I was sitting in a hotel room yesterday watching the riots in Baltimore and wondering what the end-game of this police vs the black community drama is going to be.
It just seems to be getting worse.
I applaud the many preachers and leaders in the black community of Baltimore who, yesterday, derided their own young people for the riots. Preacher after preacher commented that the violence was senseless, offensive and useless to actualize change.
To be honest, the police community could learn something from the clear lines these black preachers are drawing.
The only way this story gets better is when the unified tribe of police officers are willing to draw similar lines between good, law abiding cops and cops who abuse their power.
Almost certainly there was an abuse of power when Freddie Gray’s spine was crushed, so why hasn’t a representative from the police department come out and said as much? Why not say, strongly, that if one of their own abused their power, that officer will face swift disciplinary action? Wouldn’t strong statements like this calm the tension?
Instead, officers remain unified behind a wall of words that seem more defensive than objective.
When heads of police departments pronounce accused officers innocent within hours of a shooting, America loses trust. And those pronouncements keep happening.
Something has to change, and it seems like the next move belongs to police officers. They are the ones who are going to have to run a different play or this thing is going to keep getting worse.
When I’m not writing books, I help brands tell their stories through my company StoryBrand. So far, we’ve helped a lot of Fortune 500 companies as well as startups and small businesses.
Often the truth of a brand and the story they are telling are different.
And that’s a problem.
I say all this because, as a guy who analyzes stories, the way the Police in these controversial situations are handling the “story” of said controversies is truly terrible.
Of course, the loss of the lives of so many black men is an enormous tragedy, but the failure of various police departments to even try to improve the story they are living and telling is, perhaps, the root of the trouble. And their handling of the story is going to cause even more trouble.
Consider another brand facing a controversial and difficult circumstance.
When faced with the onslaught of terrible stories of NFL players committing violence against women, the NFL finally began to act.
Once they realized they could no longer sweep these stories under the rug, they decided to do something about it. And their actions were swift, precise and pointed. They alienated those who committed the acts, pointed fingers at them and very clearly stated “they’re no longer with us.”
That move is what may have saved the NFL from many years of disgrace. Here’s why:
Every story needs an enemy, and in order to not look like the enemy, the NFL quickly disassociated itself as a brand from players within their own organization who were doing dastardly things. And while the NFL took their hits and their brand certainly lost value over the conflict, they at least worked to save the brand and frame the story differently, both in word and in the changing of their behavior.
Their attempt, whether sincere or not (and I believe they are now, finally, sincere) was to side with the good guys (society and the overwhelming percentage of decent NFL players and associates) in prosecuting the bad guys (those who committed domestic violence).
Here’s the problem with the story the police are telling now.
Every day, on the news, they are unifying with officers before truly finding out if what they did was an overreaction and an overreach of their power. Just after Michael Slager, a South Carolina police officer shot Walter Scott in the back as he ran away, and was filmed planting a taser gun near the body to cover his tracks, the local department defended him.
The District Attorney quickly stepped in and charged Slager. But the police were somehow unified. And when Robert Bates, a reserve deputy accidentally shot a man thinking he’d pulled his taser, he was defended by the local sergeant within hours. The words used were literally “he did nothing wrong.”
Really? Shouldn’t a court decide that?
The point here is not to say these officers are truly guilty.
The point is the knee-jerk reaction of police officers to defend each other no matter what really happened will continue to erode trust in the public. It’s just a bad story. From an outside perspective, they’re playing the role of mob characters, not heroic cops.
The percentage of good cops vs bad cops is extraordinary. I’ve known plenty of police officers and have yet to meet one that wasn’t truly drawn to their line of work for any motive other than to protect and serve.
Why are they so unified?
Here’s the reality of how this story plays itself out in the minds of the public.
When the public watches a story on the news, their subconscious minds are immediately dividing characters into the categories of good guys and bad guys. The problem is, when another cop shoots an unnamed black man they look very much like the bad guys. And then when good cops unify with them, they take on that same association.
At that point, the public, which makes decisions in split seconds and employs simple categories to do so, places the cops in the villain role and the seemingly oppressed community in the role of victim.
America is sensing a double standard.
If a black man commits a crime, it’s okay to accidentally kill them, but if a cop commits a crime, they should get the benefit of the doubt.
That’s not a good story and until it changes, the conflict will get much, much worse.
Now as I’ve said, I fully understand these issues are incredibly complex.
Many of the men who have been shot were involved in criminal activity. I’ve many white friends who’ve reminded me of this. And in turn I remind them that those men are now dead. And then I ask them if that sounds like justice or overreach?
Police have the right to defend themselves if their lives are at risk. And so this turns into a complicated mess very quickly, all dynamics that should be worked out in court. But that’s court. In the “court” of public opinion, people do not think in complicated nuances.
They think in story.
If the police in America want to win the story war, they should follow in the footsteps of the NFL. They shouldn’t be so quick to side with their own, especially given the fact that it’s impossible that there aren’t actually bad or, at best, immature cops. Every instance should be carefully examined and those in positions of power should say into the microphone every chance they get that they are going to rid their departments of cops who abuse their power or who are ill-equipped to handle their weapons and procedures with maturity.
In other words, the story needs to be the story of good cops, along with society, cracking down on crime, and crime should include bad cops.
The current story the public is hearing from the police looks more like a unified army invading a foreign country. It feels more like cops against America than cops for America. This, of course, is not true. There’s nothing true about it. But because they are doing such a sloppy job in their messaging, they’re losing the story wars in popular culture. And the story wars matter. This sloppy messaging is partly behind the distrust and the riots.
This story, is, of course, tragic.
Nothing will change that.
If I were helping the “brand” of our national police unions fix this story, I’d tell them to get very real about what a good cop is and what a bad cop is and start throwing bad cops out, with lots of cameras around. As long as they stay unified and their knee-jerk reaction is to defend their own, they won’t be trusted.