Good policing is more than just enforcing laws: it’s about having empathy; listening to people’s concerns with humility; connecting and not separating; relating and not alienating; seeing the shared humanity that bridges us; learning lessons from the past; and more importantly, finding creative solutions to policing problems.
Officer Omar Salem, police sergeant and SWAT team leader of the City of Napa Police, says in this video, “We couldn’t arrest our way out of the problem; something had to change.” And positive change became his mission. Officer Salem worked with members of the Napa Valley School District to create a program to identify high-risk students to help lift their self-esteem and develop their leadership qualities. In these tumultuous times, America needs such efforts more than ever.
The son of immigrants from Iraq and Afghanistan, Officer Salem is a great testimony to the highest ideals that Americans aspire to, despite this imperfect union. There’s a lot of work to be done to help move this nation to a more perfect union. With Officer Salem and others like him, let’s get to work.
Note: On Feb. 8, 2021, Officer Omar Salem was awarded the distinguished service medal by the Napa Police Department.
So I sat down with the rival gang members at the school and we talked about what they needed to break the cycle of violence and how we might bring about change. I realized what they were really looking for was a sense of belonging and validation. In each of them, I saw a “Malcolm.”
Let me explain. Malcolm X was an African-American Muslim whose short life was full of radical transformations. He started as an idealistic boy in an all-white grammar school whose dreams of becoming a lawyer were shattered by the murder of his father and a racist school teacher. Then came the rebellious “Malcolm Little,” a youth who landed in prison for larceny and breaking and entering. In prison, he began to read and embrace the life of the mind that transformed him into the man we know as “Malcolm X,” who became a leader in the Nation of Islam (a Black nationalist religious movement). Based on his early life and the doctrine of his new teacher, Elijah Muhammad, he saw all white people as devils, and as enemies, and believed that African Americans should advance their cause “by any means necessary.” Later, however, after falling out with his teacher and making the pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm found himself within mainstream Islam, and was transformed once more: He recognized the universal dignity of all peoples and even welcomed working with well-intentioned white people.
I was also inspired by the story of Muhammad Ali and Joe Martin. Muhammad Ali grew up as a black kid named Cassius Clay in the segregated city of Louisville. One day, when Cassius was 12, someone stole his bike so he went to the police station to report the theft. He met Joe Martin, a white officer, and told Martin that if he ever caught the thief he would “whup ‘im.” Officer Martin was not only fighting segregation in the city but was also a local boxing instructor,, so he asked little Cassius if he knew how to fight. When Cassius said he didn’t, Martin invited him to the integrated Columbia Gym where he taught boxing. A kind and caring officer, Martin continued to coach him and in 1960 accompanied him to the Olympics where Clay won a gold medal for the USA. Clay later embraced Islam and became Muhammad Ali—and always credited Martin with launching his boxing career. The African-American Muslim and the white policeman became lifelong friends.
The common thread in the stories of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali is the importance of reaching impressionable youth with care and compassion, and mentoring them before they take the wrong path that inevitably leads to prison.
Can you imagine what our communities would become if we all used our spheres of influence to relate rather than alienate, and to connect rather than separate? Let’s grow comfortable with being uncomfortable, and learn to disagree without being disagreeable. There’s a lot of work to be done to begin to change this great nation—and some of it most certainly in the ways we police—but let’s also celebrate and never forget this nation’s continued move towards a more perfect union.
Our work begins with the light of an honest and humble conversation—at a barbershop or a school—that may lift the fog from the bridges that have always connected us.