Residents and Police – An Unnecessary Divide

by Rick Deines,

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible”  – St. Francis of Assisi 

The revelation of the mistreatment of Derek Williams while in police custody has surfaced the need for opening ongoing community-wide conversations. My hope is that we can find a way to begin a different kind of conversation that will spread across neighborhoods and include rank and file officers, the beat cops, and the Union, but in particular the average citizens who are often unheard in the discussion.


Several factors influence a community’s ability to have this conversation. These include mutual stereotyping, assigning blame, generalizing accusations, and a lack of a basic communication skill set.

What kind of policing brings stability to a neighborhood? We most often think of policing as the job of those hired and paid to keep the peace. Are there other approaches?

I once attended a residential school that required us to “police” the grounds at 6:30 AM three times a week. Two decades later several Kansas City neighborhoods proclaimed every Saturday morning as “community policing” day. Neighbors gathered and walked their blocks “policing,” carrying plastic bags to pick up trash, noting places where newspapers or garbage had piled up, picking up needles or condoms that had remained behind. Mostly it was simply walking the block to become familiar with neighbors and conditions affecting

 their quality of life. Police from the local precinct walked along and connected with the neighbors in ways not possible in the heat of the mutual accusations that come at the time of crisis.

“We must hang together. . . else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.” At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Ben Franklin reminds us of what it takes. There’s way too much “hanging separately” going on. Franklin seems to have been aware that these inalienable rights are found in community, not in isolation.

I will use two terms that may be unusual, but useful. “Citizen residents” means all of us who live here, average folks seeking a better life. “Citizen police” means the police, hired to provide protection who are also citizens and fellow human beings, also seeking a better life.

A third unusual term in this article is “fresh conversations.”  “Fresh” conversation suggests we may be stuck in “old” ways of communication. Alternate approaches exist to bring opposing points of view into the same space without simply hardening those positions.

Residents and Police–An Unnecessary Divide

Describing persons in the community as citizen residents and citizen police is an attempt to establish a common citizenship understanding as a beginning point to re-imagine how we improve the safety and security networks that we have.

Fresh conversations can lead to a better understanding of the roles we each have and the relationships that are needed for effective law enforcement. Residents have a role in policing; police have a role in being citizens.

Without minimizing the level of the suffering the Derek Williams incident has caused to the innocents, nor to suggest that all avenues of redress have been exhausted, a majority

of both residents and police, as citizens, seek a path forward.

Us versus them is not the best we can do. We need to recognize the common base that all citizens share. Some citizens are parents, some citizens are teachers, some citizens are firefighters, some citizens work at McDonald’s, some citizens run small businesses and some citizens are police. They are us and we are they. We are all citizens desiring lives of interest in communities of opportunity.

New Language, Sharpened Skills, Fresh Conversation

Think of the fresh conversation that could happen if we sought to engage both rank and file police and average members of the community with questions like these:

• What is your first memory of meeting a police officer? Who taught you about the police and what they do?

• What stereotypes do you have of the police? What stereotypes do you think police have of the community? How can those stereotypes be replaced by more true representations?

• When have you thought the police were unfairly targeted? When did you think that police were in the wrong?

• What do you do on a regular basis to make your neighborhood more safe and secure?

• What ideas do you have that would introduce a broader view of policing that would bring citizen residents and citizen police into more meaningful contact?

A fresh conversation starts off with five or six people agreeing to discuss a certain concern or topic from the perspective of their own experience. Everyone agrees to share equal time, refrain from interruptions, listen carefully to understand other points of view, and to be respectful and resilient especially if you disagree.

Better training of officers is on everyone’s laundry list. We should add training of residents as well. Developing conversation skills could be part of that training, which includes developing the skills to facilitate these groups. Citizens of different generations, ethnic groups, and community interests could become facilitators.

Conversation skills should recognize that vulnerability in sharing can be a strength. Admitting vulnerability removes the defenses and self-protections that we naturally turn to in “making my point.” Additional skills that emphasize the art of being curious about another’s ideas or slowing one’s speech down and pausing to make listening more effective have proven to create good relationships.

More accessible focused conversations could take place in literally dozens of small groups across every Milwaukee community. These could be conversations that bring rank and file police and citizens together, out of the spotlight into the light of day.

Imperfect but Improved

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”–Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela are movement leaders who faced the reality of a great divisions among citizens in their nations. What is remarkable about their methods is that they found ways to provide everyone the opportunity, without prejudice, to be at the table. These began as small endeavors by ordinary people. They became new models of social well-being.

The desire for immediate gratification is understandable. It just isn’t going to happen. However, gathering and planting seeds of hope through conversation can be a worthwhile way of having something new and unexpected emerge.

Imperfect is all we ever really have. To improve upon the imperfect is within our reach. This is a longer term effort, not a solution that will immediately allow us to move on to other concerns. The lessons learned in such an approach will have implications for other areas of community life like education, employment and health care.

Citizens who are residents and citizens who are the police “policing” together represent a vision and a call waiting for a response. Fresh conversations are the pathway.

The Public Conversations Project ( is the source of this method. Locally, the Frank P. Zeidler Center for Public Discussion bases its work on this approach.

Rick Deines is a trained facilitator promoting public dialogue in Milwaukee through the Frank Zeidler Center for Public Discussion and the Community Transformation Project