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An Interview with Kristen Ziman

Today we interviewed the chief of the Aurora Police Department, Kristen Ziman!

Dawn of Ink recently interviewed Kristen Ziman, the chief of the Aurora Police Department. Kristen Ziman had a lot to tell us, so keep reading to find out more about her and her team of officers.

Parvani: Thank you for coming. To dive right into it, could you please tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do?

Kristen: Sure. So my name is Kristen Ziman, and I am the Chief of Police of the Aurora Police Department. So, our department is the second largest police department in the state of Illinois, second only to Chicago. I was born and raised on the West Side of Aurora, and I have wanted to be a police officer since I was about ten years old. I went to school in Aurora, graduated from high school, and then I started as a police cadet, which is kind of like an intern at the police department, when I was seventeen years old. So, I've been with my police department since I was seventeen, and moved up the ranks, and I've been the chief there for about four and a half years now.

Parvani: Can you tell me more about how you got to where you are today?

Kristen: Sure. Interestingly enough, when I came into my police department, that was in 1991, and there were no females in any rank. So, no females above the rank of sergeant, and so I didn't even think for one moment that it was possible for me to move up in my organization. And then eventually, a female sergeant was promoted, and I thought, "Wow. You know, I think maybe this is possible." So, before I did that I spent time as a community policing officer, patrol officer, field training officer, and then I spent five years as a detective. And after that, I tested to become a sergeant, and I became a sergeant in 2005, and after that, there had never been any females in the lieutenant's rank of our police department, and so instead of, "Why me?" I thought, "Why not me?" And so I eventually tested to become a lieutenant, and I became the first female lieutenant in the history of the police department. And right there I will tell you that education is so important, so I went back and got my Bachelor's Degree in criminal justice and then I went and got my master's in criminal justice management and leadership. And then I eventually got promoted to lieutenant, but only spent two years as a lieutenant, and then my chief appointed me to the rank of commander. And so I spent five and a half years as the commander of the Aurora Police Department, and at that time they said that the chief was leaving, and the mayor opened up the process, and so I thought, "You know what? Why not me?" And so I applied along with three other people to become the chief of the police department, and I got the job! So, here we are.

Parvani: That was very interesting. In light of the George Floyd incident, how do you think law enforcement can change to prevent situations like these?

Kristen: Oh, my goodness. The George Floyd incident was devastating. Not only to Mr. Floyd's family, and to the African American community, but to policing across the nation because it was an example of what not to do. I don't know any police officer who has looked at that incident and said that that was okay. And it's interesting because we're called law enforcement, right? So we have to enforce laws, but in doing so, in enforcing the law, no matter what that transgression is, no matter which law was broken, we still have an obligation to treat people with human dignity and respect. And that didn't occur that day. So, it's interesting because you asked, "What are you doing because of that incident?" Well, I'm happy and proud to say that we have been doing things before that incident even happened in Aurora. And it's all about training, it's about training your police officers so that they know how to respond to certain situations. We have it in policy that it is a clear violation to obstruct anyone's airway. So all chokeholds are prohibited, and that's exactly what happened on that day. That officer put his knee on Goerge's neck and that is a violation of policy. But it's not enough just to have a policy written that says, "You shouldn't do that." We have to put our officers through training that not only is about tactical training, but also about compassion and treating people with care and dignity. And I firmly believe that just because someone breaks the law, it doesn't mean that they're all good or all bad, and they still deserve to be treated with human dignity and respect by a police officer, and so that's been the training that my training division has provided our police department for many, many years, and we're going to continue to do it, and try to get even better at it.

Parvani: Okay. It sounds like you're really on top of that. The situation from that incident has caused a lot of people to protest, and in some cases, it was violent. So, what do you think is the best way for police officers to handle this?

Kristen: Sure. Well, it's a very complex issue because on one hand you have peaceful protesters, and our constitution and democracy is set up in a way that allows people to protest, and that is what makes America so wonderful, because we as Americans can come together as a voice, and start a movement! And officers should always be standing at the forefront to protect protesters for their right to lend their voice to whatever cause it may be. But then problems arise when peaceful protesting turns into lawlessness. When people take that opportunity, and really become irresponsible with that ideal of protesting, and they take advantage of it. And quite frankly, what happens is it's insulting to those who are out there peacefully protesting, trying to create change and then you have a certain faction of people who switch from peaceful protesting, and use it as an opportunity to wreak havoc on a community. So what we have done in our department is that we have trained our officers to protect those protesters. And we also have an obligation to protect property and life. And so, unfortunately some of the protesters have turned violent, and I will say that there's just kind of that sweet spot, because we were overpowered by protesters who were breaking into businesses, and we didn't have enough police officers to stop them. But at that point in the training that we give our poliice officers, it is life first, and then property. And so, I'm proud to say that no one was hurt on the night that we had the worst of our protesting, of our rioting and looting, but businesses were. So, there comes a point where officers have to weigh that between protecting life and protecting property, and life is always first and foremost. But we

have to also protect property. There are so many business owners who have built their businesses from the ground up, and they don't deserve their businesses to be destroyed. And so when you have peaceful protesting and it moves over to lawlessness, the police have to take action. And so, we just have to make sure that we are taking every action that is legal, and that we are not over policing or using any excessive force.

Parvani: Okay. How do you think national and local leaders can best help the situation?

Kristen: So I think the only way that we can get to the other side of this is to have difficult conversations with people. We know that not only our African American community, but our Latinx community, communities of color, have a distrust of the police. And there's a reason for that, because that has over time, been the thousand tiny cuts that the oppressed have experienced. And so, I think that when you look at policing as an organization, an institution, you look at how it has been in the past. And I think the only way that we can progress if if we start looking at new ways of policing, and that lends itself to different ideas. So, I think the first part of your question is to have conversations with our citizens. Police and our citizens, we're one and the same. The difference is that we wear a uniform, but our citizens and our police want the same thing. They want laws to be upheld. We have to have people out there who are enforcing laws, because no one wants to live in a city or a society where people can do whatever they want. But in doing so, you have to build trust in that community, and the only way that you can build trust is by building relationships. So, that means sitting down with one another, looking at each other, and seeing each other as people. As humans. And once we do that, then we start to understand each other. So, then the citizens understand that we do have a job to do, and we have to enforce the law. And then we see, conversely, how the public sees us, and how sometimes we over police, and sometimes we exert too much force when we shouldn't. And so, we have to learn how to communicate with each other and build that trust. And then, I see the way through that as to train police officers. There are so many police officers across this nation who don't get proper training. So money has to be invested into training police properly, so they can know how to handle these situations, and not move to excessive force. That comes with a lack of training, so I think we need to invest in that. Those are just two places where I would start. The human aspect of it, and making sure that every police department has training and standards by which they need to abide.

Parvani: How is law enforcement in the present different than what it used to be?

Kristen: That's a great question. And so, I told you that I started in my police department in 1991, and I will tell you, when I walked into that police department in 1991, I kind of wondered, "What am I getting myself into?" Because I started riding with police officers, and I started to notice that police officers didn't talk to people very kindly. It was a lot of, "Hey you! Get over here!" versus, "Sir, can I have a moment of your time for a minute? May I speak with you?" Just those two different introductions can affect an outcome in any situation. And so I started to notice that police officers talked down to people, instead of with people. So, then I started to pay attention to police officers who were successful. And I noticed that the most successful police officers were the ones who showed compassion and respect for all people, even while enforcing the law. So it was in that moment that I realized that policing doesn't have to be about borrowing power from your position. You can effectively do your job by not doing that. By treating people with dignity and respect. There was also no formal mechanism for discipline. Now we have an Office of Internal Affairs, which deals with police accountability, but back in the '90s, it wasn't like that. You just got called in to your sergeant's offfice, or your lieutenant's office, and they just gave you a chewing. And then they sent you back out on the street. And now we have consistent policies in place, and we have a whole office of professional standards that deals with officers who violate policy or law. So, as a result of that, you have seen from the '90s to the present day, law enforcement becoming a more professional profession. And then more training. I keep saying training, but I cannot emphasize that enough. Our officers need more training, and so we've incorporated more training into it. So that's the difference! Now, one can argue right now, "Well, there's still so much work to be done in policing." but progressive police departments, like the Aurora Police Department, have been doing this work over the years, to try and get better, and we need to get all of our agencies up to that level as well, and there's a lot of work to be done. They say that good is the enemy of great. And I know I'm speaking for my police department in general, it's really good, but we have a lot of work to do to get better, and I think that is where we have to acknowledge across the nation that we have a lot of work to do to get our police departments to a professional standard.

Parvani: Since we just talked about the past, let's talk about the future for a minute. What do you think law enforcement of the future will look like?

Kristen: That is also a great question, and I think that it's going to be a hybrid of things. You've heard, I'm sure, the phrase, "Defund the police." Have you heard of that?

Parvani: Yes, I have.

Kristen: So when you listen to that phrase, it's kind of misleading because it makes it sound like people want to get rid of police. But what "defund the police" actually means is taking resources, and moving them towards social services. So right now, the police handle not just crime issues, but they also have to deal with things that aren't crimes, like homelessness, substance abuse, and mental illness. So those things are not criminal in nature, but people turn to the police to handle those situations, and so it puts a burden on police officers. And we have to put a lot of budgetary items to train our police officers. For example: I have 307 sworn police officers, and all of them have gone through mental health training. It's called crisis intervention training. And so that's a lot of money that is being used and put towards that. And so I think that it's interesting, because you get a lot of police officers that sort of push back about "defund the police." And I'm saying, "We have been screaming that for thirty years in policing!" I don't want you to defund the police department, but what we do want is people to add resources, so that there are social workers on hand that can handle mental health issues, so that there are specialized people who can handle homelessness, that there are people especially trained to handle substance abuse issues, which can sometimes lead to criminal activity, and so, I see policing moving forward as a hybrid of the two. Where you have police officers, but maybe they're paired up with a social worker. And I think that that's one great step in the right direction. And then secondly, and this might sound soft, but I don't think there's any weakness about it, is that I think policing is about guardianship. It used to be about militaristic and warriorship, and there is a time and a place for that, because you have to have police officers that run towards gunfire. There is a lot of the community that won't run into danger. Cops run into danger. First responders run into danger. So there has to be a little bit of that mindset, but the majority of the mindset is about guardianship. It's about being guardians to the community, and so, I want to see more police officers come into this profession, who are problem-solvers, who are compassionate, and so that is the word that I apply to the best police officers I know. They're the ones who show compassion, and even vulnerabiliy. And I think that is where we are headed, as a profession, and I think we are going in the right direction if we head that way.

Parvani: I know there was unfortunately a shooting in Aurora about a year ago. Your response got a lot of positive attention. Can you talk about what you did that was so effective?

Kristen: Sure. Well, I will not take credit for any of that. It happened on February 15th, 2019, and there was an individual working at a factory, and he was going to get terminated that day. And in his termination meeting, he took a gun out of his bag, and he shot and killed five people who were in that meeting with him. And, he walked out of the room, and he went to go find more employees to kill. And our police officers responded to the scene, and one after another, they ran in to try to find him, and to stop him from shooting more people who worked at the factory. And I had five officers shot as they responded and tried to find him. And I mentioned earlier that you have to have that mindset of running towards things that are scary and dangerous, and not a lot people have the ability to do that. So one after another, I had five cops shot. The first one got in, and got shot. The second one went in, and got shot. Subsequently, five cops were shot. Fortunately, they all survived, but on that day they then got into the building, and our officers were able to locate and eliminate the shooter. Unfortunately, they did have to kill the shooter, but in doing so, they stopped him from killing anyone else in that factory, and so, that's a great example of training. Once again, training. Our officers have gone through mass shooting training, and they knew exactly how to respond on that day and they all came together and did the thing that was fitted to their skills, and their talents, and their ability, and they stopped that shooter from shooting more people. And they put their own lives on the line, and sacrificed themselves in doing so. So we got a lot of accolades for that, and I appreciate that, but my job was to make sure that we have the right training for people in place, to give our officers the instruction that they need, and then my job after the fact, was to tell the story of the heroic actions that they did that day. And so, the credit goes to all of my police officers that responded that day, and went in to try and put themselves in harm's way. It took them 90 minutes in a 300,000 square foot facility to find that shooter, so it took a long time, but they found him, and stopped him from killing anyone else.

Parvani: Wow. So, what is something that you think all law enforcement officers should know?

Kristen: I think one thing that officers should know is that there is no "us against them" thing. I think sometimes, police officers tend to believe that perhaps all people are bad. It's like if you were a car mechanic and you just saw broken cars all day, you might begin to believe, over years, that all cars are broken, when that's not the case. So I think what police officers need to know and understand is that there is only a small percentage of our society that are doing the harm, but the majority of people, who live, and work, and play in all of our cities are good people, and good citizens who want to feel safe in the city that they live in, and so, I want every police officer to know there is no "us against them." and that there is only "we". And that's not just for the police, but for citizens as well, but once we all realize that we're in this together and we want the same thing, I think that's when we can move the city forward, and we can start to eliminate crime, because the police can't do it alone. And whether it's in Chicago, where crime is at maximum right now, or whether it's in Aurora, we police cannot do it without the help of citizens. And when I said earlier about building trust, what I want every police officer to know is that every interaction that they have with a citizen and building that trust, will then translate into a citizen perhaps calling upon that officer later, and giving them information about someone like a shooter or gang member, and so maybe we can solve more crimes, and we can put those people in jail. And I think with the help of our citizens, we could do that. So, to answer your question, I would want every police officer to know that we're all in this together.

Parvani: I hear you are writing a blog as well. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Kristen: Yeah. Well, it didn't start out as a blog, it started out when I was a young sergeant, and i went to my local newspaper and asked them if I could have a newspaper column. And I thought it would be a good way to educate the public about why we do things. For example: I wrote about compliance. So, sometimes people don't understand why an officer has a right to ask you what your name is, or to ask you for your ID. And then we go through all of the scenarios that that fall under the parameters of the law. So some people don't know that a police officer can ask you to get out of your car on a traffic stop. So in my column, I just tried to educate people on those sorts of things. So then what happened was I started posting every column that I wrote onto a blog, just to keep it in one place. Well then, the newspaper changed owners, and I didn't write for the newspaper anymore, but I continued writing for my blog. I have to say I've been kind of abandoning since I've become chief over the past four years, because I've been so busy, and I don't have a lot of time to write and keep up my blog, but it's my favorite thing to do in my free time. I love writing, and so that's how that blog came about, and it was voted one of the best blogs by IACP, which is in the policing world, so that was kind of cool.

Parvani: Wow. Okay, last question. What can we do to be better citizens?

Kristen: I love that. I think I touched on that earlier, and I think the thing that we can do is educate one another. There is a saying by Stephen Covey. He said, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." And I think that citizens, when they look at police officers, and they paint us all with the same broad brush of the police officers who have done harm, I think that's a dangerous thing to do. So, I think the first thing we can do is get to know our police officers, and even though we all wear the same uniform, we are all human beings under that uniform. And so I think that just educating ourselves on the laws, talking to police officers instead of saying, "I hate all police!", and I will tell you, I would give that same advice to every police officer as well. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Instead of walking up to a situation and saying, "Hey you! Do this!" explain. "Hey, you know, I just wanted to let you know that I've stopped you because you match the description of someone that just got called in by a 9-1-1 call. I'll get you on your way." Just take the time to explain, and to help people understand. And so I think that's what all of us need to do. We need to see each other as human beings. And that's where I would start.

Parvani: Well, I'm afraid that concludes our talk. Thank you again for joining us.

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1 Comment

Aditya Shukla
Aditya Shukla
Aug 09, 2020

This is awesome!

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