The Powerful Question Changing Everything for Cops and the People They Serve
As a 28-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department—I am a peace officer, a public servant, a cop. I love my job, but I have to say that I can’t remember a time in this country where fear, hatred and mistrust of the police was at such a fever pitch, when there has been such an enormous gap between police and the community we are supposed to serve and protect.
This country has a horrific history of bias and discrimination, and whether we like to admit it or not, we all are a part of this problem. The media and our political discourse has set up a false and dangerous dichotomy—do you support Black Lives Matter or do you support the police? We are disproportionately incarcerating people of color. If you are a black man between 18 and 25, you are more likely to be in prison than in college. No wonder communities of color fear the police. All of us, police officers included, need to acknowledge that we have inherited this legacy of racism and take action to prevent another Ferguson, Baton Rouge, or Minnesota.
We all tend to put people into stereotypical boxes, especially when we know little about them or we fear them. I learned early in my career that building trust and challenging stereotypes and unconscious bias can only begin by being curious, and then having the courage to have uncomfortable and honest conversations.
Fifteen years ago, my precinct had an incident with some homeless youth. It became quite apparent that we knew little about these kids, and they certainly knew nothing about us or the laws we were trying to enforce. We hosted a conversation prompted by three questions:
1) What is one belief or perception I have about you?
2) What is one thing you don’t know about me?
3) What is one thing that would make our contact easier?
Through the dialogue, we learned so many heartbreaking and illuminating details about each other. One police officer bravely disclosed to the kids that his dad killed his mom and that his dad was in prison. Another cop said, “You all smell bad and you’re dirty.” One of the youth told him that smelling bad was a strategy to keep sexual predators away. You should have seen the look on that cop’s face. Slowly, we began to understand each other and began to view each other as human beings—and we did better at peacefully co-existing.
We know that 1.7 million children in the United States have a parent who is incarcerated. These kids are more likely to drop out of school, engage in delinquent behavior, and subsequently end up incarcerated. These children are also taught by their parents to hate the police, and it doesn’t take a lot to understand why.
In 2008, I had the opportunity to work with a Girl Scouts Beyond Bars troop for girls with incarcerated mothers. I decided to go to prison and ask their mothers’ permission. Walking into the Washington Corrections Center for Women for the first time, I was nervous. No badge, no gun. I felt incredibly vulnerable.
That first day is permanently etched in my mind. Crossing the threshold into the room I had to do a gut check. These mothers looked like you, like me, like my friends and family…people I’d actually hang out with. This is not what I remembered from 20 years of arresting people. My idea of what to expect was influenced by what I had experienced—and I had to look at myself and realize that I was wrong.
The atmosphere in the room was chilly. The last time they had seen the police they most likely were being handcuffed. To break the ice, I asked them whether their children were likely to call the police if they needed help. At that moment the women’s “mom hats” came on. We had a discussion about how they had told their children not to trust us, how to lie to us and quite honestly, to fear and hate us. They courageously shared something about themselves and their lives. Through this conversation, I realized that something obviously wasn’t working for them and asked: “If there was something someone could have said or done to change the path that led you here, what would it have been?”
When I returned to prison two months later, one of the inmates told me, “No one ever asks us that question. They ask us what we did and how much time we got. If they even care to ask us why we did it, we usually say something like, ‘I needed dope so I robbed the store.’ No one ever asks why we needed dope in the first place.” Then she handed me a stack of papers filled with answers to that “if” question. The inmates had selflessly written their answers in the hope that some child would read them and ask for help before it was too late. The most interesting thing was they were not full of blame. They were full of reflection…raw, real, riveting, and painful.
In the days that followed, I realized that inside the walls of the prison, there lies an overlooked solution to this epidemic of mass incarceration. I learned that we all have stories, we all have pain, and we are all connected. This is when I began to change the way I look at a population that I had literally and figuratively “put away.”
To date, we have collected thousands of answers to this question from individuals who are locked up. Ultimately what do we want? We both—cop and former felons—want young people to stop, listen and take positive steps to prevent themselves from ending up in the back of a patrol car or in prison. And when these young people see two opposing sides working together. It blurs the line between “us and “them.” It begins to create a community built on trust, respect, and shared responsibility.
I can’t believe I am admitting this, but I look forward to going to prison. The things I have learned from the women and men inside have made me a better person and a much better police officer. I am here to tell you that police can and must be a positive part of our communities. Police are a needed part of society and should not to be thought of as nameless uniforms enforcing laws through intimidation and fear—and the police, individually and collectively, must do better. We can and must start healing these painful divides and work to create safer and healthier communities…together.
Detective Kim Bogucki is the co-founder of The IF Project, an innovative partnership between law enforcement, currently and previously incarcerated adults, and community leaders to build commonality, reduce misperceptions and serve as a deterrent to recidivism and future incarceration. A 28-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department, Kim has developed nationally replicated programs that create dialogue around issues of social justice between members of law enforcement and the communities they serve. She co-founded the West Side Story Project to bring together young people and law enforcement around the performing arts to address the plight of gang violence and recently launched The One On/Kind2All, a non-profit focused on creating communities of kindness.
Kim has received numerous awards for her work, including The Red Cross Heroes Award, the Seattle Storm’s (WNBA) Women that Inspire Award, the Center for Children’s Youth and Justice President’s Award, the Seattle Police Foundation Excellence Award, the Department of Corrections Volunteer of the Year at Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW), the Greater Seattle Business Association (GSBA) Community Leader Award, and Washington State Mentors Association Unsung Heroes Award.