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Community relations

April 1, 2022

In 40 years of reporting and editing news from the U.S.-Mexico border, I never met a police chief I didn’t like — and that includes Mexico. Except for one guy.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

I saw a beautiful thing the other day. I was walking the dogs against foot traffic in Washington Park after a weekend 5K race. Women and men, boys and girls were leaving the park, race numbers pinned to their T-shirts, strolling toward their cars parked on Downing Street.

Two Denver motorcycle cops putted along with them, keeping an eye on things. Then a little boy on a tiny bicycle — he couldn’t have been more than 4 — pulled up alongside and raced the cops. The cop closest to him mildly raced his engine — with the clutch in — and when the kid petered out, the cop gave up.

“You win!” he said.

The cop docked his Harley, opened its little pannier and pulled something out of it and pinned it on the kid.

The crowd applauded, for the kid and the cop.

I saw the little boy’s joy, and his parents’ smiles, and stepped up to the cop and gave him a fist bump. “Way to go, man,” I said.

I can guarantee that little kid will remember the moment for the rest of his life. Might even make him want to be a motorcycle cop.

I’ve been a news reporter and editor for going on 40 years, and I think it’s a shame that so many people these days seem to think — or say, anyway — that somehow cops and reporters are on opposing teams: destined to be enemies.

It ain’t like that.

I’ve covered cops and crime in a dozen cities in the United States, and in Mexico, and you know what? I never met a police chief I didn’t like.

That’s a tough job. It requires a wide range of skills — human relations not least among them. Even in Mexico, whose police forces are institutionally corrupt, and do not deserve one more penny of U.S. aid, I dug the police chiefs I had to get along with. We exchanged history books, in both languages, and I had a ball swapping yarns with one guy in particular, whose name I dare not reveal.

Then there was that other guy.

Now, am I saying that street-level police officers in both of our countries do not commit felonies every day, with approval from their superiors all the way up: brutalizing, robbing and extorting the people they are supposed to protect? No, I am not denying that they do this. Nor am I saying that police chiefs are little angels, sent down (way down) from Heaven to protect us from — what? — from the police?

But journalism is a cliquish business, too. Reporters tend to hang around with reporters, just as cops hang around with cops. And when I taught in public high schools for nine years, I saw that teachers tend to hang around with other teachers.

Among the three professions, I think that habit is most harmful to teachers.

Most kids in public high schools don’t come from families of teachers, and teachers ought to spend more time learning where their kids come from than regimenting the children into a curriculum. I read the curriculum and understood it, but I never limited myself to it.

My teaching style would get me fired in some states today. Thank god I got out before that happened.

I can’t mention the names of my favorite police chiefs, because I knew them long ago and they’ve moved on, and praise from a guy like me might do them more harm than good.

My favorite top cop told me — and his officers confirmed this — that at their daily meetings, he told them over and over: “I want each and every one of you to have more friendly contacts with people than enforcement ones.”

That’s the only way a police force and the citizens who pay for it can get along, he insisted.

My favorite top cop.

I talked to another police chief after a terrifying incident our newspaper covered. A bad guy held a gun to his little son’s head for over an hour, and threatened to kill the kid and himself. Our photog Brad got the killer pics — though no one was killed that day.

The chief drove straight down there and ordered most of his officers to get out. Then he spent more than an hour persuading the guy to drop the gun. Which the guy eventually did.

The chief told me later: “I think I can talk anyone out of doing a dumb thing. Your first recourse doesn’t have to be a gun.”

Cops have tough jobs. Our country employs more than 800,000 sworn police officers — “sworn” meaning, for our purposes today, authorized to carry, and use, a gun. We have more than 8 million public schoolteachers.

Anytime a bad cop, or a bad teacher, gets caught, it makes headlines — in the local paper (if there is one) and sometimes nationwide. That’s as it should be. More than once when I was a city editor on a daily newspaper reporting on a felonious schoolteacher, I got outraged calls from readers.

“Why don’t you report on all the teachers who don’t molest children?” they asked.

“Because that’s not news,” I said.

Same thing with good cops. It’s not news when good cops have more friendly interactions with people than enforcement actions. It’s what cops, and teachers, and parents, I suppose, are supposed to do.

So what do you say, fellow Americans?

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