Among supporters of law enforcement officers, there is no shortage of police apologists, and rightly so. Given the current climate of negative media attention and the toleration of outright lies that pass as truth at even the highest levels (such as “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” from the floor of Congress) we need both sworn and civilian men and women of intelligence who are ready to defend the appropriate, even when unimaginably difficult, job that cops do day in and day out. The job that involves (from my own personal experience) being spit on, assaulted, lied to, lied about, fled from, sued frivolously, yelled at all while working long hours, missing time with family and friends, cancelling commitments, and the list goes on.
In fact, we need solid supporters in and out of uniform to dig in and be ready to defend us now more than ever. As the social landscape of how information is shared continues to change we need folks plugged in and capable of conversing with those who have questions about the many aspects of law enforcement that they just don’t understand. I strongly believe that someone who wants to critique the police in ignorance should encounter an insurmountable set of supporters and I also believe those defenders should stand ready to answer difficult and honest questions with nothing less than humility and respect.
But a hard reality for many LEO supporters to admit is that sometimes, we get it wrong. We know this; everyone knows this. We’re human, after all. Before we get too far, let’s make sure you know that corrupt cops also exist; and even though every cop I know actively acknowledges this, I want to say it again so people who believe we love a crooked cop can maybe see it on their screen just one more time: Yes, corrupt cops exist and the 99+% of good cops out there hate that they’re among us. But that’s not what we’re talking about. I’m not saying that cops who intentionally set out to violate the very laws they are sworn to uphold (and the code of conduct they promise to abide by) should get a pass. None of the good cops will say that. Sometimes there needs to be discipline, sometimes that cop needs a new career, sometimes that cop needs prison. But a corrupt cop is different from a good cop who simply makes a mistake or an error in judgment.
Yes, sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we have the best of intentions but forget the finer points of a law; sometimes we let someone get under our skin and instead of de-escalating a situation and just make it worse; sometimes we don’t listen when we should; sometimes we speak when we shouldn’t in ways that we shouldn’t; sometimes we overstep our bounds and other times we don’t step in enough; sometimes we move too fast and others too slow. Notice that I neither say “all of the time” nor “none of the time” but sometimes. In a world dying to argue over extremes, I’m simply asking us to be honest. Imperfection is not unique to law enforcement, it’s just part of being in this club called humanity.
Yet, not all of us who love cops like to acknowledge even the littlest of their missteps; particularly in the public arena where they already feel under the microscope. Perhaps it’s because we fear we’ll be adding more pressure on the thin blue line or that we would legitimize those who would blindly criticize the cops without any objectivity. Perhaps it’s just a little too much pride. But that’s the beautiful thing about the truth: it’s liberating. We need to own it so we can be sharpened by it. Isn’t that what the “thin blue line” is really all about–what separates good from evil? If it’s not our response to the truth, I’m not sure what is. By embracing our weaknesses and letting those lessons become our strengths, we take away the ammunition from the would-be cop haters before they ever have a chance to use it. Those who refuse to engage in honest dialogue anyway well…you can’t fix stupid. Maybe they don’t want to take an honest inventory of their own lives but that shouldn’t be an excuse for us to do the same.
From within, the most common push back against the critique of an officer’s actions is that we should not “Monday morning quarterback” our brothers and sisters. Well, I call bull crap. Why? Because how do we learn and get better at our jobs without admitting our mistakes and learning from them? In fact, that’s exactly one of the foundational ways in which we learn, improve and even are able to effectively teach others. You can and should learn from the mistakes of others and most especially from those we make all on our own.
The push back against any type of critique of LEOs comes from a false dichotomy that would have us to believe that if we criticize any part of what an officer does, that we’re attacking his character, his intentions or his overall service and nothing could be further from the truth. Just because you point out a mistake in one part of a scenario doesn’t mean that the entirety of an officer’s actions were improper. It also doesn’t mean that we have to be jackasses in how we deal with the mistakes we see, since the best way to learn from the mistakes of others is to first spend a lot of time working on the ones we might well be ignoring in ourselves.
Tell me, if you’re a cop, that in the police academy you did not learn in great part from the mistakes or stories of mistakes that had been made by those who came before you? Has no officer that has been killed in the line of duty, suffered that fate because of a mistake on their part? Do you not critique one another at work or certainly when in the FTO process so that you can keep each other safe and help one another succeed in your careers? Do not get me wrong, there is a time and place for critique of such sensitive matters, but learning from such situations is absolutely necessary so that history doesn’t repeat itself and we can all be better tomorrow than we were today.
If you’re a cop that feels like you’ve “arrived” well, by all means feel free to inevitably disagree. However, for the rest of us that haven’t attained such perfection, we need to capitalize on healthy criticism for the sake of our integrity, our departments and our communities. Some of my best practices as an officer today come from my many mistakes being pointed out to me by other officers, sometimes more experienced, sometimes less. If there is any room to improve as LEOs, why wouldn’t we want to relentlessly pursue every means possible to do so?
From those outside of the LEO community, they commonly insist that cops do nothing but hide behind our badges to cover up our wrong doings. Now, if we won’t be straightforward about when we’re wrong on a matter, are we not becoming what we most despise? And when we become what we’re criticizing we needlessly lose the credibility to shift the paradigm of thinking about law enforcement in our day and further reinforce the false perceptions that many hold about cops.
The way forward is going to take a lot more than pictures of cops playing basketball in a driveway or buying lemonade at a neighborhood stand. Those aren’t bad things but true justice isn’t about trying to get the good to outweigh the bad; it’s about what’s right–period; even when people need a little bit more time and explanation to get it. “Good” isn’t a blanket that we can use to cover up actions we’d rather forget. Sometimes, we’re wrong but every time we should try to get it right the next time.
Feature Image Credit: Brian L. Frank for Politico Magazine