Keeping the Peace
Police officer takes the lessons of the Rotary peace program to the streets of Philadelphia
The tension is palpable as we cruise through a neighborhood of dilapidated row houses in one of the toughest parts of Philadelphia. Buildings jaggedly rise from the street – like a mouth full of busted teeth.
Lt. D.F. Pace nods to acknowledge a stare. He understands.
In his 15-year career with the Philadelphia Police Department, Pace has taken pride in being naturally tolerant and level-headed, qualities that helped him rise through the ranks.
But he is human. To maintain a level head under pressure, at times he uses several techniques he learned through the Rotary Peace Fellowship program.
In 2010, Pace applied for the intensive three-month professional certificate program in Thailand. The idea had come to then-Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey through a suggestion from the Philadelphia Rotary Club, the 19th-oldest Rotary club in the world. Pace relished the challenge. “As soon as I saw it, I said, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’”
Even before events like what happened in Ferguson (Mo.), I saw an unease developing between police and the community. I thought, ‘If we don’t get a handle on this, the lid’s going to come off.’
Lt. D.F. Pace
Philadelphia Police Department
Pace saw the fellowship as a way to defuse a developing powder keg. “Even before events like what happened in Ferguson [Mo.], I saw an unease developing between police and the community,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘If we don’t get a handle on this, the lid’s going to come off.’”
The growing tension between police and residents also troubled members of the Philadelphia Rotary Club. They considered a few ideas until Joseph Batory, then scholarship chair of the club, had a light-bulb moment: the peace fellowship.
“Sometimes the obvious is right in front of us,” says Batory. “It finally dawned on me that a police officer is at the very forefront of violence prevention and peacebuilding and, as such, would be a great fit for Rotary’s three-month certification program.”
In D.F. Pace, known as “D” to friends, Batory believed the club had found the perfect candidate: “He was an up-and-coming young lieutenant with patrol experience on the streets, but he’s also a lawyer and thus well-versed in the legal aspects of proper policing,” he says. “He reflected Commissioner Ramsey’s vision of creating a new generation of police officers with enhanced professionalism, dramatically improved judgment, and dedication to being instruments of peace.”
Friction, racial and otherwise, between police and the people they protect is not new. But the killings of unarmed black men by police in recent years, captured on camera phones and broadcast on the nightly news, have indeed touched a match to the kindling that Pace and others saw piling higher and higher.
Philadelphia has not had the kind of headline-grabbing police-involved shootings that St. Louis, Chicago, and New York have had. However, it ranks in the top 20 in murder and crime rates among big cities in the United States. Almost from day one, Ramsey (who retired in January 2016) looked for innovative ways to avoid the former and reduce the latter.
“Ramsey’s a forward thinker,” says Pace. “He was always looking for ways to infuse new ideas into his police department.” Even so, when Philadelphia Rotary Club members pitched the peace fellowship to Ramsey, they kept their expectations low. But when Batory met with the commissioner, Ramsey took out a notepad and listened intently. He liked the idea and put out a citywide memorandum inviting officers to apply.
Each year, Rotary selects up to 100 individuals from around the world to receive fully funded academic fellowships at a peace center. These fellowships cover tuition and fees, room and board, round-trip transportation, and all internship and field-study expenses.
In just over a decade, the Rotary Peace Centers have trained more than 1,000 fellows for careers in peacebuilding. Many of them go on to serve as leaders in national governments, nongovernmental organizations, the military, and international organizations like the United Nations and World Bank.
Pace says his cohort included a labor relations specialist, a women’s rights advocate, educators, and lawyers.
"Conflict itself is neither good nor bad. It’s neutral. The good or bad comes from how we manage conflict.”
Lt. D.F. Pace, Philadelphia Police Department
As Ramsey and the Philadelphia Rotary Club hoped, Pace incorporates what he learned in Thailand into the seminars he teaches for other officers, including a class called Fair and Impartial Policing. He also helps organize community town halls and speaks to Rotary clubs.
Perhaps most important, other ranking officers in Philadelphia – sergeants, lieutenants, and captains – who have taken Pace’s class are disseminating the information to their recruits. It’s a more impressive feat than it may seem.
The class wasn’t an easy sell, says Lt. Christine McShea, a 26-year veteran of the force who was required to take the class as part of a promotion. “It’s a difficult topic to get across, but he did a great job with it,” mainly, she says, “because he wasn’t trying to sugarcoat everything.”
One of the lessons Pace imparts comes directly from his time as a peace fellow. “Conflict itself is neither good nor bad. It’s neutral,” he tells his classes. “The good or bad comes from how we manage conflict.”
On our ride through the city, opportunities for conflict seem to be on every corner. At one intersection, a young man glares at Pace as the officer drives past. Pace catches his eye, nods his head, and gives a wave. The man’s expression softens while a woman next to him, sitting in a wheelchair, smiles and says, “Have a good day, officer.”
The encounter crystallized one of the lessons of the peace fellowship, Pace says: Knee-jerk hostility will likely beget the same, while a simple friendly gesture is likely to disarm. “It’s trying to find other ways to dialogue rather than force and suppression.”
As he talks , Pace sees a young woman on a cellphone standing in front of a car with a shattered window. He pulls over. “They said that someone was driving by with a BB gun just shooting cars,” the woman tells him. He makes out a report. “You know where to go to get a copy of it?” he asks. She nods. Pace expresses his sympathy and eases back onto the street.
“Even that,” he says. “It doesn’t always have to be some incredibly dramatic interaction between the police and people. It can be something as simple as just stopping and saying, ‘Hey, is everything OK? Do you have what you need?’
“Ultimately, this is what it comes down to: one human being interacting with another. Is it a positive interaction? Does the police officer add value to the other person’s life? If the answer is yes, then we’re doing the right thing. If it isn’t, then we need to figure out ways to improve that.”
That, he says, leads to another lesson: “One of the most powerful tools any person has is their ability to communicate – our ability to interact with people. How you talk to people can create a situation that fosters understanding and compromise or put them on the defensive. Once someone puts up a shield, there’s little you can do to fix it at that point. You can always escalate, if necessary, but if you start escalating, it’s very difficult to de-escalate.”
It’s the difference, he says, between “How are we doing today?” and “Stop right there. Get up against the car. Why are you so nervous?”
The idea, he says, is to “give people a chance. Doing so does not make you less of a cop.” It makes you a cop who is going into your toolbox and pulling out your restraint tool, he adds – restraining yourself rather than saying, How dare this person talk to me this way? I’m a police officer.
From the start, Pace knew his studies in Thailand would be rigorous. The program, he explains, is separated into theory, application, and then what you, as a graduate, plan to do with what you learn. Peace fellows are required to have a specific objective and are expected to build on that theme throughout the three months.
“I wanted to bridge the gap between the Philadelphia Police Department and its inner-city communities,” Pace says. In particular, he studied how initial perceptions of people are often wrong and how the underlying desire of most people is to trust and rely on officers.
During his stay in Thailand, he and others took a number of excursions. They went to the “killing fields” of Cambodia, where more than a million people were murdered and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, to witness “the product of an impasse when conflict resolution techniques just don’t exist and dialogue is stifled.”
They also learned how human trafficking networks operate.
Comprehending how young girls and boys are recruited and groomed against their will, he says, helped him better understand the stories behind some of the people police encounter.
One of the presenters in Thailand was an attorney who outlined the powerful influence that understanding someone’s story can have over the way we treat people, Pace says.
“It is very difficult to dislike someone you know well or at least understand. Police officers need to seek out opportunities to try to understand.”
For him, the lesson was obvious: It’s easy to vilify people based on snap judgments and stereotypes, but that destroys trust when trying to connect with the community you serve.
Such nuanced views weren’t easy to introduce to classes full of skeptical cops back home. Pace recognized this and sought to defuse any notion that he was there to preach at them.
“One of the first things I do when I teach a class is just get real with people,” he says. “We’ve had civilians come in and say things like, ‘You’ve just got to breathe if you’re in a tense situation. Just close your eyes for a minute and breathe.’ Well, the last thing a police officer wants to do is close their eyes when they’re confronted with a tense situation. When they hear something like that, the speaker has lost all credibility.”
“I say, ‘Look, these are some real issues that we need to deal with. The reality is that we have a community, a portion of the community we’re trying to serve that does not believe that we have the capacity to serve at all. … The question is, How do we fix that disconnect?’”
Using another technique he learned during his peace fellowship, Pace doesn’t lecture his students not to be biased. Instead, he assures them that everyone, including him, carries some form of bias. The key is to recognize your own bias and keep it in check.
For Lt. Sean’te Warren, a 12-year veteran of the Philadelphia police force, that acknowledgment put him and his classmates at ease, as did Pace’s instruction on power dynamics.
“Most of our authority derives from trust,” Warren says. “If you are fair and impartial, people are going to trust you. Listening is the most important thing. A lot of people just need to air their grievances.”
Encounters don’t have to be power games, Pace says. If someone is getting loud or aggressive, it doesn’t hurt to put some physical distance between you.
“It may be a tactically smart decision to create space,” he says, another lesson learned in Thailand. “Take cover until you can assess the situation a little bit further, creating distance between yourself and the individual, not just to protect you, but to protect that person.”
Then again, if someone makes a move, you have to protect yourself. “Sometimes your gut instinct is correct,” Pace says. “We don’t throw our training and experience out the window in favor of trying to appease a segment of the community that thinks that everything we do is racially motivated.”
There is no need for any dramatic responses as we make our way through the neighborhoods of Philly – through Mantua and Sharswood and Germantown – down Broad Street, past Pat’s King of Steaks, home of the Philly cheesesteak since 1930, past the mural of a fallen officer, Sgt. Robert Wilson, who was killed at a Game Stop store when he accidentally stumbled upon a robbery while buying a video game for his son.
It’s warm, and Pace’s window is down. At each corner he offers, at the least, a wave and a nod before returning to department headquarters and another class, another chance to teach.
Soon, his experience will inform a new role. Pace’s participation in the peace fellowship recently helped him win a promotion to captain.
• Bryan Smith is a senior writer at Chicago magazine and a contributing editor at Men’s Health.
• Read more stories from The Rotarian