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.