- Lynda Williams spent 29 years with the United States Secret Service before retiring in 2017.
- As president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, she now works to reform policing.
- Williams spoke with Insider about the defunding debate, how to break cops’ “warrior mentality,” and how social media impacts policing.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
High-profile police killings over the last year have sent protesters into the streets to call for defunding or abolishing departments across the US. To Lynda R. Williams, a former law enforcement official who now works to reform policing, those demands close off an opportunity to rebuild trust between officers and the people they serve.
“Everybody has a different definition of defunding the police,” Williams, 29-year veteran of the US Secret Service, told Insider. “Just like terrorism is a word, but it doesn’t have a solid definition. If I ask my college students, they’d say, ‘let’s do away with the police.’ We can’t live in a lawless society.”
Williams believes police departments should acknowledge how they’ve systemically failed their communities instead. A task force she spearheaded as president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, which works to address community-police relations and issues facing Black officers, recently compiled a report making recommendations for how law enforcement agencies can shift from a “warrior mentality” to a “guardian mentality” — or as she puts it, a mindset “to protect” rather than “to occupy or to incapacitate people from living their lives.”
The report, which was reviewed by Insider, recommended using 911 call data to assess a community’s individual needs, as well as determine the kind of calls police are being summoned to and whether other social service agencies are better equipped to handle them. NOBLE advocates for realigning funds so departments can team up with behavioral and mental health specialists who can assist them in addressing underlying homelessness, addiction, and mental illness in the community and keeping it safe. This kind of programming, where social service agencies and behavioral professionals respond to calls instead of or with cops, is growing in popularity in the US.
Williams spoke to Insider about the unique challenges that Black officers face throughout their careers, how social media impacts the relationship between cops and their communities, and how police can better partner with social services. Her answers were lightly edited for clarity.
Protesters hold signs at a demonstration against police brutality.
Tell me a bit about how you found your way into law enforcement and your career.
I was a criminal justice major at Middle Tennessee State University, which is the school where I am now a professor of criminal justice. While I was there, I always had an interest in law enforcement, and an FBI agent came to class and that was my epiphany. When I graduated, I did not become FBI, I became Secret Service. I first went to be a deputy sheriff in Augusta, Georgia, and from there I was recruited by the Secret Service through Atlanta, and 29 and a half years later, I retired as a deputy assistant director.
What did you learn about inequity, either in how laws are enforced or internally within the departments themselves, throughout your career?
As an African American in the United States and as an African American woman in law enforcement … that has been an undercurrent that has always been there, and we’ve just had to learn to mitigate that.
It took every agency to recognize that we have some disparities and there are some shortcomings, and just because the the greater population might not have experienced some of these same experiences as Black and brown applicants and candidates and officers, it doesn’t negate that.
We have to have all of the departments to acknowledge this, to make this an equitable environment for everybody to grow, to promote, to achieve. It’s a constant battle, but we are addressing it and most law enforcement agencies right now are acknowledging that.
What specific issues of inequity continue to be a problem in the US today?
It’s hard for most all departments — whether it’s on the municipal, or state, or federal level — to have outreach and recruiting for Black and brown citizens.
As we see again in our history, there’s a disconnect between law enforcement and the communities in which we serve. When communities have an adversarial approach to law enforcement and citizens only see law enforcement under adversarial conditions, then it’s hard to trust and want to be a part of that.
As law enforcement, we have to make an extra effort to show that we are the guardians of our communities, not an occupying force. So until we go and rebuild that trust with the community and respect those cultures in that community, then the community can’t embrace law enforcement in their role to protect and serve.
What unique challenges, if any, do Black and minority members of law enforcement face in today’s climate calling for police reform?
As African American citizens, we are who we are, but we are also law enforcement professionals.
In law enforcement you might be seeing disparities in your own department, so you have some apprehension with the department, but you also have apprehension within the communities.
Some people think that if you’re Black and brown and you’re standing in a uniform, that you’re the problem and you’re not part of the solution. So they’re getting kickback from their communities and even those people they serve right beside. Who can they trust and not trust?
They still put on that shield and put on that gun and badge and go out to do their job because they are trained and they’re professional, but there’s extra tension and anxiety because again, they represent the blue and they represent the Black and brown.
Did you personally face any of these challenges during your career in law enforcement?
It’s not even just one thing, it’s the totality of being an African American in law enforcement. Of course, I came through the federal sector and first I was the only woman in my class, and then I was the only African American.
Even being a woman in law enforcement, you’ve got to be twice as good to be considered half as good. You have colleagues that don’t think women belong in law enforcement and when you’re promoted to supervisory roles and managerial roles, some of them didn’t take well to that.
You have to know your job and you have to know your job well.
You have to have tough skin, but you also have to have good mentors and those mentors come in a variety of colors and genders.
What is one of the biggest points of action that NOBLE’s task force recommends police departments take up?
We have to partner with our social services to help us help the communities that we serve.
We’re talking about mental illness. We’re talking about drug abuse. We’re talking about homelessness, and domestic violence. There is a possibility of danger in all of those scenarios, but instead of law enforcement going in without the proficiency to mitigate those circumstances — because they’re not doctors, they’re not psychologists or social workers — we have crisis intervention teams.
At the same time that law enforcement has been dispatched, there is some representation from those social services to come help mitigate that.
If you have a person that has a gun that’s having a mental episode, then yes, it has the propensity of being something dangerous. But when you have a skilled professional to talk and to relate to that person, as they’re trained to do, then of course they’ll come out seeing less volatile encounters and people can get the help they need.
Williams said social media and cell phone recordings have changed the public’s perception of police.
Adam Miller/Business Insider
What do you think has had the greatest negative impact on community-police relations in the last 10 years, and how can agencies work to fix it?
The greatest impact, good and bad, is social media and recordings providing actual documentation of these incidents.
What has really hurt and helped is that these things are televised and that we see it. Sometimes the investigation is not complete, but we just continuously see these negative encounters, with particularly African American males, and people that have died from situations that should have been handled differently.
Instead of going from stop to “bang, bang, dead,” there is a process to bring that back down. So we have to check how we are doing. We have to take responsibility and make sure officers are trained to understand the community in which they’re protecting, and the culture in that community.
After we’ve seen George Floyd [coverage] go on and one and on, the public started seeing police killings as an epidemic, but these things were happening beforehand and just not being recorded.
In the majority of law enforcement, those men and women who go out every day are raising their hands to protect and serve and putting their lives on the line. But still, when we see these encounters over and over, we need to stop to evaluate ourselves, to have accountability and transparency, and know there’s consequences for that behavior.
There’s also been a lot of talk about defunding the police. What does NOBLE think about this?
Everybody has a different definition of defunding the police. Just like terrorism is a word, but it doesn’t have a solid definition. If I ask my college students, they’d say, “let’s do away with the police.”
We can’t live in a lawless society. So as we talk about defunding, we’re saying keep the funding that the police have or realign it with the social services — or even appropriate additional funds so that we can have a collaboration that even better serves the community.
Police should protect their communities, not occupy them, according to Williams.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File
You’ve mentioned that NOBLE hopes to shift policing from a “warrior mentality” to a “guardian mentality.” Can you explain what that means?
Law enforcement has a paramilitary background. We talk about warfare: how to shoot, how to do take downs, and how to enforce laws. But a guardian is there to protect, not to occupy or to incapacitate people from living their lives.
So the guardian mentality is that community policing, where the police are out there making rounds and talking to the community to know who they are, respect who they are, and feel comfortable coming to law enforcement to share things going on in their community.
But a warrior mentality is when you come in as an occupying force and you’re incapacitating people, and you’re not respecting their constitutional rights or their rights as individuals.
So we have to get back to that community policing, where law enforcement is an extension of the communities.
We are the men and the women that you see in the gym, and the church, and in the grocery stores.
What barriers are there are to accomplishing the kind of reform that NOBLE is calling for?
I don’t have any specific pushback to that, but change is inevitable and change is not comfortable.
Anytime you change the status quo and put a magnifying glass to say, “This is a problem and we’re not tolerating it anymore,” there’s resistance.
Even after George Floyd and the accountability that has been pushed onto law enforcement, there have been law enforcement personnel to leave because they’re not comfortable with change.
I mean, there has to be chaos before change, and so if that’s what we have to do to weed out some of the systemic and institutional disparities that exist across the board in all law enforcement, then that’s what we have to do.
The Insidexpress is now on Telegram and Google News. Join us on Telegram and Google News, and stay updated.