Cops, bias, and social media

The avalanche of shame continues. More stories in my inbox about officers making racist, misogynistic, or homophobic statements on social media. Just as cell phones have documented far too many questionable behaviors and exposed some folks who might not be a good fit for policing, now social media is going to catch more bad behavior in its drag net.

Before we allow ourselves to fall into the trap of victimhood, and say these officers are being unfairly treated, I would remind us all that our badge makes us different. We are public servants, we are sworn to uphold the ethics of our profession, serve and protect equally, and enforce laws without bias. We enforce society’s laws, police are not the law. Police are rightly given a status in our community because of the risks involved in crime fighting. With that status and respect comes great responsibility.

Long before these investigative reports exposed cops expressing biased beliefs, I had seen many blogs written on various police sites (some legitimate, respectable law enforcement pages, others are ugly clickbait sowing their own anger for profit). Some of the opinions expressed were angry rants that most of us have heard around the station house for years. The disgruntled guy/gal who makes everyone miserable just being around them, and too often, makes every radio call miserable when they deliberately antagonize the complainant or start the fight. You know who I mean.

This particular brand of cop is mired in a culture of complaining and grievance. They gripe to anyone who will listen, and now they do the same on the internet. Problem is, that gets shared because we find it amusing and it goes viral. One blog I saw recently with comments like: “When you say, you only pulled me over ’cause I’m black, I want to punch you in the throat…I hate everyone these days.” (the blog that contained that sentiment was shared over 50k times) Another one mused of “carpet bombing” in a minority community. I could go on and on.

My friends, it’s difficult to defend these actions because they are clearly not mistakes, as many would claim. I mean, the individuals are intentionally logging onto whatever site and deciding to share the meme, type the offending comment, or share the ugliness they see. Here’s the problem: In the Internet age, the whole world sees it. So, although it might feel good to grouse about the job with colorful language, I submit that when the public sees it, they don’t find it funny. It doesn’t endear us to them. It doesn’t make them sympathetic to our cause. How could it?

The ripple effect of police corruption, abuse, or unethical behavior by bad actors is one of the biggest dangers cops face. Why? Because it makes citizens angry. It makes them distrustful of police. It feeds into the worst things people hear about cops, confirming their antagonism. Trust me, if they think you’re going to mistreat them before you even open your mouth, they’re ready for a fight and you’re already in danger.

I get that the job is difficult, frustrating, and dangerous. I get the need to blow off steam. I do not understand racist rants and violent insinuations. We have spent the last 30 years insisting that we are now professionals, better educated and deserving of higher pay and status. Most who do the job do so with utmost professionalism and honor. But when we continue to allow the ugly side of our profession to go unchecked, we undermine the good.

If you remain on these sites, even silently, you are complicit. If you are posting and actively participating, you cannot tell me it has no bearing on how you police. People who are not racists, misogynists, or homophobes do not post such things. It’s just not healthy for us and it’s very unhealthy for our relationship to our communities. The communities we serve are not okay with this. They see it as hypocrisy when we decry citizens’ protests and free speech, and demand consequences for athletes, then say we should have none.

Officer safety depends on community trust. We destroy that trust with every angry post we write and every racist cop we defend.

Be safe.

 

Be the person behind the badge

In 1989, the City of Tampa, with the assistance of federal grants designed to add 100,000 cops to the streets, rolled out a hiring campaign for new police recruits. The hiring campaign was “YOU are the person behind the badge!” Tampa’s goal was to hire one hundred new officers to combat the crime wave brought on by the crack epidemic racing through our nation. I was one of those 100 new police officers, ready and eager to take on the challenge of community service. I entered the police academy like most of my peers: Clueless about the realities of police work, but with a strong sense of pride and a desire to do the right thing. I’m proud to say that, for the most part, when I retired after nearly twenty-five years, I still tried to maintain that as my guiding principle.006d3289cc71da0a8ea398f6b3c1b34e

The tragic police shootings and the erosion of trust between law enforcement and minority communities from Ferguson to Baltimore, Chicago and St. Louis, have saddened me beyond measure. I’m frustrated that civil discourse is all but non-existent in too many places. Everyone has dug in on their own side of the divide, using worn-out clichés and useless rhetoric in order to defend what each truly believes in their hearts. Or at least what they’ve been conditioned to believe. What I don’t see nearly enough of is evidence that either side is remotely interested in actually listening to one another. Those old sayings “There’s a reason you have two ears and one mouth” or “you’ll learn far more by listening than talking” stand the test of time for a reason. Everyone has a story. Everyone has a truth. Everyone is a product of his/her environment and experiences, which color and forge their belief systems and biases. Yes, both sides have entrenched biases. We cannot even begin to listen with an open heart unless we have the courage to accept this truth.

As a police officer for a quarter of a century, I want to talk about the badge. I still love that slogan: YOU are the person behind the badge. I love it because too often we forget what that badge stands for. Integrity. Honor. Courage. Police officers chafe at the oft-repeated public rant: “I pay your salary!” Usually the statement is hurled at an officer by someone who takes exception to the way an officer is treating them—rightly or wrongly. I get that. But, the fact of the matter is, it’s true. Police officers are paid by citizens to protect and serve their community. This statement belies the complexities, dangers, and unlimited combinations of scenarios, which officers must adapt to each moment of their shifts in order to solve problems, and yes, sometimes survive. The job is hard, no doubt, but it’s what we signed on to do, for better or worse.

That’s exactly why the symbol of the badge is so very important. It requires more of an officer because no other profession is given so much authority and trust. A police officer is granted the power to take a citizen’s freedom or life at their own discretion. What other profession has that kind of power granted by society? That is an awesome level of power and trust.

What is required in return? The integrity and honesty of the badge. We cannot accept less. If someone tarnishes the badge, they must be purged. Mistakes can be corrected, but character flaws that expose true moral failure cannot be tolerated. Character matters above all else because we enforce society’s laws. This is what separates cops from other citizens. This is the non-negotiable bargain. I get frustrated when I hear officers complain that the Walmart manager caught stealing isn’t front page news, but a cop is.

The badge makes you different. Period.

In these difficult times, it’s important to remember what the integrity of the badge truly means. I have faith that law enforcement has the honor and strength to do the soul searching it takes to overcome any challenge. This means even the misguided critique and malice such as we see today. We all know nothing is black or white, or blue vs. black, but we also know we can do better challenging bad behavior. We know that most cops do not abuse the public trust. Those who do make us all less safe.

Negative perceptions of law enforcement can only be silenced by steadfast commitment to our code of ethics. Opportunistic pundits, false community activists, and even some so-called pro-police sites, throw gasoline on the fire rather than engage in thoughtful dialogue that might actually do some good. Please remember your calling. Don’t take the bait and fall into the negative tit for tat. Stay true to your principles. Your actions will speak louder than those who want to keep dividing.

The only way to overcome the current negativity is by listening to the voices in our communities, having the courage to address our shortcomings, and doing the job with integrity. Be true to your oath, be diligent crime fighters, and have the wisdom to educate your peers and citizens alike on the virtues of law enforcement. Ignore those in your ranks who have succumbed to an us versus them mindset. Do not let them darken the virtue of the policing. Be the example for your community and your profession. Be the person behind the badge.

Police Week 2019, Never Forget

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed a proclamation designating May 15th as Police Officers Memorial Day, and the week in which it falls as Police Week. It is a time to honor   the service and ultimate sacrifice made by Peace Officers dating back to the beginning of our country. Each year, the names of more heroes are added to the stone facades, a permanent testament and promise to never forget.

Police officers in our country serve in a climate of excessive criticism, in levels not seen in a generation. The cop on the beat is scrutinized and blamed for factors often beyond his/her control, more than ever before. Our profession is not perfect, but this week, we celebrate honor, commitment, and valor. The best of who we are and what the badge will always stand for. This week, we focus on what police officers still do on every street in this country, every day. They confront criminals and do their best to maintain safety and order in their communities. They stand as the Thin Blue Line between between criminals and citizens. Far too often, the officer pays the price with their very life, like Savannah, GA Sergeant Kelvin Ansari did just two days ago.

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Photo Credit: International Union of Police Associations

On average, every 54 hours a police officer is killed somewhere in this country. Last year, 136 officers died in the line of duty, and another 27 succumbed to 911 illnesses. Their names will be carved into the memorial and read at the candlelight vigil in D.C. The police nation will pause to remember those lost and renew their commitment to the brotherhood of law enforcement, the honor of the Thin Blue Line.

In spite of the dangers and criticisms, cops continue to serve and protect. As former NYPD Commissioner Bratton once said, “We cannot be defined by that criticism. Because what is lost in the shouting and the rhetoric, is the context of what we do.” There will be plenty of time for debate as our country moves forward. Policing will adapt and adjust, the way it has always done. But what will not change is what is inherent in the job: crime is messy. Still, the vast majority of cops who walk the beat every day for our safety do so with honor and integrity. A small number of incidents, compared to the millions of encounters, cannot and will not undermine the bravery and dedication of the thousands of police officers who serve us with distinction. The raging debate has no place at this memorial.

Law Week is to honor service, sacrifice and bravery. Those officers who laid down their lives in your service represent the best in our nation. Let them never be forgotten.

Be safe.

We cannot tolerate sexual misconduct

A few weeks ago a story hit the news about two plainclothes NYC police officers accused of raping a young female whom they had arrested on a minor narcotics charge. According to the complaint, the girl was with two male friends when stopped. The officers found an unknown number of loose Prozac and Klonopin pills in her purse. They arrested her and told the male companions to pick her up later at the precinct. Here’s where it gets bad. After loading the female up in the transport wagon, the woman says that the two officers sexually assaulted her in the wagon, enroute to the precinct. The officers denied the charge.

I’m fully aware that many complaints are wrongfully lodged against police officers every day. However, in this case, DNA from her sexual battery exam, and I presume the wagon, matches the officers. What came next is really troubling to me. You guessed it, just like virtually every defendant any one of us has ever arrested for rape, they now say the sex was consensual. They resigned from NYPD because they know sex on duty is a violation of NYPD policy. So, they eliminated their firing and are acting like every perp we’ve arrested for rape by claiming she wanted it. The cop in me says a handcuffed prisoner cannot consent. Full stop.71vaBBkMyuL._SY450_

But this New York case gets even worse. Now, there is an allegation by the victim that no less than nine other officers questioned and tried to intimidate her at the hospital the night of the incident. If your instinct is to defend the officers or say the woman and her mother are lying, remember hospitals have cameras and large staffs as potential witnesses. Maybe those other cops thought they were trying to help their fellow brothers in blue, but leaning on a sexual battery victim isn’t helping anyone. It’s only making the situation worse.

Let’s be real. If the woman had accused her two male companions of rape, and we found handcuffs and firearms in the car or on them, we would charge them appropriately with armed sexual battery, or forcible rape, or whatever your state’s language. We would say matching DNA made the case a slam dunk and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. We do it every day. The fact that the accused are cops doesn’t change the probable cause.

The victim’s story and DNA in this case make her complaint credible. The fact that the accused are two armed police officers makes this power dynamic even more disturbing. Their professional status makes this infinitely worse. Yes, they should be held to a higher standard. We should be angry when guys like this shame our profession, not twisting ourselves into pretzels trying to defend the indefensible. No, I don’t want to hear how they’re just a couple of bad apples, or about her personal history. None of that is relevant. The police officers were in a position of authority and power. With that authority comes a responsibility to behave professionally.

What’s crazy is that there is no law in New York that prohibits on-duty, armed, police officers from having sex on duty. The sadder truth is that there is no such law in most states. I served as a police officer in Florida, and I’m glad to say that on-duty sex–even consensual–is grounds for state revocation of police certification. The loss of police certification is the least the public should expect from those we entrust with public safety.

Right now, even in states like Florida, there is no mandatory reporting of sexual misconduct if no criminal charge is filed. There is currently no national database or reporting of officer misconduct. The decertification database is voluntary and woefully incomplete. This allows departments to ignore the practice as they see fit, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how that might empower guys like these former NYC detectives to prey on vulnerable women. We can no longer tolerate a systemic failure to deal with sexual misconduct on duty. Law enforcement needs a professional code of conduct and mandatory standards nationwide. Our profession requires public trust to succeed. A uniform morals conduct policy with real penalties and consequence like permanent revocation of police certification is a good place to start.

“No one is required to choose the profession of a police officer. But having chosen it, everyone is obligated to perform its duties and live up to the highest standards of its requirements.” –Calvin Coolidge

 

Respect all citizens or get out

I believe the profession of law enforcement is a truly honorable calling.

A calling. Not a job. A calling is about service. Real service puts others over self.

In these contentious times, it seems to me, part what putting others first requires is to listen. What citizens are telling us is that there are problems. It’s that simple.

Instead of getting ourselves personally offended by their protests, and dismissing people’s experiences, maybe a better way is to begin to listen. Pointing fingers and laying blame are not working for us. They make us look petty and thin-skinned, not heroic. They continue to exacerbate tensions and increase fear and anger. The volatile mix gets cops and citizens hurt and killed. That is the only thing we should be working to change.

Policing in a democracy means that we answer to the public. Right now, minorities do not feel as if policing as a whole is working for them. Maybe not you or your department individually, but as a whole, there is a confidence gap, fear, anger, and lack of trust. Lack of trust is a critical problem that jeapordizes officer safety and effectiveness. So, why do we we keep lashing out at anyone who asks us to do some self-reflection and consider that policing might improve?

More importantly, why do we keep insisting there is no problem when the evidence to the contrary hits us between the eyes nearly every day?

The other day another racially-charged incident happened in this country. This time it was at a military school affiliated with the US Air Force Academy. The commander of the academy, Lieutenant General Jay Silveria stepped up to give a speech that is a leadership example for the ages. The general’s words made me realize that is the kind of leadership law enforcement really needs right now.

A couple of racist idiots painted racial slurs on the lockers of African American cadets. The general could have made a lame statement about how there are a few bad apples everywhere. He could have insisted that most men and women at the academy are not bigots and asked us to overlook this as an isolated incident. He could have blamed the prep school and disavowed any racist or other bigoted behaviors in the Air Force Academy or Air Force as a whole. He could have referred to their anti-discrimination policy in the terms we’ve all become accustomed to hearing. Instead he did what was necessary and right.

General Silveria said what I believe every law enforcement leader needs to start saying when an incident tinged with racist overtones or indefensible behavior occurs in their agency. It’s not enough to say you have a policy and people know the rules. Leaders need to step to the microphone and state their values in no uncertain terms to every cop and in earshot of every citizen in the community.

“So, just in case you’re unclear on where I stand on this topic: If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you can’t treat someone from another gender with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out. And if you can’t treat someone from another race with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.” ~ General Jay Silveria

Yes. That’s right. Get out.

We’ve got to stop sugar coating. We’ve got to stop making excuses. This has nothing to do with the job being hard. Nothing to do with danger. It’s about the integrity of the badge. It’s about service and honor. We can no longer afford to have those with questionable ethics, racist views, or any moral character deficiencies that tarnish policing. There can be no room for such people in law enforcement. Period. The public and fellow cops must all know where you stand. Say it loud and often.

The one clear agreement among community members and rank and file cops is actually this: Problem cops aren’t held accountable. That is no small coincidence. We all know it, but an unwritten rule says we shouldn’t talk about it. So, publicly, we focus on “bad apples” and “mistakes” of judgement. This weak argument is transparent to the public and keeps us from truly purging those folks from police ranks.

The general spoke directly to diversity and bias by saying, “We’d be naive to say this isn’t a problem in our ranks.” Law enforcement must take this clear-eyed, direct approach. When an incident happens and one of our own is exposed for bias, character flaws or excessive force, we should speak with equal clarity. Unfortunately, law enforcement has largely been unwilling to publicly denounce such behavior and say what needs said.

So, as the general says, there’s a better idea. Real leadership. Step up and let the world know you stand firm on the values of your profession. Right now, loud and clear.

If you cannot treat all persons with respect, then you need to get out. There is no place for you in law enforcement.

The public and good cops everywhere will stand and cheer.

Zero as a goal

Zero. That’s the goal.

Law enforcement strives for zero crime. Of course we know that is unachievable, but still, we must try. This is the understood objective of our profession. Sure, we could shrug and say there will never be zero crime, and somewhere inside we know this is true. Yet, we strive for zero. We accept the challenge.

Just because we can’t get crime to zero, we don’t give up the goal. We keep changing our tactics, trying anything we can to arrive at a goal we know is unachievable. Why?

Because we know it’s a worthy goal. More than that, we know if we strive for zero, we will succeed in reduction and any reduction is success.

What if we applied that simple metric to every area of our profession?

Why isn’t our stated goal for police shootings zero?

If we had the courage to make that the goal, by the same rationale as overall crime, we would not eliminate police shootings, but reductions would inevitably be the result.

A goal to reduce shootings would not mean endangering officers. Quite the opposite, it would focus training on tactics and critical thinking that would most often slow things down and give officers time to assess and react. This would improve safety. We know many situations require split-second decisions and officers have to react. More often, officer safety and training is abandoned in critical situations, leading to officer induced danger and unnecessary escalation.

This is where we can drive down the numbers. We talk so much about the value of training and preparedness. Training should include far more prevention skills than any of us have ever gotten. I hear so many people talking about de-escalation in training, but the reality is that officers get very little training in this area.

Historically, our training is disproportionately heavy in shoot scenarios and escalation. The tragic result is that officers then resort to force when they have no alternative skill set. We teach threat/no threat. Black or white. All or nothing. In truth, reality is almost always infinite shades of grey.

Yes, training budgets are sparse, and sadly, are often the first cost-cutting measures in agencies. This shortsighted thinking ignores the much higher cost of litigation and the emotional toll on officers involved. Driving down the number of shootings with a sound policy goal of zero, paired with the training to work toward this goal makes fiscal sense. It’s also good public policy.

We won’t achieve zero police shootings but zero should always be the goal.

Stay on the side of right

The news in the past few days has been filled with the pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and tough guy Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, who is selling a new book. I’ve seen praise over the past couple of years from law enforcement officers and former colleagues for both of these men. There is this narrative that they represent tough, no-nonsense leadership that make them the quintessential cop’s cops.

Are these guys who we really want to emulate?

I know it’s easy to get caught up in the tough guy rhetoric. So, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at the men being touted as the example for law enforcement to follow. That way we can ask again if these are our values.

As sheriff in Maricopa County, Arpaio famously bragged that his tent city jail was a concentration camp. Investigations since the mid-90’s have exposed extreme abuses in Arapaio’s jails, where even paraplegics demanding catheters in order to urinate are physically abused. People who require insulin or other medication for survival are denied and some die as a result. You can read more about the abuses at his jails here.

But let’s move on to his street law enforcement abuses. Arapaio ordered the arrest of reporters who wrote stories he didn’t like. He fabricated an assassination attempt on his life, trying to frame a convict for the non-existent crime. He said he considered the comparisons of his department to the Klan as an honor.

These shocking cases pale in comparison to Arpaio’s most far-reaching and devastating attack on the rule of law, professionalism, and integrity in law enforcement practice. In Arpaio’s county, race wasn’t one factor in a law enforcement reasonable suspicion for a stop, the way most law-abiding cops do their jobs. In Arpaio’s world, racial profiling is the only factor necessary for a stop. Officers only need to say the individual “looks like an illegal immigrant.”

These are the reasons that the Bush DOJ opened investigations to the sheriff. Arpaio has been well known as a sheriff who consistently violates constitutional rights. It might fun to wax poetic about what a great world it would be if we could ignore the pesky laws that govern police behavior and just stop anyone we want at any time. Message boards abound with posts about how working for Sheriff Joe would be great. But, no upstanding cop with integrity should be defending the actions by this thug masquerading as a lawman.

In Milwaukee, Clarke’s dubious resume isn’t quite as long, but he also has many complaints racked up, including an inmate who died of thirst after deputies turned off the water to his cell. He became furious when a man on a flight “disrespected him” and had deputies, including a K9, meet the man when he disembarked from the plane in Milwaukee. He said the man threatened him. No charges were filed.

These men attract lots of attention for their bluster and bravado, but nothing about their actions or words are helpful to law enforcement. Police departments rely on good community relationships in order to effectively solve crime, and more importantly, cops need good relationships for their personal safety day to day. Cheering civil rights violations and abusive behavior is not the path to improved community relations. If we truly believe and worry about the dangers for cops in our current national discourse, then we should reject the rhetoric of these kinds of leaders.

We need to be very careful in the way we show our commitment to our profession. Cop’s support for abusive and illegal policies should be a red flag to all who care about our future. Police have to stand on the side of the constitution, because that is the foundation of our freedom. When cops are willing to encourage civil rights abuses and thuggish behavior from so-called real lawmen in some twisted need for validation of our worth, then we need to take a hard look at ourselves. Blind loyalty in our ranks has never been the answer.

Good cops know the difference between right and wrong. Stay on the side of right.

Be safe.