The tragic impact of tunnel vision “systemic racism” on police officers’ lives

The stumbling about of well-intentioned but incredibly naive political and anti-police voices” to fix “systemic racism” by defunding and disbanding police is clearly accomplishing one thing: demoralizing police officers to the point of quitting, destroying their emotional wellness (already low) and in the course of events threating your own public safety.

While the debate about the role of police in today’s society is a healthy one it is also one that has become entangled in the single word “systemic.” This apparently is a mind-numbing concept to many who instead of understanding what creates a “system” such as an organization’s leadership, culture and structure instead use the word as a simplistic proxy for things going to hell just because.

In policing a good investigation avoids “tunnel vision” and yet that is exactly the direction the debate over “systemic racism is taking.” Tunnel vision is technically called “narrowcasting reality.” It means, as my MBA students at UCW know, a “loss of peripheral vision. It is as though the object being looked at is seen through a dark tunnel or tube. It refers to a narrowed or exclusive focus on a particular emotion.”

And that is what we now face. The emotion driving the convoluted term “systemic” is mostly anger and fear. Anger by many at police services who in a small minority of cases have truly screwed up. And, more worrisome, fear from politicians that if they don’t hitch their wagon to the latest boiling surf of public opinion it will be they who get defunded and disbanded from office.

This has led to such lunacy of recommendations as,

  • “Cut the number of police in half and cut their budget in half. Fewer police officers equals fewer opportunities for them to brutalize and kill people” (Mariame Kaba in the New York Times on June 2).
  • “Communities can demand hiring and budget freezes, budget cuts, and participatory budgeting opportunities to ensure that police will not be refunded in the future. States should stop the construction of new prisons and begin closing remaining ones by freeing the people inside. No new police academies should be established. These are only a few suggestions from a broader set of abolitionist demands” (Derecka Purnell writing in the Atlantic magazine of July 6).”

In the Canadian province of British Columbia Solicitor General Mike Farnworth announced on July 9th that a new all-party committee has until 2021 to review the BC Police Act (legislation that prescribes the structure and legislation framework of policing). Here are a few tidbits from his logic:

  • “…as we know, our institutions in this province have systemic racism built into them, often in the form of bias and often unintentionally,” said Farnworth. Really? If so, what work has been done within all government departments to examine the cultures, structures and operational systems that led to such conditions? And what role did a failure of political and senior leadership play in all those years?
  • “We know that the 45-year-old act is out of date and does not reflect today’s challenges or the opportunities for delivering police services that work for everyone,” he said. So in the past 45 years there has been no red flags warning of severe gaps in leadership, culture, structures and systems that ultimately impact employee morale and actions? Indeed many such gaps have been identified. What was missing was effective senior leadership to take action.
  • Farnsworth states that the committee will examine the “extent of racism in B.C.’s police agencies, including the RCMP, and review the impact on public safety and trust in policing.” And here is where his Police Act review committee crawls deep into the tunnel of “narrowcasting” and ultimately groupthink.

Starkly absent from the narrowcasting of what “systemic racism” means is the lives, professions, and the dramatically tragic and continuing impact of badly misaligned and missing progressive police organizational cultures, senior leadership, structures, systems, workplace climate and employee actions in Canada and elsewhere.

The impact over the decades in Canada alone has been devastating. Years ago a police officer personal friend and colleague of mine in the RCMP committed suicide. I know the names of many others. I also know from experience that the RCMP’s efforts at a national mental health strategy are a cruel joke essentially comprised of snappy public relations and colorful brochures.

The biggest secret to police officers, especially in Canada, is that continued public opinion polling shows that they have a high level of public trust. But like always, the noisy minority creates the headlines and Twitter feeds and sets the political agenda, not the silent majority.

A friend of mine recently shared the results of a recent poll of 10,000 police officers in the U.S. conducted by Calibre Press and PoliceOne. Only 7%  would recommend becoming a cop. Only 51% agreed they were pleased with their job satisfaction but not as much as they used to be.

In Canada I hear from my former RCMP colleagues that the recent and continued narrowcasting of “systemic racism” is devastating to morale and friends and family life. And as the accompanying chart shows, there has been more interest shown in the search topic “police mental health” than any time in the past five years.

2 police mental healthIndeed it is healthy to understand what role various systems play in organizational structures. But to avoid and ignore internal environments of leadership, culture, structures, systems, workplace climates and resultant actions and how they align to rapidly evolving external environments is just simply tunnel vision of the deepest, darkest kind.