Protests continue to happen around the country following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck and a black woman named Breonna Taylor was shot several times in her bed in Louisville.
Here in Milwaukee, there have been on-going demonstrations since May 29, which have been largely peaceful. But tensions between police and protesters reached a high-point Tuesday evening when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to drive back protestors near downtown.
Pardeep Singh Kaleka has been participating in the protests as a member of the greater Milwaukee community and the executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee. But Kaleka isn’t just an interfaith leader, he’s also a former Milwaukee police officer.
Kaleka was an officer for five years in the 7th district of Milwaukee, which includes the 53206 neighborhood. After realizing that being a police officer didn’t allow him to make the kind of impact he wanted to make, he left the force to become an educator.
Kaleka says he wanted to become a cop because a part of him as a boy wanted to have a greater sense of control, and he jokingly admits he thinks he watched Bad Boys one too many times. "[I thought] this is what policing is about ... about busting bad guys and keeping good people safe. And obviously, it's not that simple," he says.
Inside the Milwaukee Police Department, he says the norm was not speaking up. "Not only is it not incentivized to speak up, it's almost that [officers] are conditioned psychologically, and we all are, we all are conditioned psychologically to just go along to get along," says Kaleka.
Many times he asked to not work with certain officers because he felt like they were picking fights or had a "cowboy attitude." Those attitudes are part of why he left the Milwaukee Police Department.
Kaleka believes that real change is possible and that it will come from good leaders. "Leadership really needs to understand that betterment is a service and watching kids, most of the protests being led by just organic community leaders, that's real leadership," says Kaleka.
He also says that most officers understand there's a cultural issue and problems that exist, but "they wouldn't understand why they exist because they haven't understood it from a mental health lens ... And the problem is that we're disconnected from the community we serve," Kaleka explains.
His main suggestion for cops, along with community activists and everyday people: get out of your comfort zone.
"We can be upset, we can be mad [and] a lot of times people are angry with something, somebody or some entity — but there's also something happening within them," says Kaleka.
He also recommends reevaluating police officers and having mandatory psychological assessments every two years. Kaleka encourages destigmatizing mental health to change the culture of what America looks like.
"For police, there are definitely solutions. They're just not easy solutions and it'll take commitment, just like anything else," says Kaleka.