What could possibly go wrong?

Last week, I wrote about the issue of law enforcement and mental health, specifically wondering why our profession isn’t the loudest voice in calling for commonsense gun safety legislation. The issue is part of a much larger mix of factors that combine to take a huge emotional toll on officers today.

From last week: “In the past few years everything has gotten worse. Everyone’s angry. Politics, social media, non-stop noise and hatred, putting us all on edge. We know as cops what that means. The cop on the street is the one on the front line of this crap when it boils over. Mental illness, domestic violence, murders, fights, opioids, homelessness, poverty, desperation. Oh, yeah, and assume everyone is armed in our gun culture existence. And our nature is to stuff it down. Unwind with a drink, close our social circles, tell ourselves it’s us versus them like never before. What could possibly go wrong?”  

And then yesterday, Police One reports yet another NYPD officer commits suicide. California cops got into a gun battle with another shooter armed with an assault rifle. One killed, two wounded. Every single day we are surrounded by carnage.

First-Responders-and-PTSD

My friends, our mental health has always been under stress. Police work is inherently dangerous, thankless, stressful stuff. In our modern world, the darker side of our profession is now on full display. The bad apples are now exposed as never before. Social media and cell phones are blaring the ugliness daily. Guns are more prevalent, and available than ever, to the point that every training you get instills the fear “everyone is armed” and “everyone hates cops”, therefore everyone wants to kill you.

Talk about stress.

On top of that, mass shootings are on the rise. The .223 or AR-15 or AK-47 type rifles are all the rage now, flying off the shelves at a record pace, thanks to slick ads that equate ownership with “manhood” and “strength.” Our gun culture has reached a fever pitch. Our anger and partisanship has reached a fever pitch. Our race wars haven’t been this heated since the height of the civil rights riots. Police are underpaid, undertrained, under equipped, and still expected to perform at unrealistic levels of superhero (or antihero) status, just like on primetime TV.

Every problem polite society won’t deal with lands at the feet of the street cop. Rarely do we solve the problems to anyone’s satisfaction. What human can live up to that kind of expectation in the face of so many threats?

Then there is the very real presence of bad actors within police ranks. Racists, sexists, homophobes, white nationalists, and just plain old incompetent and lazy. Every good cop wonders daily why these people don’t get fired, and if they do, why don’t they get de-certified? Why do they too often get to move on to another agency to fuck everything up for those of us just trying to do a good job and stay alive?

The public has no clue. We don’t want to tell them because we don’t want to make things worse. But wouldn’t publicly shaming and purging the bad apples make policing look better in the eyes of the public? Wouldn’t law enforcement regain some credibility if we policed ourselves more effectively? What if we actually dealt with the many damaging online law enforcement sites that allow and encourage angry, hate-filled language spewed under the cover of free speech? The dangers we face don’t excuse misconduct or racist rants. Good cops know these sites only feed the malignancy.

Our conduct is scrutinized because the badge and public trust make us different. The shame when bad cops are exposed only reflects upon the rest of us to the extent that we allow or have allowed those stains to remain in our ranks. Officer morale suffers in-house. Officer safety takes a hit when those bad actors shame our profession. Angry people want to hurt cops. That is the real consequence.

We need leadership to face our own shortcomings head on, not cowardly excuses or weak-sauce reasons not to take action. Leaders who demand the highest levels of professional behavior. Leaders who insist on sound policies and tactics. Leaders who stand by their officers when they do the job properly, and terminate those who stain the badge. Leaders who ensure their officers get the training, equipment, and support they need, rather than stoke the flames of division with the ‘war on cops’ rhetoric.

It’s time we take a hard look at ourselves and decide who we want to be. Professional, moral, respected public servants that most of cops are, or the immoral, dangerous, unethical, hacks the bad apples make police seem? Will we continue to enable the worst among us out of some misguided loyalty? Because if we keep telling ourselves empathy and emotion make us weak, we’re superhuman crime-fighters, we’re immune from human feeling, refusing to name problems, provide cover for misconduct, unwilling to admit fault, and unable to reconcile these conflicts, we will not survive. Personally or professionally.

And that, my friends, is what can go wrong.

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.

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

 

Angry Rants Aren’t Leadership

We are at a time of crisis in our country. Police and community relationships are strained as never before. Everyday I hold my breath when I open the morning edition of the news, bracing for a new headline of violence. Communities are mourning the loss of citizens and officers, and although we disagree on many underlying causes, one thing we can all agree on is that all responsible citizens want the violence to stop.

In the midst of all of the bloodshed and heartbreak our country has endured, especially in the past few weeks, fear has taken hold. Fear can be healthy when it pulls us together for the common good or fear can fuel divisions and morph into suspicion, blame and hate. Each new tragedy further shreds the fabric of trust and provides justification to entrench ourselves more deeply in opposing positions. Our feelings of helplessness and vulnerability lead us to search for answers in our faith and our leaders. But we must find the right leaders.

When I talk to my law enforcement friends, I hear the stress and fear because it feels as if the attacks are coming from all sides. The murder of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge was an attack on the fabric of society, and the outpouring of love and support nationwide certainly shows that average citizens are with you. Yes, even those who belong to protest organizations like black lives matter denounced violence against police officers unequivocally. In fact, those peaceful demonstrators had spent an entire afternoon amicably with the Dallas PD before a madman decided to act. Because evil will always try to divide us in the most heinous ways and our most vulnerable moments. That’s why we need leaders with a steady hand and temperament.

When we feel unappreciated and under siege, it is tempting to lash out, to give into our fears, but we must not become what we hate. Some law enforcement leaders seem to be pouring gasoline on the fire, taking every opportunity to antagonize and amp up officer’s understandable anger and frustration. Getting on the news or making national speeches filled with vitriol but no solutions only deepen the divisions and make your officers or deputies less safe. While it might be popular short term, perpetuating the Us v. Them mentality doesn’t help, because we all know that we need each other to survive.

We need leaders who call us to our highest selves, not those who feed our darkest and negative thoughts. We need leaders to unify, not further divide. We need leaders who understand that hate shuts down the heart and solutions only come when we are open to hearing another point of view. We need leaders willing to talk to activist leaders to find real solutions. 1468280264-23109-57841d6ac46188ef6d8b456a-450x250

Exceptional leaders have stepped forward in the past few weeks. Leaders of faith reached out following the Orlando massacre to acknowledge the role of religion in the demonizing of the LGBT community throughout history. They carried messages of love and non-judgment to start open dialogue about ways to bring LGBT people fully into the faith community, in order to stop the hate and violence. Dallas Police Chief David Brown, while acknowledging his anger and grief, also told us that his department will not abandon community policing or allow them to turn away from their outreach.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said this following the murder of three officers in Baton Rouge, “This is not what justice looks like…It’s not justice for anybody, and it’s certainly not constructive. It’s just pure, unadulterated evil. We’re gonna start our conversations here in Louisiana and around our communities, with community leaders, law enforcement, government officials and faith leaders, so we can find out together where we go from here. And there isn’t any one of us who can fix this, but all of us together, can and will fix this problem together. I don’t have all the answers and I know it won’t happen overnight. But I know we’re going to come out of this stronger.”

In our time of unprecedented volatility, law enforcement leaders must reaffirm the values we swore to uphold. We cannot shrink into a defensive crouch that silences all dialogue or spout dangerous rhetoric to sound as if we are at war with our communities—even our most crime-ridden communities. An eye for an eye only makes us all blind. Dangerous rhetoric will not help us to come out of this stronger.

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.