So here lately I've been privy to, and part of, many conversations regarding the current state of affairs in law enforcement. My immediate co-workers and even my supervisor hold forth with astonishing regularity on how much longer we each have until retirement (my boss can punch out any day, but needs the money). We all daydream out loud about the different career choices we could have, should have, would have made if only we'd have known how things would turn out. This conversation will happen again, probably contemporaneously with yet another sensationalized article involving a police officer, a shooting and an “unarmed black man”.
Confession time: A few months ago I even interviewed for a private sector job. I didn't get it. Officers across the nation are demoralized. Even a cursory glance at Facebook, Twitter, Google News, or any news outlet will tell you that this is so. Here lately I've found myself with less energy to argue law, facts and reason with people who's instinctive reaction invariably involves assigning nefarious motives to most cops. I can only hear “there are still SOME good cops out there” from well-meaning ignoramuses so many times before I feel like I'm fighting time and tide, neither of which yield to the efforts of any man. Across the country we are under a scrutiny that is uprecedented and, in reality, unwarranted. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is the power of social media as a driving force behind what gets coverage from the mainstream press. If enough people are shrill and persistent, they will get coverage.
That's how what should have been a local story in Missouri about a hulking, violent 18-year old strong armed robber being justifiably shot morphed into the national tall-tale of a “gentle giant” being gunned down by a murdering, racist cop while surrendering, hands thrust high into the air. Local outrage based on the word of outright liars, criminals and others who stood to gain by inciting chaos, coupled with the power of social media as a vector to spread the lie, turned a story of local concern into the foundation for a national movement against the forces of law and order. As the saying goes, a lie is halfway around the world while the truth is still tying it's shoes.
So the inevitable question that arises from the present situation is “What can I do?” This question can be difficult to answer for those of us actively engaged in the business of law enforcement. I don't profess to be wise enough or experienced enough to counsel every cop who's eyes should happen upon this article. But, as I have mulled over the current state of affairs, here are three things that have become clear to me:
We must continue to rely on law and training:
There really is no other choice. Yes, as it has been made apparent across the country, prosecutors can (and will) charge officers with crimes for acts consistent with case law and their training. This has, in reality, always been possible. Now it is becoming commonplace. The saying “It's better to be tried by twelve than carried by six”, it seems, is being tested almost daily. Be cognizant always of what case law says and be able to articulate why your actions fall within the confines of pertinent decisions. Google Scholar, Findlaw, and other sites will enable you to search for cases by keywords. Find the decisions that could directly impact you and KNOW them. Cole v. Bone, Montoute v. Carr, Brosseau v. Haugen, Scott v. Harris... look these up and see how they've been cited, then look at the cases that cited them, and so on.
Know your state laws inside and out. War game in your mind how they might apply to a situation you could encounter. Cite them in your report narratives if you are permitted to do so. By doing this you make it patently clear to the brass and the lawyers that you know exactly what the law is and, more importantly, that you knew it AT THE TIME you took the actions you did. You know that citizens and activists parse the law to their advantage, you should do the same. You may still be prosecuted, that is unfortunately the cost of doing business. But if you act in accordance with the law, you have a foundation from which you can win.
We must know our audience and direct our attention and resources accordingly:
Our biggest detractors are quite often themselves criminals, hypocrites and liars. This is not to say that ALL criticism stems from the aforementioned type of people. But the loudest voices in the “national conversation” all too often have ulterior motives. Here is a fun experiment that I like to conduct on my hometown department's Facebook page: Find the most outspoken critic in the comments associated with a department post, then run their name through open public court records databases and look at their history. It's no secret to cops that the loudest mouths are often attached to people with the most voluminous criminal histories. A very large segment of people who take up the mantle of painting all cops with a broad brush are usually people who stand to directly gain from a police force that is hesitant to do their job. They join the chorus of negativity with the express goal of making cops afraid to do their jobs. I've had discussions with people who tell me I can't know what it's like to be black and interact with the police, because I'm white, turn around and tell me that they know what is in the hearts and minds of “most” cops (hint: it's racism), even though they've never worked 10 minutes in a uniform.
The problem is that for too many people, they are content to believe that their perception is reality. What can we do about this? Not much, I'm afraid. But we CAN and we should learn to distinguish those who are amenable to reason and strive to build bridges with them. Bear in mind who is just making noise and tune them out, while tuning in to those who support us or are open to reason. The same social mediums that are carrying the message of those who denigrate us also carries a virtual tsunami of support from the public. One need look no further than Humanizing the Badge and other like-minded organizations to see it.
Put the same amount of energy into thriving emotionally that you do into preparing to survive physical confrontations.
Many of us have been involved in knock-down, drag out fights and other such assorted mayhem. For those of us who haven't yet, we will. The one constant that you'll find in these situations is the “not today” and “win at all costs” mentality possessed by officers who prevail. We must apply this mentality to the concept of doing our jobs properly and with zeal. Maintaining a positive outlook is something that must be worked on, it doesn't come naturally to a lot of people. Choose to engage with people and outlets that accentuate the positive aspects of policing. Should we let the words from people who we know are up to no good color our perception? Are we, collectively, what they say we are? No. We ARE “the good guys”.
You know it and I know it, and the “silent majority” that is getting less silent by the day in showing their support for us knows it, too. Are we going to let malcontents, malefactors and mopes dictate how we do our job or how we feel about our decision to protect our communities? We should not.
I certainly won't judge anyone who decides that staying in law enforcement in the current social and political climate is not worth the risk. I confess I've kicked around the thought of leaving. Maybe, if the “right” opportunity comes along, I will. But unless and until it does I have an obligation to be as devoted to the profession as the day I started. Maybe not as idealistic, maybe with a bit more of the jaundiced eye that all the old-timers told me I'd have (even though back then I swore I wouldn't), but devoted just the same.