HARVARD — It hit the police chief at some point last summer, amid the daily reports of nationwide protests sparked by the death of another Black man at the hands of law enforcement.
“Have I wasted 30 years of my life doing this?”
For much of his career, Ed Denmark, the 53-year-old head of the Police Department in this quiet central Massachusetts town, had felt like things were trending in the right direction. Where once he was hesitant to speak his mind, he had matured into an outspoken proponent of police reform. And as one of only a handful of Black police chiefs in Massachusetts, he had been looking for ways to help shape the future of law enforcement at a time when it is increasingly under determined attack.
Last summer, though, as he watched the grim images coming out of cities like Boston, New York, and Portland, Ore., he wondered whether any real progress had been made at all.
The calls for reform that followed high-profile police killings have been met, in many cases, with resistance on the part of police.
Unions have trotted out heated and familiar rhetoric. Some in law enforcement have denied the existence of widespread issues, or of racism within the ranks. Denmark watched with particular dismay as many of his contemporaries bristled at the state’s recent police reform bill — which in his mind does little but formalize the things police should be doing already, or not doing at all.
Harvard, of course, is far from the epicenter of America’s police reckoning. Occasional problems between officers and residents are often worked out in a face-to-face conversation. Over the summer, the town of 6,500 experienced few of the protests that drew thousands to the streets of cities elsewhere.
But the issues highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement — racism, a general distrust of law enforcement — are universal. And while much of Denmark’s concerns are focused on the policing world at large, even here in a leafy suburb where Black residents make up just 5 percent of the population, there are reminders of the tensions that can bubble up from the community. Not long ago, Denmark says, he left a meeting with town officials when someone in a passing vehicle offered a message: “F--- you, cops!”
Maybe it’s because he’s nearing retirement. Maybe it’s because the pressure he once felt as a young officer to keep his mouth shut — “to go along to get along,” as he puts it — has dissipated.
But after more than three decades on the job, this much he is willing to admit: The approach to policing in America is broken.
And the time for holding his peace about it is over.
He was a rookie officer in Ayer in the spring of 1991 as he watched the grainy footage of the beating of Rodney King and listened quietly as his fellow officers made the kinds of comments that would be echoed throughout his career, each time a Black citizen fell victim to an officer’s chokehold, baton, or bullet.
“We don’t know the whole story.”
“Why didn’t he just comply?”
Denmark could understand the sentiment — to a point. Even as a young cop, he knew there were moments that called for force. But as a Black man experiencing the first inklings of a personal evolution that would come to define his career, he also wondered this: How could anyone beat a man for so long?
He didn’t set out for a career in law enforcement. Growing up in Ayer, the son of a laborer father and a mother who worked in manufacturing, he figured he’d find his way into some kind of profession, eventually. But at the suggestion of a family friend, Denmark applied for a reserve police officer position in the spring of ‘90, and emerged from training craving the things that have long drawn young men to the badge:
Sirens. Guns. Action.
He remembers fondly that first call, riding in a cruiser with his training officer, and the flip of the lights and siren. “I was grinning like a 2-year-old,” Denmark said. “I couldn’t help it. ... This was awesome.”
Eager to prove himself among his peers, Denmark racked up arrests, wrote countless tickets, picked up extra shifts. He closely monitored the monthly stats posted prominently inside the station, a makeshift scoreboard that ranked officers by their arrest totals. Like everyone, he wanted to be number one.
But within a few years, the excitement had waned. He’d grown troubled by some of the zero tolerance, tough-on-crime tactics commonly used. Chasing arrests had left him cynical and high-strung.
One night, after another routine arrest had devolved into a wrestling match with a suspect, an emergency room nurse took a look at his ripped shirt and injured hand and asked: “Why are you so angry?”
He didn’t have an answer.
He was ready to quit, mentally and physically exhausted, when a friend who’d grown weary of his incessant complaints offered a bit of advice that would reshape the next quarter-century of his life.
“If you’re so perfect,” the friend asked, “then why don’t you stay and fix it?”
Change doesn’t come easy in policing. Baked into the very subculture of law enforcement, says Tom Nolan, a former Boston Police Department lieutenant who now teaches sociology at Emmanuel College, is a resistance to rethinking it.
Officers can view additional oversight as a direct attack on their abilities and livelihoods. Chiefs can be hesitant to alter a system that has brought them professional success. And in larger cities, politically powerful unions use their clout to safeguard the status quo.
“We understand that there are problems in policing in other parts of the country,” as Larry Calderone, a veteran officer and president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, told the Globe in October. “But not here in Boston.”
At various points over the past six months, the Globe reached out to law enforcement officials throughout the state, hoping for insight into the reality of policing in today’s charged climate.
In nearly every case, they have declined.
“I would not want to be a police chief in 2021,” said Nolan. “They’re under extreme pressure to advocate for change, knowing that it’s going to be challenging, at the very least, if not nearly impossible.”
Chief Denmark proved a rare exception in this circle of silence.
Mired in professional malaise, Denmark started to think about policing differently upon enrolling in the criminal justice master’s program at Fitchburg State in 1996, while continuing to work full time as an officer.
Having long viewed the job as little more than catching bad guys, he suddenly found himself in classrooms surrounded by people from other corners of the criminal justice system — social workers, probation officers, those within the court system.
For the first time, he began to think critically about the work he was doing, and policing in general. He thought about the importance placed on arrests and tickets, and the way officers view themselves as the last protectors of freedom — even as they hold the power to take that freedom away.
“If we’re supposed to be these protectors of all that’s right,” Denmark wondered, “then why are people scared to death of us?”
As he moved up the ladder — from sergeant to lieutenant in Ayer and, later, to chief in Sterling and Harvard — it became easier to apply some of what he was learning.
Even in such a small department — Harvard has just nine full-time officers — Denmark found opportunities to change the long-held way of thinking. He would ask his officers to consider what their real purpose was; was an arrest, for example, always the best option? On a typical “suspicious person” call from a resident, he urged officers to first interview the caller to see if the complaint had merit before stopping someone cold on the street.
He spent a lot of time asking, “Why?”
Why did you handle this situation this way? How could you have done things differently?
It wasn’t always easy, convincing officers to rethink their training.
“The challenge was then, how do you broach that conversation when technically the officer [hasn’t done] anything wrong?” Denmark says. “They’re sitting there, saying, ‘I wrote my 10 tickets today, I’m doing a bang-up job.’”
Nor was the shift immediate.
For a time after being promoted, Denmark continued to post the stats on the office wall, getting onto officers for their lack of production. Somewhere along the way, however, it occurred to him: Behind those numbers were people whose lives could be forever altered by an arrest that could have just as easily been avoided.
The stats sheets came down.
Shifting the culture of his own department was one thing; wider law enforcement was quite another, his attempts to influence colleagues were often met with rolled eyes.
Lisa Lane McCarty, who first met Denmark in the early ’90s while working for the Middlesex district attorney, recalls sinking down in her seat during gatherings of the state’s police chiefs, when Denmark would urge a rethinking of their approach to interactions with the public.
“I think that they looked at him like, ‘Are you a cop, or are you a social worker?’” said McCarty. “Some of the ideas he threw out there, some in law enforcement found — for lack of a better term — touchy-feely.”
It would be a common theme, even as high-profile deaths — Eric Garner, Tamir Rice — continued to mount, further fraying community-police relations.
In 2014, when the shooting death of Michael Brown by a white police officer ignited weeks of protests in Ferguson, Mo., Denmark held out hope the furor might finally be the catalyst for real, wholesale change within law enforcement.
What happened instead, Denmark said, was state-mandated implicit bias training, classrooms filled with cops who considered it an unnecessary overreaction to public outcry.
Then came the events of the past summer.
The day after George Floyd’s death, for the first time he could remember, Denmark arrived at the station to find that his fellow officers weren’t muttering the kinds of veiled defenses that typically accompanied high-profile police killings.
This time, they seemed as outraged as the rest of the world.
And finally, Denmark felt some relief.
In the months since, he’s thought more than ever about the hurdles of bringing change to a nearly 200-year-old institution notoriously averse to it.
The optimism inspired by the law enforcement response to the Floyd killing was tempered, for instance, by a conversation he had with a fellow Massachusetts police chief who referred to the Black Lives Matter movement — an organization seeking social justice and police accountability — as a “terrorist organization.”
How can an extra training course undo that type of thinking? How can a dozen training courses?
In a way, he finds himself at another crossroads.
He’s got 18 months, he figures, before he retires, and there is a part of him that would love to say goodbye to policing forever, to grab a fishing pole and not look back.
If he could roll back the clock, he acknowledges, he probably wouldn’t go into policing again.
“If I wasn’t already in it, I don’t see myself having the fortitude to want to jump in and try to make people change,” he says. “I would look at it and go, ‘It ain’t happening. It’s just not going to happen.’”
But while some in law enforcement have taken a look at the current environment and declared themselves finished — an exodus of suburban police chiefs followed the unrest of the past summer — Denmark has recommitted himself.
He is again engaging in reform of police culture, work he intends to continue after retirement. Not long ago, he traveled to St. Anthony, Minn., in the aftermath of the Philando Castile shooting, as part of a Department of Justice effort to mend relationships between police and the city’s residents. He is currently teaching courses at a pair of local colleges, on policing and public administration.
More recently, he has been working with researchers at George Mason University in Virginia to develop a pilot program that would inject college criminal justice programs with training on minimizing conflict during police encounters — getting to officers before they’re sworn in, rather than after.
Will any of it work? Will this time be different?
He has to think so.
“Without hope,” he asks, “what do you have?”
Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.