Special Agent Tom Ackerman was one of the principle instructors in my academy. He was the one who stood above the rest and will always be remembered for the role he played in my formative days in law enforcement. He remains a role-model for me to this very day.
During one class, Tom was using slides of newspaper articles projected on the wall. Up came one headlined, "COP FOUND GUILTY OF BEATING WIFE." Tom spun around and looked intently into the eyes of the recruits saying, "See the first word in that headline: COP. If you screw-up, the headline of the newspaper article will start with that word: COP. You will make all of us look bad, so don't do it!"
Noted and remembered - permanently.
It seems in this life that bad news and all negative information travels ten times faster than the good stuff. Just look at any news broadcast. There are not very many stories talking about what has gone well that day. Married guys will relate: I can be a great husband for weeks, but do one thing wrong and all my points get wiped away in a single stroke (sigh) - and she never forgets a screw-up.
As a boy, my folks taught me that there was a select group of people in society that were a 'cut above' most: teachers, preachers and cops. They were to be respected as servants and protectors of the public good. They were to be heeded and obeyed when they asked me to do something.
Unfortunately, today's world has stolen much of that naïveté from us. We can find stories of teachers who have crossed the line. The Vatican has wrestled for many years with claims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests and is a long way and millions of dollars from final resolution.
As for cops, in the past few days we have witnessed:
- A Florida chief ousted less than a month before retirement, accused of covering up misdeeds by an officer.
- An Oklahoma officer charged with stealing livestock.
- A Massachusetts chief resigned over an alleged affair with his assistant.
- A Florida deputy accused of grand theft.
- A Los Angeles officer made up a story about having been shot on duty.
- Multiple officers arrested for DUI.
A cut above? These folks certainly did not live up to that expectation. Maybe we are guilty of kicking our own legs out from underneath ourselves.
Remember the Norman Rockwell painting of a cop and a kid sitting next to each other on stools at the counter of a diner? The cop leans over talking to the kid. You've seen in plenty of times. It speaks volumes without a word being spoken or written. The story of life for a cop - whether on or off duty - is that we win hearts one person at a time.
Why Have We Become Targets?
Just last week, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund produced a story. In that writing it asserted that certain segments of the U.S. population have declared war on cops. We are under siege. Wow, that's a pretty strong statement, eh? It appears fairly accurate, to me:
17 cops killed in one month
11 cops shot in a single 24 hour day
5 cops killed in my home state of Florida in one week
If you take the current rate and project it for the year, it turns into 207 line of duty deaths - a 28% increase from 2010.
Take a look at these names and consider that each one represents a grieving family and a grieving group of brothers / sisters at the agency where they worked:
- Deputy Sheriff Suzanne Hopper, Clark County Sheriff's Office, OH
- Deputy Sheriff John Norsworthy, Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office, TX
- Chief of Police Ralph Painter, Rainier Police Department, OR
- Police Officer William H. Torbit Jr., Baltimore City Police Department, MD
- Police Officer Rogerio Morales, Davie Police Department, FL
- Police Officer Kevin P. Marceau, Dallas Police Department, TX
- Police Officer Christopher Matlosz, Lakewood Police Department, NJ
- Police Officer Larry Nehasil, Livonia Police Department, MI
- Police Officer Tom Hayes, Columbus Division of Police, OH
- Detective Roger Castillo, Miami-Dade Police Department, FL
- Detective Amanda Haworth, Miami-Dade Police Department, FL
- Corporal Charles Richard (Chuck) Nesbitt Jr., Sumter Police Department, SC
- Sergeant Tom Baitinger, St. Petersburg Police Department, FL
- Police Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz, St. Petersburg Police Department, FL
- Officer David S. Moore, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, IN
- Corrections Officer Casimiro Pomales, New York State Department of Corrections, NY
- Correctional Officer Jayme Lee Biendl, Washington State Department of Corrections, WA
Make no mistake: the responsibility for these losses rests solely with the dirt bags who committed those heinous acts. The question remains: can we affect them and their decisions? If so, how?
What Can I Do As Just One Person?
Tactics, tactics and tactics. It's the equivalent of location in real estate. It is at the heart of everything.
I recently rode with a deputy in northern Michigan in preparation for a training class that I would be conducting. In our time together, he shared that he had spent much of his time over the previous two years assigned to a traffic unit on a stretch of freeway that crosses their county. One of his biggest challenges is to remind himself that no two traffic stops are alike.
If we examine many of the situations surrounding the losses of a brother/sister, we find that a contributing factor was the officer's attitude of been there, done that. It is truly tough to take a fresh, creative look at every situation and contact we have, but the reality is that our life depends on it.
Of equal frustration is that we often fail to recognize the real threat. In the past ten years, deaths in/around the patrol vehicle accounts for the majority of line-of-duty deaths. We spend countless hours on the range, cleaning our weapons, practicing DT, etc. How much time do we spend studying and practicing new techniques for handling of our vehicles and positioning them at various kinds of scenes? Yup, I suspected that you would answer, little or none.
In my class, I was explaining how the introduction of technology would affect the work processes used at a crash, i.e. the initial interview, collection of documents, etc. I offered some thoughts with options for a fresh approach to that part of the job but left it to each officer to decide which combination of methods would work best for them. I stressed that the worst thing an officer could do is: nothing. Failing to think about processes and methods that you will use to minimize risk is in itself the biggest risk of all.
We Win Them One At A Time
As a group, if we want the respect that we got in the old days, then we are obliged to behave in a manner that deserves it - as a group. One bad apple can spoil the whole barrel. A wayward cop may lose his job, be disciplined, even be convicted at trial, but no matter what the transgression, that cop dims the shine on the badge of every person who carries one. That one cop's mistake makes it just that much harder for a parent to extol our collective virtues to their kids.
Be An Ambassador
Think of the cop in the Norman Rockwell painting. He could have eaten his meal in quiet solitude. Instead, he chose to take the risk of reaching out. It was just a small action, but it was profound. You can do the very same things. Don't wait for an award. Don't stand on the sidelines until there is someone around who will give you recognition for what you are doing. Jump in and perform a random act of kindness today.
When on duty and stopped for lunch, look around. Are their kids present with their parents? If your agency has sticker-type badges for the young people, be sure to offer them. After getting the parents permission, it can be fun to give kids a quarter to use in the gum ball machine after their meal. I cannot count how many times that type of experience turned a kid's attitude from fear to excitement. We accomplish this one person at a time.
I got on a full flight a couple of days ago from Detroit to West Palm Beach. At the time of boarding, I very quietly indicated to the lead flight attendant that if there were any problems in flight, I would be happy to help them. As I disembarked from an uneventful trip, the attendant thanked me profusely for my offer. We accomplish this one person at a time.
It can be as simple as helping an older person get their bag into the overhead compartment on an airplane. After many thanks, that person asked if I am a Marine. No, I'm in law enforcement. We accomplish this one person at a time.
In the days of the Normal Rockwell painting, it seemed that most cops were proactively looking for small opportunities to help. Many of today's patrol officers are encapsulated in the cocoon of their patrol car. They emerge only to make negative statements or take enforcement action. Even when given the opportunity to interact with John Q. Public, they act as though civilians are a distraction rather than the real reason we have jobs. I know those officers represent a very small minority of our total brother in uniform, but even a small minority can hurt the overall image.
I encourage everyone (including me, sometimes) to take the risk of extending yourself in a random act of kindness. The sweetness of the wins is much greater than the bitterness of an occasional rejection. A cop of olden times worked hard to be part of the lives of the people he served. He walked a beat. He knew the names of the folks who lived there. He threw a ball with the kids and was their as a mentor, counselor and disciplinarian as the situation required. Even when a kid got his butt kicked, he knew that it was because that cop cared.
We want folks to care about us - and they should. We, in turn, must earn their respect and their caring one person at a time. Can we do better? I suspect that some can and it may just payoff in fewer attacks and losses of our brothers and sisters.
After all, it all comes down to saving just ONE life.