“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.