In the last several years there has been a palpable change in the image of police officers in the media. A change in opinion, that if left unattended, will fester into a dangerous rift between the public servant and the public. No officer should think that this rift can simply be left alone and will blow over.
Every police officer in America needs to recognize their own personal responsibility to meet this challenge head-on, just like they have sworn an oath to meet the wolves of society head-on. Whether you are in the police academy, a veteran officer, or a Chief or Sheriff, the response that is needed should be loud and clear – “STAND UP, SPEAK OUT!”
The Height of Police Opinion
Public opinion of police officers is not a steady line, rather a wave that goes up and down depending on the circumstances of the day. After WWII, returning veterans poured into the economy. The G.I. Bill allowed many to obtain college educations, or start a new business. Times weren’t perfect by any means, but they were definitely looking better than the Depression years before the war.
As such, the public opinion of police officers was very high. This is the time period that Norman Rockwell painted his famous “The Runaway” picture, depicting a Massachusetts State Trooper talking to a boy at a diner counter who had just runaway. The image is an iconic reminder to officers today of the need to be human in our encounters with the public. The picture clearly depicts a large officer taking the time to listen to a boy who felt compelled to runaway from his home.
The officer didn’t rush to perform his duties by snatching the boy up and taking him home, but instead sat down next to the boy and struck up a conversation. This is the image of law enforcement that the public loves and endears, because it shows that even the big, burly uniformed officer has a heart. It shows that underneath it all, cops are human too.
For several years after the 9-11 terrorist attacks police were the darlings of the media and the public. Almost every major sporting event had a moment to provide thanks to military, law enforcement, and fire/EMS personnel. Crowds roared with approval and support, and perhaps more than any time in recent history the public was proud to come up and thank an officer for doing their job.
You’ll remember that during that time, money seemed to flow like a river. Many agencies were able to update equipment and fleets, purchase in-car cameras and computers, obtain sophisticated electronic and investigative equipment, and many were able to obtain armored rescue vehicles, robots, and patrol rifles. At the time, the public was “all-in” with these purchases, and glad that the police could protect them better from the unknown terror threat.
Like everything, time goes by and things change. The same equipment that was so eagerly purchased and approved by the public after a horrific terrorist attack, has now become viewed as tools of oppression. The equipment and its value has not changed – people’s perceptions have. That is where the police must uphold the “service” oath they made and keep an open dialogue with the public. When we take the time to “sit down and talk” to explain our actions, most reasonable people can still see the benefit of our work and how we perform that work.
Police Service and Duty
The days of “No Comment”, and hiding away in our stations after critical events must come to an end. As police officers we must recognize and understand that the public who hired us expects and demands so much more of us. Law enforcement must appreciate the protections of the Bill of Rights, and the inherent cloud of mystery that separates police actions and the general public’s awareness.
Law enforcement agencies and officers cannot lay aside the powerful influence of the media in the impressions that the public has of police officers. The entire law enforcement community, from the Chief down to the newest officer, must realize that we are “public servants”. As such, the public expects us to answer their questions and concerns, and explain our actions. We should not hide from that responsibility, but instead embrace it and be prepared to respond.
Sometimes the event is so new that not all the facts have been revealed and sorted. That’s fine. An agency (or officer) can still provide a basic idea of what is known, and explain that the event is so fresh that all the details cannot yet be provided. That response is reasonable, and completely understandable. However, the response of “no comment” immediately swells the conjecture that something must be wrong, and that the police must have done that wrong.
Police work isn’t always pretty, so we have to be ready to explain that to the public we serve. Movies and T.V. shows depict a surreal environment, where the police seem to always find the clues necessary to track down the bad guy, officers always overcome suspect’s resistance, and the crime lab is stocked with every latest gadget to pull the most minute piece of evidence to prove a suspect’s guilt.
In reality, we know that most often there are few if any leads in many crimes, and that even good leads can hit dead-ends because people do not want to cooperate with the investigation. We are also fully aware that the Crime Labs in the media only exist in a handful of locations around the entire country, and the vast majority of law enforcement agencies must rely on over-burdened Regional or State crime labs that often take months, if not years to send back analysis on submitted evidence.
Every officer has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and to enforce the laws of their jurisdiction. Yet a part of that same oath (whether verbalized or not) is the implied directive of service to community. The people that we serve deserve (and expect) that their police officers will be attentive to their concerns and expectations.
When sound police tactics run into the sensitivities of the public, it is the duty (yes duty) of law enforcement officers to provide an open dialogue with the citizens who are their bosses. Explanations can be provided that do not compromise or reveal tactical movements that could endanger officers in future events. However, a general guide to the “why” we do what we do can go a long way to calming the fears or anger of the public. In fact, a strong response in explaining actions will portray confidence in the actions of officers and give the impression that the procedure was correct, despite any ugly details.
We have authority to stop, arrest, search, and seize only because the citizens allow us to do that service for them. People want to know – humans are curious by nature. And in a free country, the public has a right (and obligation) to question authority. Unquestioned authority very quickly turns into tyranny, and that is not what this nation was founded upon. Remember the Constitution and Bill of Rights?
The point is – it is far better for law enforcement to get out ahead of the media storm and tell their side of the story, rather than pull back into the bunker mentality and let the media rage stir the fires of resentment among the already questioning and confused public.
Are Police Surrendering Too Much?
Some may read this and feel that I am surrendering to public or media pressure. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I want law enforcement to recognize who they are, what their mission is, and to remember that we are here to “protect and serve”. All too often police officers focus on the “protect” and let the “serve” go by the wayside. This causes them to become perturbed when citizens question their actions, and develops a mindset of “you should do what I say, because don’t you know I’m here to help”.
When I started in law enforcement there was an old saying that described officers who let that mindset go to their head (and in their actions). They were “badge heavy”, or wanting to throw the badge out in front of them like simply having one removed any ability of the public to question their actions. In fact, the opposite is true. Having a badge brings more questions about your actions, not less. And that is the way a free society remains free.
I firmly believe that most law enforcement officers “answered the call” and truly want to serve their communities. Like every profession we occasionally let in a bad apple. If left too long, that bad apple can start to ruin the good apples. However, because the vast majority of law enforcement are decent, hard-working, and dedicated professionals, I think we should be bold in our presentation to the public of what and why we do what we do. Being bold should never come across as arrogant, but instead come across as unwavering confidence in what, how, and why we are doing our jobs.
The good thing is that when we take time to talk to the public, like humans and not authoritative rulers, the vast majority of the time the public will see that we are simply doing our jobs – the jobs they have hired us to do. The fears of the authoritative officer begin to change into the comfort and confidence in a public servant dedicated to their job – “a good guy”. And that, brothers and sisters, is the point.
Officer Friendly is not Officer Oblivious
I am not in any way supporting officers letting their guard down, and becoming “officer friendly” to their downfall. I am, however, advocating that we remember our humanity and the humanity of the citizens. Talk to them as a person, and not a “badge heavy” cop. You can still maintain every officer safety tactic in the book, while talking to people with respect and in a personable manner.
In fact, if you are “officer friendly” first, then you have failed in your duty. The reason you have failed is because you have sworn an oath to defend the public from those who would do them harm. Criminals prey on the weak, and if you are “officer oblivious” because you want to be a friend to everyone, then you have become prey for the wolves. If you go down, the citizens are unprotected, and you have failed your oath.
I’ll probably get some negative feedback from this, but I tell my officers often:
“Be professional with everyone you meet, and treat them with respect, and have a plan to kill them!”
This statement and guidance is usually followed up with case examples of old people, children, and handicapped persons violently attacking police officers with deadly force. I remind my officers that some criminals do not fit into the nice image box that most of society recognizes as a “bad guy”. Not all felons and cop killers have prison tattoos, a mean scowl on their face, and dirty clothes. Some killers are 73-year old men wearing a cowboy hat, or 13-year old children shooting their classmates after pulling a fire alarm.
The point is – we have a sworn duty to treat everyone (even criminals) with respect as human beings. And we also have a sworn duty to successfully stand against the wolves who attack us and the sheep.
Big Media is Big Business!
The media thrives on the sensational, and will blow up a story into something that it is not simply to garner higher ratings. The media is, after all, big business – and the hot stories sell commercial times. And just like in every profession; the higher you rise (or want to rise), the more you have to stand out from your contemporaries and competitors.
The whole atmosphere in the main stream, radio, and internet media, is already a fully charged lightning storm waiting for the next chance to “strike” it rich on a story of mass interest. As such, law enforcement must recognize that “routine business” may be looked at much more closely now. That should not cause us concern, but it should wake us up to the reality that people are going to want more answers.
When the video of North Charleston, South Carolina officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott came out the media pounced on the already primed topic of police use of deadly force. Immediately the “story” took on a very dark tone, as the media saw a way to boost ratings for days, if not weeks. Almost every media personality was putting forth the message that Officer Slager murdered an unarmed man.
It was not for several days until more details came out to provide a greater picture of what took place. Scott had improper vehicle registration, and could not produce a valid driver’s license. Scott had an arrest warrant for child non-support (possibly a felony). Scott ran from the car stop, and a physical struggle occurred between Slager and Scott. Shortly after Scott broke away from that struggle, Slager shoots and kills Scott.
The Wise Wait to Cast Judgment
On the surface, I think most cops cringed at the video. On the surface, most cops would say that using another less lethal instrument to capture Scott would have been a better choice. And shooting an unarmed man in the back never looks good, and often cannot be justified.
However, in the weeks since the initial uproar (which has caused Slager to be charged with murder), new evidence has come out that begins to paint a different picture. The person who made the video tape has admitted that during the struggle (the start of his video tape), Walter Scott disarmed Officer Slager of his Taser, and may have deployed the Taser on Officer Slager.
Being incapacitated, even partially, by a Taser could easily make a reasonable officer fear for his life, and believe that Scott was attempting to feloniously assault or kill him. There has been no reporting on what was said between the two men. However, Scott is much larger than Slager providing another reasonable belief that Scott could overcome Slager’s attempt to arrest him and cause harm to him in doing so.
Immediately after the separation, Officer Slager draws his sidearm and begins to shoot at Scott. The media has called the 8 shots an execution, yet good police firearms training instructs the officer to shoot until the threat is no longer a threat. Scott didn’t drop until the final shot fired.
The final results of this investigation are far from over, and I am not stating that Officer Slager did not make a mistake. Regardless of Scott’s resistance, physical attack on Slager, and potential disarming and use of the Taser, the facts may come out that condemn the officer’s actions. A jury may in deed find Slager guilty of a form of murder or manslaughter. However, additional evidence may be discovered that portrays a completely different set of circumstances than the inflamed media narrative. Let’s all wait for all the facts to come out before we rush to judge and label the officer a murderer.
Like the Ferguson, Missouri police shooting of Michael Brown, the media jumped all over the officer and again portrayed him as a murderer. Only after a thorough investigation (including the FBI and Department of Justice), did the officer’s account of the events prove to be true, and the shooting deemed to be justifiable. Remember, Brown was much larger than Officer Wilson, (like Scott to Slager) and that fact absolutely played into the account of reasonableness of deadly force.
We Make Mistakes Too – Own Up To Them!
The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, South Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma have galvanized the pundits into a feeding frenzy. So-called “activists” (who rely on hype to make a living) have also jumped on board creating all sorts of slogans to denounce the police.
We must stand ready to counter those accusations and put out the fires of hate and discontent early on in into the situation, and not later. If we wait, the theme will have already been set, and will be extremely hard if not impossible to undo.
In this video, a reserve deputy of the Tulsa Oklahoma Sheriff’s Department, engages in the apprehension of Eric Harris, an illegal gun dealer. After one deputy tackles Harris to the ground, and struggles to get him into handcuffs, the elderly reserve deputy arrives and inadvertently shoots Harris in the back with his revolver. The shot proved to be fatal.
In this example, the deputy made a terrible mistake. There is no question about that. He even remarks after the shot, “I shot him, I’m sorry”. The deputy has been charged with manslaughter, his training records brought into severe question, and the entire Sheriff’s Department tarnished with what should have been a very successful apprehension of a dangerous felon. Considering the personal friendship of the reserve deputy and the Sheriff, it is highly unlikely the Sheriff will survive another election, or perhaps even that long.
When we screw up, we screw up. We’re human, we make mistakes. Hopefully, our mistakes won’t be as blatant and serious as the Tulsa deputy, or perhaps the North Charleston officer. Even though he has been thoroughly cleared of wrong-doing or criminal action, Darren Wilson no longer works for the embattled Ferguson Police Department, and most likely will never work in police work again.
The resulting tragedy of misguided protests turned into riots by opportunistic miscreants can in some ways be attributed to the Police Department’s Command Staff failing to quickly address the public outcry. Communication, even a few details, could have done wonders in that situation. Confidently approaching the public, opening lines of communication, and assuring the enraged public that the police would be forthcoming could have quelled the uproar and given time for the most pertinent facts to come out.
Those facts, when ultimately presented, stopped the riots. The vast majority of the public understood that the officer investigated a strong-arm robbery suspect, and was assaulted and had to fight off an attempt to take his firearm away. When he exited and ordered Michael Brown to stop and submit to arrest, Brown refused to obey commands and instead charged the officer. Brown was a very large man, 6’4″ and nearly 300 lbs., and was not the baby-faced child that the family and media presented.
STAND UP! SPEAK OUT!
A few short months after Ferguson, a Muskogee Oklahoma police officer responded to a domestic disturbance at a church. An estranged boyfriend had gone to the church and confronted his ex-girlfriend in an attempt to get her back. She refused, and he made homicidal threats to her and other family members present. The pastor called police for help.
When the officer arrived a large crowd was outside, and when the officer attempted to frisk the male, the male attempted to swing his left elbow back to strike the officer before running away. The officer pursued on foot, and within seconds the suspect had dropped a pistol, picked up the pistol and turned towards the officer. The officer gave several commands to drop the weapon, and then fired several shots when the suspect pointed his handgun in the direction of the officer. The shots proved fatal.
Within hours of the event there were already social media posts stating that the police had shot another black man in the back, and some “witnesses” that said that suspect did not have a gun and instead only had a cell phone in his hand.
The Muskogee Police Department had reviewed the Ferguson shooting and the results of remaining silent. They immediately called a meeting of community leaders, and pastors the next day. The officers worked with the State Law Enforcement investigating agency to coordinate the investigation. They even called in a certified Force Science Institute examiner. Before going public, the video from the officer’s lapel camera was dissected, slowed down, and put into a well thought-out Power Point presentation.
That presentation was presented with the Mayor, City Council, City Attorney, State law enforcement, community leaders, and pastors, with a heavy emphasis on the black community. By the end of the presentation, all questions had been asked and answered with everyone in attendance except one person acknowledging that the officer acted appropriately with the lethal threat he faced.
Shortly after the local presentation, the Muskogee Police Department went public to the media with the same presentation, and within a day or two the rising tide of media fury was completely extinguished. It should be a textbook case of how to handle high-profile police involved use-of-force incidents.
It is our duty to the public, our responsibility to ourselves, and just the right thing to do! Do not let good officers like Darren Wilson suffer in silence. Be professional and willing to admit when we were wrong, like in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Be honest, be forthcoming, be open. Serve the public, maintain the human side of police work, and the public will almost always respond with support. The general public is still grateful for our work, and we should never give them cause to doubt that simply because we refuse to comment on a controversial action.
Remember – We’re the Good Guys!
STAND UP! SPEAK OUT!