When Robert Rico began his career as a police officer in Boerne, Texas, he took a traditional approach to his job. “I thought my job was to [maintain the law] and put people in jail if they committed a crime and that was the end of it,” he said. But as he transitioned into a role as a juvenile investigator, Rico’s philosophy began to change.
“Some of the kids I was investigating would re-offend, and when I started working these cases it got my attention. You can see remorse and empathy in these kids,” he said. “One time, some kids were stealing Christmas ornaments, and when we caught up with them we could tell that they weren’t ‘bad’ kids. They did something stupid and they were owning up to it and showing remorse. But now they are facing criminal charges, and going to get prosecuted.”
Rico grew up in a rough neighborhood on the Westside of San Antonio, where gangs and drugs were rampant. He says the last thing he thought he would be when he grew up was a police officer. Once he became one, he admits that he initially embraced the “tough cop” role. But once he started working with youth things changed. He could relate to their life experiences.
“It really got me thinking about policing in general, especially with juvenile offenders,” he said. “If we can’t build relationships between communities and law enforcement, we’re not going to change anything. We’re just going to keep prosecuting people, and the prison population is just going to continue to grow. The system is not very effective.”
Rico now serves as a reserve police officer for the City of Live Oak, Texas and a full-time lecturer in the criminal justice department at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he teaches policing and Restorative Justice courses. He believes that Restorative Justice should be incorporated into training at police academies.
“Police officers are not taught enough communication skills,” he said. “They’re taught how to take control of a critical situations, and that’s very important. But on the other side of that is the fact that police officers spend the majority of their time working on social issues, not crime fighting. Some officers say, ‘Well, we’re not social workers,’ but I say, ‘Yeah, you are.’ Because we’re responding to every kind of social issue you can think of, and communication and Restorative Justice skills are essential when we’re working with communities.”
Rico says that focusing only on punitive responses only furthers misunderstandings and divisiveness between police officers and citizens who may really need social services, but get caught in the cycle of the legal system and do not have confidence in or trust the police.
“Right now, the way things are between law enforcement and communities is not good, especially in poor minority communities. There’s no respect on either side, and we see each other as the enemy. There’s no dialogue,” he said. Rico advocates that police departments need to invite people that have bad perceptions about police officers to get involved in law enforcement programs, such as citizens police academies and police explorer programs for the youth.
Rico credits his work with Restorative Justice for making him a better listener and changing his approach to law enforcement. “We’re not teaching police officers, or really anyone with a position of authority in our society, to talk with people. Before I learned about Restorative Justice Practices, I was the same. I thought, ‘I do the talking, and you listen.’ But in becoming a better listener you can empathize and discover the true roots of a problem … and the underlying issues around why people are doing what they’re doing.”
Robert Rico is a retired police officer who serves in the Police Reserves in Live Oak, Texas and lectures full time on Restorative Justice and Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is a co-author of our book, ‘Restorative Discipline Practices.’
Photo courtesy of UTSA