At work

  • Promote more interaction among an organization’s employees through social and recreational opportunities and team building activities.
  • Financial incentives such as educational “grubstake” accounts where employers (and possibly government) match entry-level worker savings to encourage training to help them qualify for promotions and thus foster their interaction with higher income and more socially connected colleagues.
  • Enable voluntary work sharing that would allow experienced employees to trade off income earning work time for more free time. For example, an employee close to retirement might choose to gradually cut down on his/her number of work hours rather than retire all at once. If a sufficient number elected to make such time-income tradeoffs, employers would obtain the financial wherewithal to hire more people and promote others.
  • Expand sabbaticals to more industries to help employees avoid burnout while expanding employment opportunities for others. Some on sabbatical will seek further education and training, while others may simply want to rest, spend more time with their family or work on that new business or invention they’ve been dreaming about.

To be sure, at a time of great challenge and change we need better performance from our politicians and civil servants – local, state and federal—through more effective use of resources to address priorities such as more good jobs for Americans and the elimination of poverty. But the public also has to pull its weight through active efforts in their own neighborhoods and communities to foster greater intergroup understanding. A century ago we had barn-raisings and quilting bees; more recently we’ve had community home building for poor people and food banks. This has all become part of our national character. As we enter this holiday season, a little extra effort to revitalize these national traits of altruism, optimism, risk-taking and connectedness to a common American culture wouldn’t do any harm and possibly much good.

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