We all want to be seen

A few days ago, I was chatting with a few law enforcement friends about the need for a positive message when debating sensitive subjects and it occurred to me that the larger debate on law enforcement and the community was certainly one of those areas fraught with emotion on both sides. I think that is important for everyone to remember this as these debates rage. Policing is under intense scrutiny and both sides have dug into deep trenches because, quite frankly, the stakes are huge—we’re literally talking about life and death issues all around. I realized that is precisely why a more positive and open-minded dialogue is so very necessary.

Since Ferguson, law enforcement has entered a defensive crouch. Videos continue to surface of alleged officer misconduct, exposing some egregious behavior that cops would rather not have displayed for the world to see. Some tapes have the opposite effect, showing the public the shocking realities of undeniably unprovoked attacks on officers just doing their jobs. What I love the most about this current climate is that increasingly, we are seeing outstanding videos of really excellent officers doing what they do every day: serve their communities with compassion and generosity.

The importance of celebrating those officers cannot be overstated. Somewhere during my career, law enforcement shifted into statistics mode. Numbers ruled and tallies of tickets and arrests became the only standard of measure for an officer’s worth. If the numbers weren’t high enough, the officer was branded a slacker and disciplined. The glaring problem with that approach is that it erodes both public confidence and the officer’s morale. Where a cop might have issued a warning on a traffic stop, he now feels the need to write numerous tickets to boost his numbers and stay on the good side of management. Good community work and problem solving doesn’t fit into that model. It takes time and results are often not quantifiable—at least on a stat sheet or pie chart. Citizens become potential statistics for the officer’s eval and officers become reduced to numbers in the statistical game of politics.

Now that we are struggling with perceptions about law enforcement, suddenly the merits of compassion in service are viewed favorably, rather than dismissed as “soft” like they were too often in days past. This is a good thing. We are human. I would argue our emotion and humanity are the traits that make the best cops. When we see the humanity in the citizens we serve and respond with compassion, we show the strength of humanity that is character. Let’s stop attacking and start seeing each other. No one person is all good or bad. Not cops, not citizens. In all of the noise and fighting, why not use this truth as a starting point for seeing one another? We might be surprised at how that one gesture opens a door for change.

Be safe.

Conduct yourself with honor

“Can we be as big or bigger than this moment or will the moment swallow us up because we are not willing to rise up, fight to remain standing, and meet this moment with the full force and fury of our fearless conviction.” Michael Nila

Like all of my peers, active and retired in law enforcement, I cringe every time I see another video or story about police misconduct—real or perceived. I’ve struggled with the disappointment and irritation of the viral nature and media scrutiny. Also, like most of you, being a cop wasn’t just my job, it was, and continues to be who I am as a person. But the more I think about these issues, the more I begin to realize that good police everywhere need to stand up and take back our honorable profession. The bad apples are sucking all the oxygen out of the room, making everyone look bad, and most importantly, making you less safe.

I believe in law enforcement. We all know that the majority of officers are doing good work everyday. The job is not for the faint of heart. We all know that the majority of the public believes in law and order and supports their police. So why does this narrative persist that cops are under siege? I keep hearing that cops are afraid to do their jobs because of all the scrutiny. How do these two narratives coexist? Shouting at each other and hiding behind hashtags aren’t solving anything. What would it look like if we all said enough is enough?

So, I decided to focus on what policing can control. Us. When I talk about things that law enforcement can do to blunt the negative, like speaking up when you see another cop stepping out of line, I often get resistance from my peers. That’s unfortunate because there are a few basic things that can be done to improve the image of law enforcement in every community all across our country. I’m frankly tired of the argument that says those who call out misconduct publicly are responsible for fueling the fire of anti-cop hatred. That is flawed thinking. Your peers who behave badly are the ones fanning those flames, reinforcing negative beliefs in those who want to believe the worst about police, and giving the media the chance to drive that negative message. The reality is that too often we might have prevented the public humiliation by saying something to that individual sooner.

Will the extreme factions try to use those publicized instances of misconduct against us? Of course, but are we really so naïve that we are saying they don’t already see these behaviors far too regularly? Events blow up in the media and go viral. Shootings, sexual misconduct, and instances of fraud that run repeatedly in our 24hr news cycle. When the officer has crossed the line we must acknowledge the crime and say, without reservation: that cop must go. Unequivocally. We must resist the temptation to lash out at administrations, or minimize the conduct based on the character of the victim. We are the police. Police have the responsibility to conduct themselves honorably and ethically every day, in every encounter.

That does not mean jeopardize your safety. Those who tell you that doing your job with more sensitivity makes you less safe are often part of the problem. I know that isn’t a popular opinion, but I think it’s true. Because treating every citizen with respect—even those who don’t deserve it—is what wearing the badge requires. I realize we are all human and make mistakes. I’m not saying we are perfect. We will stumble and perhaps give in to anger occasionally, but we owe it to one another to intervene when emotions run high. We can control more than we like to admit.

Let’s start with the little things. You might be confronted by small instances of less than ideal behavior. Not things that necessarily rise to the level of crime, but little, annoying things that make you shake your head or say WTH is wrong with them? Things like a patrol car in a handicapped space or no parking zone, speeding for no reason, showing displeasure when they don’t get the half price meal, as if it’s an entitlement. What about standing by when your partner throws extra punches or kicks out of anger? Too often, we shake our heads and walk away. It’s considered bad form to confront someone personally, right? What happens if you speak up? You might be mocked, ridiculed, told to mind your own business, or worse? Let’s be honest, those officers do these things because they can. They are very rarely challenged. Plain and simple.

Silence is complicity. Silence normalizes bad behavior and sends a message that it is an acceptable standard. That also erodes public trust. There is a real connection between this behavior and your safety. An angry public is automatically ready to fight you. When one cop tarnishes his badge, it tarnishes your badge. That is what we must not condone. It does us no good to keep saying it’s unfair or that most cops are good. Everyone knows that. I’m saying that 700,000 law enforcement officers nationwide must stand up and take back the nobility of policing from the few who misrepresent the values you risk your life to protect. You are better than the few who do not deserve to wear the badge.

Adversity will always come. Criminals will fight and try to harm you. You should use appropriate force to affect an arrest. Policing often focuses on survival based on physical strength and firearm accuracy. These are vital skills. Real cops know that what is equally important is your strength of character and mind. This is the challenge facing law enforcement today. This Law Week, let’s recommit to holding the integrity of the Thin Blue Line without apology. I can think of no better way to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. No doubt this is a challenging time to be a cop. But, I know that brave men and women willing to run into danger can meet this challenge head on, fearlessly. Character is the key. Policing with honor makes you stronger and safer every day.

Be safe.

Policing Bathrooms

I was thinking about these so-called bathroom bills the other day. Legislation like this is an area of “morality” policing that normally involves the use of a very important officer skill: Discretion. Discretion is a great tool for cops to use in a variety of situations because it allows humanity to enter into the law enforcement equation. We can think of countless examples of discretion that used compassion and mercy as a teaching moment. This approach likely did more to change behavior and boost the credibility of policing than taking a hard line for a minor charge.

However, discretionary applications aren’t always for the good. Because we’re human, we have to acknowledge the ways that culture wars and matters of faith or our upbringing are often at the center of our own biases. Our belief systems are the very things that color the way we all interact with the world and policing is no different. The only way to work toward the goal of truly unbiased law enforcement is to talk about and acknowledge how we can best balance our internal beliefs with the laws that officers are called to enforce. This is especially true when cops must deal with cultures or beliefs very different from their own.

Here’s an example. In our town, like most, there are unwritten rules that dictate where certain couples go to hook up. Old fashioned “lover’s lanes” or whatever you call them now. In our town, one side of the Causeway was largely straight folks; the other side was known for mostly gay couples. It was routine for officers to patrol those beach areas, coming across countless couples in sexually compromising situations. More commonly, the enforcement was vastly different, depending upon which side the couple was on, meaning the enforcement was decidedly more aggressive. Ticketing or criminal charges much more the norm on the gay side of the causeway.

So, when I hear about communities writing ordinances to criminalize transgender people for using the restroom according to their identity, it makes me a bit nervous. Because an ordinance with criminal penalty means you want cops enforcing that law. Based upon my experience, LGBTQ people are already on the losing end of many interactions where education and discretion is sorely needed.

I often hear that it’s not about hate or discrimination, only about protecting our wives and daughters. Protecting our family is completely understandable, but the man in the bathroom dressed like a woman, attacking women? Let’s please say what that really is. It’s a male predator donning a disguise to perpetrate his crime, no different than an armed robber in a mask. A sexual predator is not the same as a transgender person. You’ll have to search really hard to find an actual transgender person who has committed such heinous acts (I have never seen one in 25 years of law enforcement). What I have seen are hundreds and hundreds of males preying on women and children. That is where our outrage and policing efforts should be directed.

These criminals must be dealt with swiftly and I have no qualms about actual predators feeling the full weight of punishment. We have to address the real problems regarding sex crimes in our society. The very real misogynistic, gender double-standards and pervasive violence against women that still exist. Sad statistics don’t lie: 82% of sexual assaults are committed by non-strangers, 4 out of 5 rapes are committed by a known offender, 47% of rapists are friends or acquaintances. Law enforcement must deal in facts, not hysteria and ignorance. Scapegoating those on the margins is not the answer.