What's Tony Thinking

Fix Everything, Change Nothing


It’s a line that I heard from another church consultant, a.k.a. church doctor. “What stuck and ailing congregations really want from us,” she said wryly, “is to fix everything, but change nothing.” Which ain’t possible. Lest we be too hard on congregations, this ask is more of a human problem than a church problem alone. We want a quick fix, not something that requires of us hard-won awareness, taking risks and change of hearts and minds.

It’s what Ron Heifetz, whom I’ve cited often in this connection, called the “technical solution,” in contrast to seeing what we face as a more interesting and demanding, “adaptive challenge.”

I thought of the “Fix Everything, Change Nothing” lament as I read Sue Rahr’s excellent article in Sunday’s Seattle Times, “Do We Care Enough to Do Police Reform Right?” Rahr was head of the King County Police for a number of years. These days she is the ED of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.

Years ago I spent an evening with Rahr when we were the featured guests for a fund-raising event for Seattle’s Town Hall. I was impressed with her then and am again now on reading her article on doing police reform right. Rahr steers readers away from what has been called “the bad apple theory,” that there are a few rotten cops, but most are just fine. She asks us to look at the forest not just a tree or two. Here’s Rahr:

“In our nation, we have created a system too often marked by a profound lack of caring for the harm we inflict in pursuit of being tough on crime. Since this powerful and popular political agenda began in the 1970s, politicians across the nation have learned that it plays well to voters. When we layer this political reality on top of a justice system with roots going back to slave patrols, segregation and the enforcement of Jim Crow laws, law enforcement’s role in the enormous racial disparity in America becomes impossible to ignore.”

Rahr points out the way that under the banner of “law and order” tough challenges get swept under the rug as police and incarceration are made the one size fits all answer. If every problem is a nail, as the saying goes, then every solution is a hammer. Every solution is more and “tougher” policing, which is reflected in the militarization of police over the last 20 years, which is the go-to for a pseudo tough guy like Trump. More from Rahr:

“I offer my insights into the current situation with the intention of providing a backdrop for a discussion about meaningful police reform — which cannot happen in a vacuum. (italics added)

“We must also discuss our mental-health system that is broken; our health-care system that is deeply inequitable and doesn’t address the disease of addiction; and a lack of fair and affordable housing and educational opportunities.

“I do not bring the failures of these other systems into the discussion to deflect blame from problematic policing. Rather, I raise them because the root causes of crime and disorder that police are expected to resolve are directly related to the failures of those other systems. Calls to ‘defund the police’ have become common. If that means we should divert the resources to these other services, that is a logical response to the currently untenable situation in which we put officers.”

Rahr employs a great analogy that gets at how this asks something more of us, and which points to failure of the Republican solution to everything for 40 years now, i.e. “lower taxes.” Which is not to say the solution is “throw money at it.” My hunch is that the real solution isn’t just more spending and programs, but rebuilding community and social fabric in our society, which includes as one element serious funding of serious social service solutions but much more, something like “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Rahr’s analogy:

“Consider this medical analogy to the persistence of crime in our communities: I’ll pay for aspirin to bring down a fever. But I’m not willing to invest in the prevention of the underlying illness. And I’m not willing to pay for expensive treatment to cure it. Then I blame the aspirin for not curing the illness. Or, I use too much aspirin in my zeal to bring down the fever and inflict lasting damage to the patient, exacerbating the underlying illness.

“This is not a perfect analogy for our policing problems. Tablets of aspirin don’t have the latitude to make moral choice. But it illustrates how we put front-line police officers in a position where they can treat only the symptoms — then we blame them for failing to cure the illness.”

Perfect illustration of the technical problem/ adaptive challenge distinction.

Rahr offers specific steps for real reform in the police area. I’ll leave those to you to read. In the meantime, hats of to Sue Rahr and those like her who are fighting the good fight, and who don’t confuse slogans — be they “Law and Order” or “Defund the Police” — with solutions. She challenges us to move beyond blame to making hard-won but possible progress.




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