Bob Neal

The days are gone, my policeman friend told me, “when you could pin a badge on a guy with a size three hat and a size 50 belt and call him a cop.” Norm should know.

Norman Caron was the deputy police chief in Kansas City when we were classmates. Later, he served as chief, from 1978 into 1985, a long tenure in the KCPD top job.

In the late ’60s, Norm was a new kind of cop. He was the first command-level officer in KC history to earn a college degree while on the force. He and I took history classes together at the University of Missouri – Kansas City.

That’s only part of why he was a new kind of cop.

“We are the only social agency,” he told me, “that’s on-call 24 hours a day.” Norm saw cops as part of the community. If people see you help a kid cross the street or help a storekeeper talk down an angry customer, they will see that you give a damn, and they’ll call when they need help. That was community policing before the term gained cachet.

Norm’s ideas on policing reminded me of when I ran a store in Harlem. I knew the beat cops who walked Amsterdam Avenue. When rats infested the pizzeria next door, I told Officer Jack Kearns, and he got the health department there within a couple of hours. At the corner bar, I’d see Jack on break at the back of the bar. Not drinking, just relaxing, maybe talking with customers to keep up with the neighborhood.

Jack Kearns was in our community, and he was part of our community. We trusted Jack.

Fast forward a decade. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, I worked in a new state agency, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which parceled out to local police departments equipment no longer needed by the military. You know, armored personnel carriers, tanks, riot gear. I checked that application forms were properly filled in, sorted them by which small town wanted a tank, which wanted ballistic shields, etc.

This approach to law enforcement that was at odds with Norm Caron’s ideas.

I can’t ever know what a Black man feels when he encounters police. But I got a wee taste of it two years ago in Annapolis, Maryland. I had driven 10 hours to a basketball tournament at the Naval Academy. Annapolis’s street layout is screwy, and I got lost.

At the end of a rotary, I pulled over to check directions to my hotel. A cop drove around me, hit his blue lights and siren. As he left his car and hustled toward me, he was yelling and flailing his arms. “You can’t park here. You can’t park here.” And some other words.

I told him I was lost, told him the name of the hotel. As he slowly settled down, he said he couldn’t tell me where the hotel was. I told him the street address and he said, calmly at last, that it was the street behind me exiting the rotary, barely a block away. I still don’t understand his antagonism to an out-of-stater who got lost.

Another glimpse into modern policing. I saw a video of a squad meeting — the setting resembled squad meetings on “Hill Street Blues” — in which the sergeant was giving officers a pep talk, like a coach. As his voice rose, his words became vitriol. The streets are full of bad people who want to kill you, he yelled. You get them before they get you.

I thought, this isn’t Norm Caron’s police work. These men and women were not going out to help a kid cross at a busy corner, to calm an upset customer in a store. These cops were being pumped up to do battle.

Over the years, this military approach to police work starts to attract not the Norm Carons of the world but the cop who screams at a lost old man, the sergeant who pumps up his crew with stark warnings. In, but not of, the community.

When George Floyd was killed, only 6% of Minneapolis police officers lived in the city. They were in the community only when on duty. The cop charged with killing Floyd was the subject of 18 complaints in 19 years. Oh, yeah, he doesn’t live in Minneapolis, either.

Norm died in 2001, so I can’t ask him, but I’ll bet he’d want an officer with 18 citizen complaints off his force. I found a news story of Norm calling for four KC officers to be fired for beating a man arrested on a bunch of minor charges. He held them accountable.

You likely discerned from these threads a path to reforming police work. Cops need to be both in the community and of the community. They do it in Rockland, where police ride bicycles. They do it in any city, such as Lewiston, that has walking beats. Anyone can stop a cop on a bike or on foot to chat. It helps the officer be of the community.

Defunding the police is one of the dumbest ideas to come down the pike in decades, but reforming the police needs doing every now and again. Now sounds good.

Bob Neal recalls that many people asked Norm Caron, “Where are you from?” He was a Worcester boy who married a Missouri girl and moved to KC. He kept the accent. Neal can be reached at [email protected]

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