I’m Dan Baum and you’re listening to Redefine U. Join us as we continue to explore what happens when we’re challenged to change our thoughts, beliefs or even who we think we are.
As I mentioned at the beginning of our last episode, this season, we want to delve into those subjects currently reshaping our world. As examples, we mentioned the pandemic, racial injustice and police reform. We knew that could get tricky, especially with the looming election. Even the smallest things seem politically charged right now. How much harder would it be to talk about large issues with open hearts and minds?
We decided two things. First, we wanted to bring in as many voices from different backgrounds as we could. Second, we wanted to make good use of the college — which as our guest in this episode says, is a microcosm of our larger community. In many cases, those of us within that microcosm know each other personally. Conversations about difficult issues are often easier with those you know and respect.
Today we’ll hear from one of those people, whom I know and respect very much, Major Cleveland Smith, deputy director of AACC’s Department of Public Safety and Police. A lot has transpired in the month since we recorded this interview, but we wanted to share Cleveland’s thoughts on policing and the importance of listening and empathy.
Dan: Today we're talking with Major Cleveland Smith in the Office of Public Safety and Police. Welcome, Cleveland.
Cleveland: Hello. Good morning. How are you?
Dan: I'm great. It's always a pleasure to talk to you, despite the distance. So how are you holding up during this pandemic?
Cleveland: All in all, not bad at all. I think it's provided me time to reflect on different things I didn't normally think about, being around people is number one, I think, but in health, in general, things we take for granted.
Dan: Yeah, you're actually on campus. Our college is largely remote in terms of our education and workforce, but of course, you and fellow officers are actually there. So what's your role like now during the pandemic?
Cleveland: Well, starting back in March when we went on spring break, it's like we never came back from spring break. The campus police and public safety officers are here 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We may doze, but we never close, so there's always somebody here on campus. This campus has always had some sort of activity, even when it's closed for like spring break, but so the officers are still doing their normal patrols and it's been a little different now because most of the buildings are closed.
Dan: Yeah, I'm curious about some things related to the present situation, as well as pre-COVID. So remind me, how long have you been at AACC?
Cleveland: November 1, 2005, so this will be my 15th year of service coming up in another month or so.
Dan: Oh, that's a big milestone. Congratulations.
Cleveland: Thank you.
Dan: And you're also a former county police officer.
Cleveland: That's correct. Started with the county police force in July of 1980 and did 20 years of service with them and changed careers. I say retired and people say, "You're too young to retire." So I changed careers in August 1, 2000. I worked all sorts of assignments with the county police department from the Southern district to narcotics undercover, worked in high schools, believe it or not, as a student. Then I went to the special operations sections, that's the SWAT team and worked for them for about four years. I became a Sergeant, worked for the internal affairs section for a year and then I went to the Eastern district
At one point, the county police chief of police was friends with the president of the college, who was Dr. Florestano at the time. They went golfing periodically. Dr. Florestano was a pro-police person and he wanted to professionalize the security department he had here at the college, so he asked the chief if he could do something to help him out. So the chief said he would send a lieutenant and a sergeant and a corporal down to oversee the running of the department and the Anne Arundel County Police College Detachment was born.
Dan: So you've worn a lot of different hats and obviously, different roles with the county, too, before the college. For you personally, what was the biggest difference coming from the county to the college? What do you see as the big difference between the two roles?
Cleveland: The immediate biggest difference that I saw was when people waved at me, they used all five fingers. The college, they use their whole hand when they wave here. When I worked up in North County there, they'd tend to wave at me with one finger. So, that was a big difference, so I was surprised at that. No, really, everybody is just nice here. The people are friendly. I can't think of a better place to work. When I retired from the county police department, about two or three years after I retired, I applied for a position as the deputy director of public safety here and I got the position. The chief and I did not wear uniforms at the time and I had a blazer on with the Bob the Seagull logo on the lapel. I went to a PetSmart down in Annapolis, off of Housley road and I was checking out. I bought some dog food and the cashier said, "Oh, you work at Anne Arundel Community College." I said, "Yes, ma'am." She got animate. She says, "Oh, my daughters went there and I went there and it's such a wonderful place." She went on and on about how wonderful the college was and how it redefined her and redefined her daughters and how wonderful the faculty and staff and the administration was at the college and that just made me proud. Just makes me stick my chest out when that happens. And it happens a lot.
Dan: So you're often the face or the people that… you and your fellow officers, the people that students and others are going to interact with when coming to campus. So what do you strive for with your interactions with people when they come to campus or are on campus?
Cleveland: I try to have our staff, everyone here, to realize that we are here to provide a service. We provide customer service. We have internal customers and we have external customers, but regardless, we're here to provide a service. I just say, "Play a little role-playing, a little empathy. Walk a mile in the other person's shoes. How would you want to be treated in a situation, whatever service that the person is requesting?" We do a pretty good job of that most of the time, although sometimes, for whatever reason, we all can miss a beat. Police are people too. So, but overall, I think everybody on this department cares about the community we work with and serve. It takes a village and there's so many moving parts to this college. The college is a microcosm of our community and Arundel Community College is like a little city within Arnold. We have all the things that a city would have. We tend to embrace each other and listen and hear each other. That makes a world of difference.
Dan: Well, clearly your philosophy is shared by the other officers. It's always great interacting with them and you personally have a great sense of humor and have a number of great sayings, like you just shared, "We may doze, but never close." I think my favorite is, "We put the unity in community," but each semester, you remind employees to get their parking tag and you send out an email and you do it with a poem. How did that start?
Cleveland: I think the first time I did it, I was just trying to get people's attention. It's a mundane task and parking is not always easy. So I was just trying to think of something that would make it a little different. I think I came out with a poem the first year and I got a lot of positive feedback because it was different and people wrote me back in poems and that was funny too. A lot of talents around here.
Dan: That’s fun.
Cleveland: Yeah, the next year I think I might've done a slide show and in one year, I even sang, which I had to cringe because nobody wants to hear themselves.
This year, I talked about the pandemic and the virus, but really, I did that in about 15 to 20 minutes, believe it or not, because I was just sort of ... thoughts that came to mind about my experience with this pandemic nonsense and the fact that the psychology behind going to the store and not seeing any toilet paper on any of the racks, that can be traumatic. I had toilet paper at home, but I had fear of missing out, so I started looking for toilet paper even though I had some at home.
Dan: Well, obviously the pandemic is not all that we're dealing with today. We've got a lot in the news and there's the Black Lives Matter Movement, demonstrations, calls for police reforms. You bring a unique perspective as a police officer who happens to be African-American. What do you see from your experience and your personal experience about what's happening today?
Cleveland: I call it the three Ps: politics, pandemic and police reform. You can put it in any order that seems fit at the time. In terms of police reform and Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, I think people have good points and for good reason. I think sometimes, though, people get caught up in the other stuff that's going on and their message gets misunderstood. These protests can be like a bad song. The volume is so loud, you can hardly listen to it and the language becomes so profane, we miss the message. While there's probably a good message in there, we miss it when the rioting starts and these other behaviors start, we can't even listen to it anymore.
That's kind of what has happened in many occasions. Certainly things need to be changed and modified in this police problem because I think a lot of situations where police are encountering the public and they're not trained properly, or they're scared of what they're doing, there's some people that made poor career choices and should not be policing. When we make a decision, there's an awful lot at stake for everybody and the wrong decision, as we have seen, is a matter of life and death, somebody's, so it's no joke. It's just sad that we are having such a hard time pulling that together and we're so politically correct, we can't get it right. We go to one extreme or the other.
Dan: Well, I often ask people, of course, our theme is redefine, so asking about that in this context, do you think there's an opportunity to redefine policing or how we talk about criminal justice at this point?
Cleveland: I'm sure there is, but it's not a panacea. It's not a silver bullet. It's not going to be automatic. It's a process. It's a thought process. It's a behavior modification. In terms of redefining, I know for myself, over the past year or two, through the help of some courses here at the college that I was able to participate in, I try to be more coach-like in my actions and thoughts and in my deeds. When I'm working as a supervisor, I try to resolve something and I try to do it through a coaching style or if I'm talking with people or somebody comes up and they have the problem, I don't have to necessarily be a formal coach, but I can practice some of the good listening skills and the things that we do to discuss and help get to the bottom of things. That's helped me a lot, professionally and personally.
Dan: That's awesome. How did you choose to pursue that professional development?
Cleveland: The college offered a IPD course — that's a course for faculty and staff — and it was about becoming an engagement coach.
Dan: So what, of all of these experiences, whether through coaching and professional development or a long time police officer, what are the lessons learned that you find are most applicable to the present dialogue around policing?
Cleveland: Society is changing and we have to be flexible. Talk about redefining ourselves, we just kind of always have to be sort of open to redefining ourselves as police officers and I think, as people. I think also we have to be mindful of when we're dealing with other people, we don't know exactly what head space they're in and that if you're dealing with a police officer, for example, and you don't agree, you're not going to win the argument on the street. You need to go ahead and resolve the situations on the street and then go to court or get an attorney or go to a supervisor, but you don't want to get in an argument with a police officer on the street. If he's not of his right mind, you could be putting yourself at much risk.
I'll go a step further, because the majority of people, I know there's some bad things that happen to good people, but the majority of people that are having altercations with the police are not following instructions and their interaction with the police is because they did something to violate the law that brought the police to them. So I didn't get up this morning and say, "I'm going to look for somebody to lock up." Somebody will do something in front of me to make me have to take some sort of action. Fortunately here, I think, on the college also, we have a lot more options to arrest than you might on the street. There's a lot of diversion things you can do on the street too, but the college has such a good atmosphere, usually people that find themselves in trouble, it's more of a mistake of the heart than the mistake of the head. They didn't intend to do something completely wrong. Does that make sense?
Dan: It does. I'm wondering what would you want people to know most about interacting with you or your fellow officers? What's the mindset you wish they had?
Cleveland: I guess, basically, treat people the way you want to be treated, speak the way to me the way you want to be spoken to. I know you might be having a bad day, but pull it in if you can, or maybe preface before you go on your rant with me, tell me that you're having a bad day and then that kind of prepares me for what's coming next. You just don't know what's going on in people's minds or I don't know what just happened to you. You might've just found out some very bad news or maybe you just found out some very good news, so you're speeding off campus to see your new grand baby or something and then I pull you over and then you explain, "Sorry, I wasn't paying attention." "Okay. We can get through that." But the main thing is you want to treat people the way that you wish to be treated.
Dan: If you had a magic wand, how would you use it? What would you want to see going forward?
Cleveland: Peace on earth and good will to man, that kind of thing. Right now, I think as a society, as a country, we're just so divided. The people that should be our role models, our leaders, are dividing us or giving tacit approval to hatred. If you're paying attention, you really see the same attitude in people's behavior these days because this bad behavior has been given tacit approval. I'm watching these people who are in authority doing things I wouldn't have my child do. You don't teach your children to behave like that or talk like that. You don't teach a child to bully people. We're against bullies. We teach people how not to be bullied and so I think we need better examples, but who wants to be a good example when we pick them apart?
Dan: We hear a lot today that people are finding during this time that they're trying to focus more on what's most important to them. So what's been your focus? What's been most important to you at this time?
Cleveland: These days, I think family is very important. It always has been, but I think some of the times when I reflect on things, I think about how important my family is and think about growing up and what the parents meant to me and so on and so forth. What's missing in a lot of situations, or I feel for people when I see situations where maybe a friend or father, or mother or a mentor of some sort, might've made a difference. These times, this COVID, this quarantine, there's a lot of mental health consumers who are being tested and some of them aren't doing very well with going through this, this pandemic thing. People are losing jobs, there's uncertainty. We don't know what's going on. Then you add it to, like we just spoke about, the politicians, all this confusion. People that were normally in good positions are getting pushed to the limit.
Dan: What about you? So what have you been doing to take care of yourself?
Cleveland: I've been trying to eat right. Like the song, "My next 30 years, eat more salads, drink fewer beers in the next 30 years." I've been riding my bike a little bit more. I'm trying to lose a little bit of weight. I thought I lost some, I looked behind me and I found it, so I guess I wasn't so successful.
Dan: How have you redefined yourself over time or how would you say you're redefining yourself now?
Cleveland: I think, my outlook on things, I think I'm a lot more patient with people and things. I think I have more gray areas in terms of not everything is white or black or left or right. We have some middle area, some gray area in many situations. However, I will say there are some situations where there can be no compromise and you have to do what's right. But there are many more situations where there is some give and take.
Dan: Well, that's been so much of my experience in interacting with you and the other officers is I get to know you as people and you get to know me as people. That's been both enlightening and rewarding. You always ask me about my family and how my kids are doing and everything and there's a relationship there. Do you think that would make a difference if we had more relationships between the community and police?
Cleveland: Absolutely. That's really what the police try to do, most of them. But I think the policing has sort of backed itself up into a corner and now we're in a different corner. It used to be, "Call the police for everything. We solve your problems." Then we went to a phase where, "Well, we can't solve all your problems. We have to help you solve your own problems." That's the community policing aspect. Then as a partner, we partnered through that and we have good role models, so good examples of that here at the campus. When you get off campus though, it's not as easy, because there's more ... although there are still some officers that know the beat and know the people on their beat and they have great relationships.
Then there's a lot of people, in general, a lot of people are protesting against the police. A lot of people still like the police. You can get a little complex when you're a police and you see all this, "Defund the police," and, "Forget the police," and all this other kind of stuff they say. They make songs that aren't nice about the police, but so you can get a little depressing. But overall, I think there's hope for us and we'll get through this as well.
Dan: I hope so, too.
Cleveland: Absolutely, we will.
Dan: Well, is there anything else that you wanted to share we didn't get a chance to touch on?
Cleveland: I want everybody to get out and vote because if you don't vote, I can't discuss anything with you. You got to vote. This is the greatest country in the world and democracy and we need to exercise our democratic options. We've got to do that, otherwise, there's no use in having it. Like I say, "If you don't use it, you lose it."
Dan: See, there's another one of your sayings. Well, I so appreciate you taking the time, Cleveland. It's always a pleasure to talk to you, so thanks for keeping the college safe and take care and be well.
Cleveland: You as well, Dan. Thank you and thank your team for doing this for us.
Dan: Take care.
We covered a lot of ground today. For me the biggest take-a-way is the importance of treating others the way we want to be treated. The Golden Rule. It often comes back to that, doesn’t it?
Right now, our country is so divided. It sometimes feels like we can’t agree on anything. Everything from face masks to racial injustices to climate change are political flash points. How can we ever move forward?
As we heard today, it starts with listening and putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. We don’t always have to agree and there are times when we feel we can’t or should not compromise. But the more we learn to actively listen and try to understand one another, the greater the opportunity to find some middle ground.
It’s the connections and friendships we make through that effort that will “put the unity in community.”