What the nobility of policing requires

“We are rightly critical of journalists and members of the public who misrepresent what we do as police officers. Do we not, therefore, owe it to ourselves to be equally critical of fellow police officers, whose actions misrepresent the work we do?”

~Paul Grattan, Jr. One Police Project

This quote is very important in the context of our ongoing national struggle over police and public relationships. We do a lot of talking about how we feel under appreciated or maligned, but what are we doing about cleaning up our own house? I think we owe it to ourselves to do some serious soul-searching about this.

I realize that when we look at policing through our personal lens, we see only a few egregious cases of misconduct splashed across the headlines in any given period of time. We are right that the misconduct numbers are a small number of the thousands of calls handled each and every day. The problem comes when you look at the bigger picture.

Step back and look at the numbers nationally and the instances of misconduct start looking more widespread. They are not the norm, but trust me they are too numerous to ignore. We do so at our own peril because every instance that gives the profession a black eye affects your safety. Yet, we refuse to meet this internal challenge head on.

I know there are many checks on officer conduct and Internal investigators do a good job at identifying the worst cases. What I’m talking about is a culture of minimizing bad conduct. We cannot be okay with that.

Whether it’s a willful blind eye or an increasing tendency to conjure up some false equivalency in our collective hearts, we have created a situation where bad behavior lives within our ranks. There will always be criminals and criminals behave in deceitful, treacherous ways, but that can never be an excuse for any law enforcement professional to violate any code of ethics or standard of conduct. We are the professionals.

Let me give you a current example. The Pennsylvania State Police are currently dealing with a scandal regarding cheating at their academy. According to the final report, there was an ongoing practice of instructors giving exam answers to cadets. It had gone on for years. Dozens of cadets from the current class either resigned or were fired. The real problem is that not one instructor or full-time trooper was disciplined, let alone fired.

As a trainer and later supervisor, I personally experienced a number of cases in which I detailed misconduct of either recruits or tenured officers and those individuals were not fired. In two cases, the officers I had identified as being character-deficient, they ended up doing far worse things and embarrassing the agency. One is now in prison. So, why are we so ready to keep these folks in uniform? They are cancers in the community and cancers to internal morale. Purge them.

And before you tell me these are isolated incidents, explain why only four states in this country require decertification for misconduct. How many cases do you know where the officer was allowed to resign in lieu of firing? A little digging into a few of the high-profile cases of the past couple of years will show you that many of those officers had troubled histories prior to the one that made national headlines.

These are the dirty little secrets we don’t want to talk about in mixed company. I know. But we must find the courage to address this. I don’t say this to air dirty laundry. I say this because I care about policing. I care about the tens of thousands of you who are honest and out there doing a great job. Every single bad cop allowed to stay does damage that makes you unsafe. It’s that simple.

I’m calling on police leadership, unions, and everyday cops to insist we do better. Stop saying it’s all about the media or BLM or whoever. Those groups would have nothing to say if we eliminated those who do not embody the ethical code we swore an oath to uphold. If we stood up and publicly said we will not tolerate less than the highest standards, then we would gain so much more trust in the public eye. Some chiefs and sheriffs are exemplifying this approach and their departments enjoy above average public support.

These law enforcement leaders prove we can do this. We must. We owe it to the community we serve. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to every kid who looks at our shiny badge and dreams of being a hero one day. The nobility of policing requires it.

Leading from the bottom

 

“The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” ~ Norman Vincent Peale

The forced resignation of the police chief in San Francisco caused a bit of a stir in law enforcement circles recently. Chief Suhr follows a string of such actions, including the high-profile Superintendent in Chicago, and Chiefs in Baltimore and Ferguson. Chief Suhr and the others had long and distinguished careers by many accounts, and it is not my intention to disparage or throw stones at these men personally. However, it seems painfully obvious that doing business according to the status quo that has existed for decades is no longer working—for cops or the community.

In these contentious times, we need communication and leadership above all else. Policing in a democracy means change will always come as the public’s attitudes change over time. That’s reality. Law enforcement must always be flexible to adapt to those shifts, and leadership is supposed to drive change in a positive way. For instance, the 1966 Miranda ruling radically changed the rules for questioning suspects. No doubt, the chorus of doomsday predictors back then asserted that cops would never get another confession or make another case. Wrong. We worked smarter, adapted and got better at our jobs. We were fast and loose with stop and frisk, touting ever-increasing arrest and ticket numbers, but now we have to refocus on quality not quantity. Changes in pursuit policies and a host of other issues hasn’t ended law enforcement as we know it.

Our current reality is the proliferation of videos in our technology age that can celebrate outstanding police work, but also unfortunately exposes bad police behavior for the entire world to see. It’s not that those minorities of officers weren’t always there in our ranks, it’s just now harder to hide or ignore. That’s where we are today. So, law enforcement leaders have two choices: Rise to the occasion and drive positive change or lash out at anyone remotely questioning procedures and reinforce the status quo. Sadly, too many in leadership positions have chosen the latter.

The law enforcement leaders railing against any suggestion of change are not helping to bridge this divide with the community. I’ve seen these public servants say things like, “cops are afraid to do their jobs”, “cops are in a fetal position”, “cops are going to start sitting under trees”, or really incendiary things like “the mayor has blood on his hands”. Even the FBI Director has inferred that crime is rising because cops feel under attack. I have to shake my head. Some of these same leaders are the ones who sold the myth of statistical utopia, which pitted street officers against the communities they serve to begin with. Yes, these are difficult and stressful times, but fanning the flames and giving excuses to reactionaries who resist any change is not the answer. Lashing out against anyone who questions policing is not the answer. That’s not leadership.

Leadership requires honest self-examination and assessment for growth. Leadership requires that we reach across divides and listen to the communities we serve. Leadership urges the best officers to continue to do their best in spite of the noise around them, by reaffirming support for good work. We can’t partner with citizens if we continue to only look for blame externally rejecting any suggestion of self-critique or improvement. Criminals do kill more black citizens than police ever will. Yes. But that doesn’t excuse any cop from crossing the line. Law enforcement leaders need to re-evaluate and address our own shortcomings, not just whine about exposure of what we’d rather not have the public know. It is a shame that some in high-profile positions take such small-minded and defeatist attitudes. Their public statements pander to the worst behaviors, rather than the highest ideals of our profession. It’s lazy and wrong.

Forget leading from behind, that’s leading from the bottom.

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.

JSO Rookie Firing Could Have Been Prevented

Today in the news a video showed a rookie officer from Jacksonville punching a handcuffed woman. Let’s get this out of the way early: I do not believe that officers should never punch a handcuffed prisoner, regardless of gender. I’ve punched handcuffed prisoners a couple times in my career. It depends upon the situation. My trainers always cautioned us that the most dangerous moment is when the handcuffs come out. When that person realizes they are about to lose their freedom, the fight or flight instinct is at its most powerful. So, yes, I’ve had situations where I’ve been attempting to handcuff a suspect who then begins to struggle and fight. Procedures and state law allow me to use “the necessary force to affect the arrest”. I looked at the video from Jacksonville with this experience in mind. What I saw was a vastly different scenario playing out.

The video does not show what happened at the beginning of the call. I know many of my law enforcement peers will point to that as a suspicious and important point. No, my friends, that is irrelevant. A statement released by the JSO says, according to the officer, the woman “refused to be handcuffed and was kicking and trying to bite the officer, even in the back of the police car”. She may very well have been struggling or fighting when the officer was applying handcuffs, but if so, then why is she standing on the sidewalk with handcuffs already applied? Four officers stand a few feet away, with their hands in their pockets, not exactly appearing concerned for their safety. Also, of note, another handcuffed person, a male, stands to the left of the officers. He’s also apparently of no safety concern.

Back to the woman. We don’t see the application of handcuffs. The video opens with her walking toward the officer already in handcuffs. She’s saying something, probably upset by the situation. No newsflash, nobody likes to get arrested. In response, the young officer takes the woman by the arms, pushing her back toward the exterior wall of the business and appears to push her against the wall with some force. The woman responds with a kick. The officer then delivers several full swing punches to her midsection.

The debate will rage. The first response from a former officer I spoke to was, “She kicked him!” Her kick is not in dispute. Nor is any possibility of her bad behavior or resisting at the time of handcuffing, which we don’t see. So, I want to be clear on what we’re seeing and saying about the events. Are we saying that her resistance during handcuffing justified escalating force? If so, why is she standing on the sidewalk with no one near her, ensuring she doesn’t do anything else? The three other officers are clearly not concerned. Nobody makes any move to secure either individual who is presumably under arrest. If she was combative, why isn’t she in their patrol car? Why isn’t anybody at least hanging onto her?

Next, the woman walks toward the officer, probably verbally challenging whatever he’s doing. He moves her back to the wall. No problem. The shove against the wall? Probably not necessary and ill advised. That was the first anger response. The woman’s anger response is a kick in return. She’s wrong. No doubt. However, police officers are charged with using force for defense, and that force should be balanced by the threat. Her kick, although factually criminal and wrong, was not an action justifying the flurry of roundhouse punches that he threw. He got mad and lashed out. While I agree, he’s human, and humans react badly sometimes, that does not make him right.

The overall problem I have seen many times in cases like this (some even worse) is unfortunate because it is so preventable and the prevention is the responsibility of the officer(s). We too often jump right to the defense of “that person shouldn’t have done whatever”. I get it. That’s true. What is more important is that we really have to change our thinking from action/reaction, force/escalation to controlling our space in the first place. It’s a form of de-escalation that aims to prevent the escalation before it starts. Again, she struggled against cuffing? Okay, put her in the back of the police car. That’s what it’s for. The officer chose not to do that. Everything else that occurred developed from that poor decision. I think the term for that is officer induced danger or threat. Secure her and she won’t keep fighting you. Period.

What makes matters worse is the other three officers on scene. Shame on them. They stand there, hands in their pockets, proving no real threat is perceived, and showing no reaction whatsoever to the punches thrown by the rookie. One older officer does finally stroll over after the punches and speak to the woman or officer, we can’t tell. The rookie then walks away and the woman collapses to the sidewalk. Still, no one makes any move to place her into a patrol car. I can’t stress this enough—if a suspect like her is so violent, why not? Folks, whether we like it or not, once we arrest someone, they are now our responsibility. Too often, mistakes such as this—not securing a suspect—result in unnecessary escalation and sometimes tragedy. Not just suspects dying, but cops injured and killed. It’s true.

This case is a classic example of ways that police have to get back to basics and do their job properly. Officer safety and prisoner handling training are very specific on how we should handle arrestees and it’s not the way they did it on this video. One last point is about the three other officers. Your responsibility was to intervene. If the rookie was getting pissed off, step in and tell him to relax. What would that hurt? Or what about one of you saying, hey let’s put her in the car? Is that so hard?

The video is a sad reminder that following our training and being responsible for each other at a call is important. Policing by nature is defined by dealing with people at their worst. We’ve all been there. The yelling, screaming. We should already be prepared to hear tirades and endure the inevitable verbal onslaught. It will happen and officers have the tools to deal with it before it gets out of hand. These JSO officers had many opportunities to control this situation. Sadly, they didn’t. Their inaction allowed a woman to be punched, caused the JSO and all cops embarrassment, and cost a rookie cop his badge.

YOU are 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. 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 police events in Ferguson, New York, Albuquerque, and Cleveland have saddened me beyond measure. I’m frustrated that civil discourse is all but non-existent. 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 is given so much authority and trust. What other profession has the ability to literally take away someone’s freedom? In a country built upon individual freedom, this is no small thing. “For those to whom much is given, much shall be required”—Luke 12:48. What is required for this vast public trust? The integrity and honesty of the badge. It is what those who wear a badge must continue to strive for. If someone tarnishes the badge, they must be purged. Mistakes can be corrected, but character flaws that expose true moral failure cannot be tolerated. Law enforcement is a profession that requires good character precisely because police officers are charged assessing others behavior and issuing often punitive responses, whether criminal arrest, civil citation, or some other outcome. Officers must always be aware that is what separates them 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. That narrative right now can only be silenced by steadfast commitment to our code of ethics. I know it seems as if it’s open season on law enforcement. Opportunistic pundits and faux-celebrities, masquerading as community leaders, 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 violent protestors.

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. Be the example for your community and your profession. Be the person behind the badge.