When did protect & serve become with us or against us?

When I see former colleagues angrier at protestors than disgusted by the latest cops shaming their badge, I realize how far we’ve strayed from our oath. We have to do some honest soul-searching. To protect and serve has too often become you’re either with us or against us. How did we get here?

Policing is a profession of contradictions. Policing can be a thankless job and the most rewarding career. Policing demands great responsibility and affords great privilege. Here’s where I think we’ve gone wrong: Police enforce society’s laws, but police are not the law. It’s really easy to blur that line. This turns impartial enforcement into “because I said so.” That, my friends, is all about ego.

Cops tell other people what to do every day. Cops judge everyone every single day. Even when something’s not a crime, a cop is deciding who’s right in a dispute. My first week on the street, my training officer didn’t like a call the dispatcher gave us. He told me, “Your first lesson is this: There will be no tail wagging the dog. Civilians will not tell us what to do.”

Cops are told from the first day of the academy: Opposing you is a crime. Even if you are wrong, a citizen does not have the right to resist. Let that sink in.

Because communities do appreciate their police, many businesses give officers discounts or free stuff. The problem is, it’s become so common, even expected, that any business that doesn’t is automatically labeled “anti-cop.” Ask a fellow cop where to get a cup of coffee or a meal, and they will tell you which establishment “does the right thing.” The right thing means to give cops free stuff. Drive as fast as you want, even intoxicated, and it’s very likely another cop will not ticket or arrest you. If they do, the condemnation of the group will be severe. You don’t rat on another cop. That’s the definition of being a “cop’s cop.” You’re with us or against us.

You say cops are human? Quite right. Humans are extremely vulnerable to groupthink and the desire to belong. And basic human flaws are power, greed, and ego. What better ways to feed those human flaws?

We give young men & women, still in their immature 20s, the power to take a person’s freedom or life, with the tools to force compliance or death, tell them no one has the right to resist their judgment, when they overstep their authority, explain it away or provide immunity from consequence.

Lavish praise & gifts that need not be earned, except by pinning on the badge. Make them members of a closed fraternity of privilege where indoctrination starts on day one. You are different, better, more worthy. You are called to this elite profession. Focus on the dangers and oversell the fear. Outsiders don’t understand you; they despise you-when they should idolize you. They sell you the lie of us versus them like a cult leader, and soon you start thinking everyone outside the group is with you or against you. It’s no longer about service, it’s about survival. Before you know it, you believe it all, and the only thing that matters is blue.

But, before non-cops get too self-righteous, remember the contradictions of police mirror our own double standards and flaws. We want law & order, but we don’t like rules. We want that person to get a speeding ticket, but not us. We want that bad guy punished severely but want our child to receive mercy. We want help when we fall on hard times, but that person is scamming the system. If we drop a $100 bill, we hope someone returns it, but it’s finders keepers for us. We sympathize with the argument that cops are human and make mistakes because we are all prone to error. Put another way, we are all imperfect.

However, there are those who do return the money. There are those who do not cheat the system. Those who won’t steal, even if they’re hungry. Those who follow their internal moral compass no matter what. Everyday citizens help each other, sometimes risking their very lives for their fellow humans. Bravery, honesty, and decency have more to do with the character of the person than their occupation.

Those are the people we must seek for public safety work. There are many in policing right now who embody the character of true public servants. The kinds of people who give rather than take. Those who are innately kind. Those who understand compassion is strength. Those who reject racism, homophobia, and other biases. Those willing to stand in the gap to ensure equality for all. Those who believe justice is a verb.

These are the citizens we should call to become peace officers. We should search them out and give them the chance to transform our public safety. Seek out people with bigger hearts than biceps. Compassion, love, honesty, and honest selflessness must mean as much as marksmanship, physical strength, and toughness. There has never been a more perfect time to completely reimagine who we want to serve and protect our communities.

When I hear stories about cops who are leaving the profession at this critical moment, I’m not sad. Those who think they are victims and have decided to cut and run are the bad apples. They know in their hearts the real reason for the protests, but they cannot bear the thought of losing the privilege they’ve been told they have since the academy. With power comes great responsibility. That’s the part of the social contract they forgot or maybe they never intended to keep. So, let them go.

Now is not the time for self-pity or reactionary mode. Good police must be part of the solution. We need to reimagine policing, not eliminate it. Crimefighters can still be public servants, not just warriors on our streets. We can purge the status quo and welcome a system that prioritizes crime prevention instead of over-policing. Place more value on humanity than dehumanizing. The good cops will remain and recognize this as an opportunity for real, lasting change. Change that will make their job more rewarding and safer. Change that turns “with us or against us” into “we’re all in this together.”

I’ve said many times we can’t arrest or shoot our way out of the problems facing us. It’s time we stop pretending we can. Reimagine what is possible. There is a better way.

 

 

Police integrity is the challenge of our time

I started writing this blog a few years ago out of a sense that policing—the profession I love and spent 25 years serving—was losing its way. But, then, as I gained more perspective through time and distance of retirement, I realized we were always on shaky ground.

I entered the police academy in November of 1989 and hit the street three months later as a naïve, but energetic rookie, eager to save the world. Of course, I soon realized that idealism is difficult to maintain.

My first assignment was to a midnight squad that worked the largest public housing complex in the city. The housing projects on the east side got the most media attention, but we had our share of unrest. Almost every Friday and Saturday night in those days, our squad was met with angry crowds, and we’d gather beneath overhangs to keep the rocks and bottles from hitting our heads.

I had no idea why people were so angry. Later I learned that the squad prior to us had been disbanded for misconduct. Allegations included planting narcotics, false testimony, abusive behavior toward the residents of this community—mostly African Americans. It’s clear to me now that the behavior of those cops was why we were taking rocks and bottles every weekend.

In those first years, we didn’t have take-home cars, so we checked out a vehicle at the beginning of every shift. One morning, after my midnight shift, I forgot my new rechargeable flashlight when I unloaded the car. When I woke up, I realized. I called the station to ask if anyone had checked out the car. The desk officer couldn’t find a record. That night, when I got to work, it was clear someone had driven the car because it was parked in a different spot. My flashlight was gone. At first, I clung to the belief that the officer would find me and return it, but, as the days went by the truth was clear.

The realization hit me hard. Another cop stole my flashlight.

The next lesson was even worse. When I complained to other officers about the theft of my property, most weren’t angry or even surprised.  It was normal to have items stolen if left around the police station or in a patrol car. That’s right. There was no shock, they shrugged. They told me to get over it and be more careful about my stuff.

Not one person I talked to thought it was a good idea or proper to write a theft report. I was told, you’ll never be able to prove who had the car. Even if you found out who had driven it, they’ll only deny it. It will only cause problems, and, wait for it…people will be mad at you for reporting it.

The lesson was clear: You say nothing about a cop being a thief. Put another way: We accept that there are thieves walking around with guns and badges arresting other people for theft.

I have never quite gotten over that ugly lesson.

Here’s where I’m supposed to stop and assure you that most of the cops I knew were good, honorable public servants and the issues with policing are all about a few bad apples.

And if we talk about the hard numbers of complaints vs. the total number of cops on the force, or the hundreds of thousands of (documented) police contacts vs. the number of shootings, or any other way we love to work the statistics to our advantage, you might think the bad apple argument is a good one.

But, if we look more closely at the bad apples excuse, we can understand how much it damages policing. Law enforcement is a small microcosm of our society, good and bad roam among us. That means cops who are liars, thieves, racists, wife beaters, child abusers, sex offenders, bigots, and just plain a-holes, just like the rest of society.

Yes, I know there are also kind, decent, brave, honorable, men and women who serve their communities every day. I worked with and still call many friends. Good cops should be the standard so there’s no point in continuing to say, “Yes, but there are more good cops than bad.” I should hope so. The bad apple distraction only deflects from the problem. Let’s move forward.

The lesson I learned in my rookie year about tolerating unethical cops is important. I bring up my experience because of those who point to police discipline as proof we clean our own house. While we might do a little surface cleaning, I submit that the time has come for a deep system cleanse. Not everyone meets the standard or is cut out for the job. Cops are held to a higher standard and should be. That’s the social contract. With great power comes great responsibility.  That’s the job. There is no false equivalent to what “other people” do. We are the law enforcement professionals who swore an oath to uphold the law.

If a citizen called today and reported a theft, we would write it up, attempt to determine suspects, and do our best to find the thief. Why not the cop who was a thief? When I tell this story to fellow cops, before I even get to the end, they almost always say with a note of sadness, “I know. No one ever gets their shit back.” Every single one of us can probably come up with numerous examples of personal experiences or stories from peers about misdeeds around the precinct or the community. We’ve seen our fellow cops abuse their authority, degrade citizens, manufacture evidence, and commit other behaviors that tarnish our badges.

Why is this okay? Why do they get to hang around? Why get mad at me for saying this out loud, instead of the system tolerating such individuals in your profession? Can’t we all see that if Minneapolis would have rid themselves of Derick Chauvin several misconducts ago, they wouldn’t be in the mess they’re in now?

People are in the streets because of a system that has shielded misconduct far too long. You are currently enduring weeks of consistent civil unrest designed to force change because the entire criminal justice system has refused calls for actual justice. Citizens of color have been telling us about abuses for decades. We ignored their voices and pain. We dismissed their stories. We cared more about arrests and power than justice and fairness. The bill on our arrogance is now due and change will be forced.

The truth of the matter is this: the same cop that causes so much dissension might also run into a burning house to save a kid during the same shift. This reality blurs the lines. When your call goes to shit and you’re fighting for your life, you want to hear the sound of those police package V8’s, no matter who’s behind the wheel. I get it. I’ve been there, too.

But, my friends, we simply can not afford to allow unethical cops around us. The damage they do, left unchecked, is the most destructive to the credibility of policing. We owe it to ourselves to hold them accountable from day one. It doesn’t matter if they’re fun to go have a beer with, if they do not possess the character for the profession then they must go. Saying this should not be controversial.

Disgruntled, racist, incompetent, or criminal cops are cancers to our profession. The damage they inflict ripples through our agencies and our communities, widening ever outward. Allowing even a 5% rate of cancerous behaviors in an agency of say 1000, means 50 cops walking around with everything from a shitty attitude to a racist mindset to a criminal disposition. Imagine the ripple effect of 50 cops multiplied by dozens or more citizen interactions per day, multiplied by years or decades? That’s damage done by the tens of thousands, rippling throughout communities in this country.

Police integrity is the real challenge of our time. We must change the moral culture of policing once and for all. From top to bottom of our agencies. Public servants of high moral character shouldn’t need a law to tell them they should stop misconduct. It’s time to stop using the bad apple excuse as a way to minimize police misconduct and start living up to the code of conduct we swore to uphold. Eliminate the bad apples when we first notice the bruises, not wait until they have literally spoiled the entire profession.

The code of silence ends here

As outrage burns over the murder of George Floyd, my commitment to police reforms & accountability has never been stronger. I’m outraged because the actions of those officers do not represent our honorable profession. I’m outraged by the depravity shown by Derek Chauvin under the color of authority, and we all instantly knew every cop was going to wear that crime for a long time. Rightly so. 

Not because all or even most women and men who serve as police would ever condone such despicable behavior. That’s a given. What brands us is the internal malfeasance that keeps us from removing such people long before they commit their violent act or crime that stains everyone in a uniform. 

The video of George Floyd’s murder laid bare the complicity of our entire profession. We have insisted for decades that only bad apples commit the worst abuses. Any mention of those “bad apples” is met with strong protests and denials. It’s not me, it’s not me! We cry.

The last two weeks exposed the ugly underbelly of a law enforcement culture that has been tolerated far too long. The horror of George Floyd’s death showed us all the deeper systemic cancer: One truly criminal actor and the shock of three others who either did not care or did not feel empowered to stop him. No, police misconduct isn’t increasing, it is simply being videotaped. The ongoing civil unrest is policing’s collective penance for refusing to reform on its own.  

Good cops & police leaders: Just because you think there is no problem in your community doesn’t mean people of color feel the same. Understand you have blind spots. The civil unrest in your city should tell you things aren’t quite as rosy as you think. People who have been on the receiving end of rude, dismissive, aggressive, or abusive cops are walking around with unresolved pain and anger. Please hear the pleas of marginalized communities who have been crying out over mistreatment and abuse by people you know need to be removed from the police profession. 

We all know who they are. Line officers know who they are. Police managers and staff know who they are. There’s just never enough collective will to purge them. So, they remain among us like cancer, insidiously infecting the squads around them. Supporting a subculture that in practice counters and undermines the police mottos of protect and serve and all of our lip service about community policing. We have always pretended because they haven’t done something that rises to the level of criminality, their behavior can be ignored. Like our racist uncle who rants and we shake our heads, the time has come to acknowledge that the harm they do. The daily microaggressions they inflict on people are just as damaging to our professional credibility and when their conduct rises to outright criminal behavior? God help us, we’re seeing the result. 

Police leaders have failed our communities by failing to address this systemic, pervasive issue that they absolutely know exists. Why are so many disciplined officers allowed to resign and keep their certifications? How is it possible that there are databases of cops known to have committed sexual misconduct or are flagged as criminals, and still walking around in uniforms? Why is there no leadership push for national standards to decertify bad cops? 

Why is it taking two weeks of rioting in the streets to get most of you to even acknowledge publicly that we have to make some changes? 

After Rodney King’s beating, evidence showed us LAPD officers sending racist computer messages like “gorillas in the mist.” Ten years later, I knew officers who used racist acronyms to remember the streets in the projects: AFRO SCUM. The investigations following Ferguson, Chicago, and Baltimore revealed continuing racial undertones. Minneapolis has a long, fraught history of police brutality in their city. Let’s not forget it is where Philando Castillo was murdered, even though he was a lawful gun owner and did everything the officer told him to do. 

These are truths. Police truths. It is no longer enough for any of us to say, “I’m not racist” or “I’m not that cop.” We refuse to look at our racist past in the eye and deal with it and it is long past time for our police culture to stop pretending race isn’t still a significant issue. The people of color in our communities still feel the undertow of bias in many encounters. They are frustrated by our collective failure to do anything meaningful day to day. We need to drop our defensive shields and get real with our fellow citizens.

And we have to start cleaning our own house. The cops that make every call harder because they piss the citizen off almost immediately. The cops that intentionally piss off the citizen so they can say, “Uncooperative. Back in service.” The supervisor who runs an entrapment traffic detail to stop cars in the black neighborhood. The jerk who purposely drives through puddles and splashes people just for fun. The one who “testilies” because the guy in the back seat probably got away with plenty of other stuff anyway. The non-stop microaggressions and indignities committed by these kinds of cops are festering wounds in minority communities. So, why are we surprised when the next shooting turns into a riot? 

The code of silence ends here, my friends. You may not have the power to fire a bad cop, but you must make it clear to your unprofessional peers that racism and abuse of power are not tolerated. They make your job more difficult and they endanger your safety every day. You also have the power to change the culture of your unions. If you think it’s wrong to protect bad cops, then make them stop doing it. If they are beating a drum of us vs. them, they are not truly protecting you, they are fomenting dangerous divisions that will endanger you further. 

I believe good cops want bad cops held accountable. The protests in the streets are demanding reforms and policies to help do just that. We all must be part of the solution. You must reject those among you who do not uphold the integrity of policing. You must speak. Follow your oath. Lead, though it may not be easy. Police leaders must help you by standing up and calling out the systemic failures that keep bad cops on the job. Taking these steps will earn community support. Community support and trust are what will make you safer.  

Please do not listen to those who tell you citizens hate you. Or that there is a war on cops. Policing has always been dangerous. The truly criminal will attack peace officers. They always have and always will. But the fact is policing is safer than it has been in decades. There is no war on cops. There is a war on bad cops. There is a war on abusive cops. There is a war on dirty cops. Rightly so. They are the criminal in your midst. 

To my fellow citizens, outraged over a seeming avalanche of videos showing murders and abuses of citizens at the hands of police. I hear you. Change must occur. It is unacceptable in a democratic, civil society, and should not happen. Sadly, it happens over and over. Police misconduct is a cancer and protests are the cure. As Dr. King famously said, “A riot is the cry of the unheard.” 

I believe the images of uniformed police officers callously murdering a man in their custody has finally awakened us for good. The time has come for real change at long last. Keep up the fight, but do it peacefully. We’ve had lots of examples of good cops kneeling & expressing solidarity with you. Let’s build on those connections. Hold those who do not deserve the public trust to account. Let’s demand justice and control over how we are policed. That’s how it works in a democracy. You have the entire world’s attention. Let’s finally achieve the dream of justice.

A police reckoning has arrived

Since the murder of George Floyd one week ago, I’ve been concerned about the escalation of violence and the risk to more citizens and cops. We should be thinking about the exponential risk to every good cop who now has to wear the depravity of one of our brothers in blue, callously snuffing out the life of a person in his custody. This event has ramped up violence nationwide and, as always, cops on the front line are the ones in harm’s way.

My friends, we must understand how we got here. I want to talk to you truthfully and frankly, as a fellow cop, because we have to tell each other the truth and see our faults, or we’re going to lose our legitimacy once and for all.

We have convinced ourselves for decades that there was something a suspect did to cause his death. That their actions must have caused their own death. Always. That’s the mantra, right? It’s on a mental loop in our heads, “If he had only”…surrendered…not fought…complied…pick a term. And most of white America goes along with us. If only the person had done, or not done, whatever. The person is never killed by the fault of the cop. Never official misconduct or malfeasance. Their actions dictate our response.

Qualified immunity shielded almost every bad actor that came along. Shootings of individuals lawfully carrying firearms, children playing with toy guns, people playing video games inside their home, women sleeping in their home, the list goes on. We do mental gymnastics and think up a myriad of reasons to absolve the cop of any responsibility. Regardless of training. Regardless of the circumstance. Regardless of common sense. We are tone-deaf to how this looks to the average citizen.

Then came Minneapolis. I’d like to think the image of a cold, callous cop calmly kneeling on the neck of a non-resisting man is finally, finally a bridge too far for my fellow Americans and cops to swallow. This time, it is impossible to look away.

It’s time to put up or shut up, my fellow good cops. We’ve been crying for years “bad apples” not us! Any direct question about individual responsibility is ducked and dodged. Then came Minneapolis and it was all laid bare. The depravity of the primary cop and the failure of the others on scene to stop the murder. What you need to understand is that this is what has been at the heart of the issue for decades. That complicity has tainted you as well. The disgusting behavior of police misconduct has always painted us all with an ugly brush. We were fools to tell ourselves that it could be otherwise.

That is the critical message we have failed to hear. When the criticism comes we immediately go to our defensive crouch, insist it’s only those unnamed bad apples. Trust us. Except that nonstop videos say otherwise. They keep coming daily. We must make it stop.

This is what I want to say to you today with all the love and brotherhood I can muster. It is not enough to say you are not that cop. You must stop that cop. You must reject that cop. You must purge those cops from your ranks. You must make those cops pariahs. You must rise above those cops if you are ever to release yourself from the stain of their deeds.

I realize right now it’s easy to get caught up in the anger against protestors. I’ve been there, too. Taking rocks and bottles, holding the line with a gas mask & shield. This is the part of the job nobody tells you about when you sign up thinking you’ll save the world. Please try not to buy into the negative war on cops rhetoric. There have been riots and difficult times before. Good cops are the ones who will weather the storm, like always.

What’s different now is the political climate mixed with social media and nonstop noise. Will law enforcement live up to the lofty ideals of its code of ethics or succumb to the basest depravity of the disgruntled or criminal in our midst? Resist the temptation to believe the worst and stay true to your oath. We are at a critical juncture in law enforcement, my friends. The future is up to every one of you.

I have always maintained we are better than the worst of us. Those brave enough to run into gunfire or burning buildings are brave enough to stop misconduct by our peers. I believe in the better natures of the true heroes behind the badge. Hold tight to your humanity. There is no us and them, only one human family. Let’s get through these difficult times by committing to our communities and one another to demand only the best serving beside us.

Police honor and integrity are more important now than ever before. A police reckoning has arrived. Our profession and our nation are depending on our morality and courage.

Be safe.

How many Jaylan’s are in our wake?

Today I read an article about a group of officers who are in hot water for falsely arresting a black college student. Here are the basics: The Eastern Illinois University swim team was traveling home on a team bus. They stopped at a rest area and the swimmers step off the bus to stretch their legs and use the facilities. They gathered in their team jackets to take a photo for social media. As the team began re-boarding, several police cars pulled into the lot. The only black player, Jaylan Butler, was stopped by a couple of officers, proned out on the ground, in the snow, and cuffed.

Jaylan was compliant, according to the bus driver and coaches. Nevertheless, the officers felt the need to point a gun at his head and tell him, they will “blow his f—king head off” if he moved. Again, this was corroborated by the witnesses, who reported they kept telling the officers the entire time it was a mistake and he’s a member of the team.

A few other agencies showed up. The bus driver and coach related that when they asked to speak to their supervisors, they were told various reasons why the supervisors could not be called. Jaylan was taken to a patrol car and told initially he “fit the description” of a suspect they were looking for. According to the bus driver, one officer said they thought he was taking the bus hostage. But, when it became clear the team is adamant, he is with them, they tell Butler the charge would then be resisting. In the end, they finally allowed Jaylan to retrieve his ID from the bus and decided they should release him.

Now, here’s the thing. I don’t know what offense these cops were responding to. Reports say possibly the state police BOLO’d about a B/M who shot at a vehicle in the area. Fine. Everyone free unit responds to assist, right? No problem. Then, at least one cop apparently saw the team at the rest stop and the lone B/M with them. We can argue at this point, maybe he’s worth a look. But, aren’t we supposed to look at the totality of everything?

The only description that fit was Jaylan’s race.

Don’t tell me that’s not true. Remember, the bus driver and coaches said the team was wearing their jerseys for the photo. So, here’s this black kid, wearing his team colors, nobody is acting hinky, nobody is freaked out. All accounts are that the driver and coaches immediately tried to intervene in the error. To no avail. Jaylan was still thrown down in the snow and threatened with having his head blown off.

My friends, we conduct investigative stops ten times a day. Race can be a legitimate factor, regardless of black or white. When it becomes a blinding factor, that’s when it becomes a problem. I’ve forgotten how many times I got out to stop an individual based on a very vague description. That’s perfectly good policing, but the rest of the context has to matter. Their “suspect”, supposedly running from the scene of a crime, would exhibit some outward signs of flight. Then there’s the coaches and bus driver saying the kid’s with them. He’s wearing a jersey with the same name as the team bus. Things don’t add up, here. Right?

So, almost immediately, professional law enforcement officers should have understood that their initial suspicion was dispelled. Jaylan is black, nothing else fits. End of story.

I’m troubled by the rest, though. Why are we so afraid to simply say we’re sorry? My bad. Why does it so often then shift to a resisting charge?

Try for a moment to imagine yourself being grabbed up, thrown on the ground and cuffed. You did nothing. You know you did nothing. Are you going to honestly tell me that your natural, human response would not be to squirm? Try to twist around to look at the officer and insist they are wrong? Not fight to harm, just get someone to listen because you know they have the wrong person. And then because you squirm, the cop points a gun at your forehead and says, “I’m gonna blow your head off if you move again.” Would that be okay if that was your college-age son?

In the end, the worst indignity occurs. No apology. No professional conversation to explain our actions. No name & badge number as requested by a citizen. BS reasons for not calling a supervisor. (As a former supervisor, that’s the best option to stop a complaint, trust me.) Then, reportedly, they don’t even document (until much later) the stop & detention, as required by policy when you are a professional. In 2020, I’m certain most agencies require documentation of a detention that rises to the level of threatening a suspect with a weapon.

Sadly, the failure to document the use of force will likely get these cops in more trouble than the violations they committed on this young man. It’s unconscionable. It’s unprofessional. It’s traumatizing to those who have this kind of thing happen to them. Unfortunately, it happens too often. And as a profession, we accept it as collateral damage. We leave young men like Jaylan scattered in our wake. We don’t even feel bad. We justify it by saying lame stuff like, “he could have been taking the bus hostage.” Seriously?

Our power allows us to shift to POP (for non-cops, that’s pissing off the police- yeah, that’s a thing), or resisting arrest, or some other justification for our actions. Anything not to say, I was wrong. Sorry.

We don’t talk about this much as cops, but we should. I wonder how many times a day a simple apology would be the right thing to do? Worse, I wonder how many times a day cops shift to another charge, refuse to take back a ticket, ignore a witness. All because of our ego. I wonder how much goodwill we could generate if we simply acknowledged this simple thing. We’re human. Our biases sometimes affect us. We can be wrong.

Most stories about this incident focus on racial bias, which is a subject for another blog, but I wanted to talk about more than that. I want you to think about how we treat people because public trust is what makes our job easier and safer. We can all agree that it is our job to question, to check out possible suspects, and sometimes it’s risky. It is also our job to be professionals. Listen to what people are saying. Think critically. Don’t let preconceived judgments blind us to commonsense. And for pete’s sake, if we act rashly, rush to judgment, and make a mistake…

Do not cling to your arrogance. Take a few minutes to talk to the person. Try to make it right. An explanation or apology costs you nothing. The goodwill you offer will be priceless. Do not walk away and leave another Jaylan in your wake.

Live your oath, change the world

As professionals, law enforcement officers swear an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. We also have a code of conduct called the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. More and more, I find myself wondering if we even care about those anymore.

Policing is one of those professions that transcends the definition of a job. It’s who we are. There is the increasing lament that cops are held to a higher standard. Some complain if a grocery store manager got into some kind of trouble, nobody would care, but police officers are called out and shamed. That’s true. And you know what? Rightly so.

Because here’s the hard truth: Nobody made you become a cop. You took on the status and the responsibility that came along with that status, willingly. Maybe you didn’t fully grasp the awesome responsibility that goes along with the awesome power society vested in you the day you pinned on the badge, but you own it.

On good days, we all love basking in the respect and admiration given to us simply because we’re walking around in a uniform or driving around in that police car. There’s a kind of intoxicating sense of power when drivers hit their brakes at the sight of you in traffic, or everyday people go out of their way to say hello or offer you a free coffee out of respect for the profession you’ve chosen.

Notice I said because of the uniform and car, not you personally. It’s really easy to blur that line. People confer automatic respect (or disdain) for what your uniform represents. Most people have a good impression, but some have had bad prior experiences. Either way, they are basing their reaction on historical interactions with another nameless individual wearing a uniform like you. Personally, they probably don’t know you, so it’s important to remind ourselves that we’re representing an idea, the idea of public service, impartial enforcement of the law, integrity, and even bravery.

This is why you are held to a higher standard. Because the profession you signed onto is the ultimate measure of public trust. You are entrusted to uphold and enforce the laws of our democracy. You are given the authority to take someone’s liberty or life. I’d say that’s way beyond the scope of the retail manager. That is why law enforcement is a calling, not a job. The job requirements include humility (service is humility), grace (not everyone deserves jail or a ticket), compassion (seeing the humanity in others),

The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics says in part: I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all and will behave in a manner that does not bring discredit to me or to my agency.

Are you doing that when you mock others publicly? When you post ugly, degrading, divisive, sexist or racist comments on social media? When you send racist comments or jokes over department communications? When you flash white supremacist hand signals while posing in uniform photos?

I’m not talking about civil debate. We can have honest disagreements about facts. I mean comments like the assistant police chief from Alabama who posted a suggestion of a “roadside bomb” for the Speaker of the House (and any dumbocrat). The latter wishing the same (death by a roadside bomb) to members of a rival political party.

Are you going to really tell me that is behaving in a manner that brings credit to his department? I would ask this of anyone employed by the public and wearing a badge and gun, but especially the assistant chief. No, this is not a service to his community. Yes, it brings discredit to his agency. What’s worse, it’s one more example of a fellow cop who brings discredit to the entire law enforcement profession.

The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics also says: I will never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, political beliefs, aspirations, animosities or friendships to influence my decisions.

Have we conveniently forgotten that part?

I wrote about this previously, but in our social media world, it keeps happening on a daily basis. Only a few months ago, our profession was rocked by media reports of hundreds of unprofessional social media posts by cops all over this country. Rather than responding with wide professional humility or distancing ourselves from these people harming our collective reputations, as a whole, we fell in line with indignant fake outrage. How dare anyone say we don’t have free speech? Stupid snowflakes. Can’t they take a joke?

I’ve heard the assertion that I’m being the thought police. You have the right to free speech. You are correct. You have the right to be as intolerant, crass, bigoted, and insensitive as you wish. You just don’t have the right to shout it from the rooftops or splash it all over social media and still enjoy holding the public trust. There’s a difference. Remember, you chose this profession freely.

We all say we understand we live in a world where the truth is under attack and civility is evaporating faster than a drop of water in a forest fire.

My point is, aren’t we the leaders? Didn’t we sign onto this job to set an example of how to live a life of integrity? Every time we bury another fallen officer we say, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another.” I believe that.

But what about how we treat others every day?

That guy you splashed intentionally by plowing through the puddle yesterday might have spoken up for the police at a neighborhood watch meeting. You just lost an ally.

That woman you said lied about the sexual assault might refuse to name a murder suspect next week.

The kid you arrested for POP because he dared to question you because he’s been stopped dozens of times this month, might decide to lash out and fight or harm the next cop.

The hundreds of people that see your social media posts calling for the death of people you don’t agree with, or that spread racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise vile comments, might conclude your opinions cannot help but affect your on the job behavior. And again, since you represent your profession, they transfer your intolerance to other cops.

My friends, we cannot expect to be held to the highest esteem and not the highest standards equally. It just doesn’t work that way. I believe that most of us took our oath in good faith. Our communities need servant leaders of integrity now more than ever. Let’s remember what the honor of our badge truly means. If you want people to see you as an example for their community, then remember that’s exactly what you are–good or bad.

So, choose to be that positive role model and servant leader. You really can make a difference in the world.

Especially now.

Be safe.

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

 

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.