As I reflect on our current struggle between police and community in our country and in our own community, I am reminded of my own experience. My experience as a long-time Madison resident and as a police officer who protected and served the very same community.
I was raised on the northeast side of Madison living in many of our low-income neighborhoods. A transient family moving from location to location, in poverty like many of our families in our city today. We were happy living in a multicultural community that brought the beautiful richness and diversity that connected us as a community. As a child, I often witnessed disrespect and injustices by police — particularly against our black and Latino residents, eventually leading me to anger and distrust that we are experiencing today. A reality that may not have been in other neighborhoods, but it was our reality. I was intrigued by the police profession as a child, not for what I witnessed but for the opportunity to reshape the way in which we policed our diverse communities. I always wanted to serve differently, a better way for my community.
Many years later, I heard that the Madison Police Department was transforming as an organization and committed to community policing, hiring women and people of color so I decided to join the Madison Police Department. Early on in my career, I questioned what community policing was, the term often used but not always seen. What does it mean to us as an organization? I also wondered what it meant for our community and whether our communities were given the opportunity to provide input on what community policing looked like in their neighborhood.
Shortly after beginning my law enforcement career, we started a group called Amigos en Azul (Friends in Blue), a program comprised of officers that reach out to our Latino community to build trust and eliminate barriers between our Latino community and law enforcement. I found that this was the kind of policing I wanted to be a part of. We went beyond attending events or participating in activities, establishing relationships, partnerships and trust that were engrained in our everyday work. Relationships were built that brought us together during crisis rather than divided us. It is a relationship where Amigos en Azul officers are seen as partners in their community. A relationship where our residents feel safe to call knowing that they will be served with the dignity and respect that they deserve. This is what community policing looks like. It is ensuring that there is alignment on community policing within all levels of the law enforcement organization.
Community policing is the ability for police officers to understand and know the community they serve, and that is Amigos en Azul. Police officers understand that there are language barriers, immigration concerns, cultural and family dynamics when responding to calls for service. We did this in partnership with the community. Our Latino residents shared their concerns about trust in policing and the challenges they face regarding public safety and police response. We listened and redirected our efforts, updated and developed new policies to appropriately serve this community.
Fast forward many years later, Amigos en Azul continues to be one of the most successful programs within the Madison Police Department. I recognize the challenges of today are different and require examination of the entire police profession, however, Amigos en Azul came at a time when we had experienced significant growth of our Latino population and we witnessed the challenges that were impacting police and community relationship. The lesson learned from this experience is the importance of setting our priorities based on community needs and redirecting our efforts and resources as needed.
Community policing is also hiring people who understand and know first hand about our community’s cultures and challenges of poverty, mental health, unemployment and many other underlying factors that plague our communities. We need officers who can communicate, empathize and do their work without judgment and bias.
Today, we are witnessing a division in our community and our nation between those who support our Black Lives Matter movement and those who support the police. If a segment of our community voices their concerns, we need to listen. When another segment of our community feels that they have the trust and strong relationships with our police department, it does not mean that another community’s experience is irrelevant. What impacts one community impacts us all. We need to support and take the time to understand the lives of people through their own experiences.
I ask that we come together as a community that includes a dialogue and a willingness to transform how we police in an ever-growing multicultural community. We need a community that is willing to work with police and systems of government to be a part of changing institutional policies and procedures that feed into a culture of an organization. We need to examine and identify built-in institutional racist policies and procedures from the past so that we don’t continue to perpetuate racist impacts of those policies and procedures. It is also critical to evaluate implementation to ensure that discretion involved during implementation are not feeding into the social inequities that we are faced with today. We need a community that is willing to work along side of our police department to impact change and we need a police department that is open to accepting it.
I have worked with Madison police officers who every day serve our community with compassion and with the highest integrity. I have worked alongside officers who stand beside our residents after a traumatic incident that will have a significant impact on their lives and do it with empathy and strength. Our officers will have long-lasting images of the pain and suffering that occurs within our community, those images will be ingrained in their minds forever. Police officers who have committed themselves to justice and fairness put their lives on the line every day to keep our community safe. They signed up to protect and serve our community and they do this every day with the highest integrity. We need to keep these good officers who have committed themselves to this profession and we need to take care of them as a community. It is also equally hard to witness the pain and tears from the families who have lost a loved one at the hands of law enforcement or who have been treated unfairly and unjust, we need to listen, empathize and take care of them as a community, as well.
Today, I struggle with the pain that we are witnessing in our community and police department. I recognize the unique experience that I have in this moment in time; a community resident who witnessed first hand the power dynamics and impact that bad policing can have on a community and a resident of Madison who once protected and served the very same community as a police officer.
I ask that we all take some time to reflect on what is happening in our city and be a part of the solution. It is great to see strong activism, however, in order to have long-lasting impact we need a cohesive community to work alongside our elected officials and our police department. We are at a critical time in our nation and our city, a sense of urgency and a time to impact the change that is needed today.
I ask that you join me in reflecting on our history of police and community relationships that can help guide us today to make a better Madison for our future.