A Simpler and Working System -
A letter of support for a police officer and friend
I have taken some time to think through how to respond to your recent comments on the police backlash you’ve found yourself embroiled in today. It was evident from your note that you feel both persecuted and vulnerable, and I hope this letter offers you some support. You deserve it!
Before I discuss your vital role in our society, I feel compelled to confess my feelings about this underlying ‘human condition’ we share. For brevity, I’ll get right to it.
As far back as I can remember, I have been mostly disappointed by the human species. Humankind is, without a doubt, a despicable lot. Whether under the banner of righteousness, belief systems, political control, an inherent evil, racism, fear or sheer survival, humans destroy much of what we need and value. While the unspeakable acts of violence, abuse and disrespect, heaped upon other humans is well known, the harm we do to this planet and the species is equally vile. I see humans fallible animals smart enough to get to the top of the food chain yet destined to repeat their mistakes and ultimately fail. (I realize that this may sound a bit dark but read on.)
It’s not that humankind is incapable of beauty, light, success and positive impact, because I’ve witnessed this human brilliance often, and I’m inspired every time. Brilliance is easy to spot and usually stands out like the light at the end of a dark tunnel.
When we fail, it is too often the case that our human systems and safeguards that have failed us. Human-made systems embed many of the flaws of those who create them. While good supporting practices (propping up the system) will increase system reliability, systems either continually adapt or break. Even when our failures are epic and soul-crushing, our memories quickly fade. I think most humans accept that ‘all systems fail’ and that it’s just a matter of time.
Ongoing change is the main culprit here. Evolution of economies, spending priorities, new vices, policies, broken education systems, power struggles, discrimination, innovation, advances in technology and many more agents work as double-edged swords to challenge society. Any one of these single external elements can disrupt our best-laid plans, and the challenges never stop coming.
Back in my IBM days, I recall this quote by John Gall circulating. It read:
“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working and simpler system.”
When I hear you take exception to the word “systemic” in the realm of policing, you might consider that there is an even larger system in play. It’s not you, and your method of policing that is failing, but the entire system we created.
Police are our heroes — our first responders amid all this human chaos. They are our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers working to protect and serve us all. Remember that your family is our family, and for this reason alone, we should never demonize our police officers as a group. If your team fails, we have also failed, because we collectively designed and built the system you serve.
We ask far too much of our Police. A seven by twenty-four safety net dispatched for any conceivable problem with a myriad of possible outcomes does not make sense. We know that ‘one shoe does not fit all,’ yet we expect a police officer to have all of the tools needed to respond to any given situation. And Police officers are often so good at what they do; we are lead to believe that they will never fail. But they’re human too! Is it be possible that our current policing models are unfair, unsustainable and inevitably unsafe — for both sides?
As an outsider, I see that we need a new and additive process for our family of policing heroes. We need to start looking back at our working systems and surround those best practices with all of the additional tools, policies and laws needed to deal with the ever-changing environment we share. We also need to serve and protect you and all our first responders from the broken people we are.
The Internet tells me that Canada averages 190 police officers per 100,000 people or roughly 70,000 officers across 141 agencies (and 39 first nations teams). My immediate reaction to that data is, ‘Wow, I’m surprised it’s not double the number.’ This data point also assures me that most people — the overwhelming majority of Canadians, are not lost, malformed humans. It may just be possible to create and maintain a civil society here, if we work at it.
Simultaneously, we are quickly learning that simply throwing more people and money at law enforcement problems won’t work either. The US averages 220 police per 100,000 people in major cities, across a whopping 17,985 agencies, not including the now six military forces. Despite this capacity (or maybe because of it), our southern neighbours are unravelling at a furious pace. Many describe the US as the most uncivilized civilization on the planet — on the verge of collapse. While our two populations are not comparable, we know that we need to take a different path to peace and prosperity than we see south of the border.
We live with this simple understanding. Our family has the luxury of sleeping in our home while you wake up to protect our lives. It takes an enormous amount of skills and character to do the work you do, and for that, you’ll always be our hero. Since failure is an option, lets make the necessary policing changes to move forward, and trust that together we humans can do better. I can live with that.
Chin up, my friend, a nation of positive supporters surround you. They are, of course, less vocal, thus this public letter of support.
Michael is a long time friend, veteran OPP officer, and deeply committed human struggling with recent police backlash and media rhetoric.