They are the headlines that make you cringe. I hope they do, anyway. Every time I see one I cringe a little, take a deep breath, and dive into the story hoping to find a media mistake, misrepresentation, or misunderstanding. In other words, looking for some other – any other - way to explain what appears to be ineptitude, bad judgment, or misconduct on the part of a fellow officer that has just made news.
Often I find what I’m looking for, a nugget of information shining light on the officer’s actions that, to the trained eye of someone inside law enforcement, means all the difference between reasonable and prudent officer and rogue cop. Headlines can deceive, sometimes intentionally. Reporters, even those honestly trying to be objective and complete, can cast doubt on upstanding cops. And an increasingly jaded public, distrustful of government in general and public servants in particular, educated by reality TV and a fictionalized world of cops that is either overly idealized or overly cynical, are quick to pass judgment on that they know little about.
Unfortunately, too often what I find is a story that justifies the negative headline. A cop did use bad judgment, did act in bad faith, or did cross the line. One of our brother or sister officers, through commission or omission, tarnished the badge or lowered the public confidence in law enforcement just a little. The offense could be small and inadvertent, a mild breach of trust that soon fades in the collective memory and from which everyone moves forward (our last article, Dying to Sleep, started with a vignette about an officer falling asleep at the wheel and crashing into a house that, while fictional, was based on an actual event from a neighboring suburb). Or it could be a showstopper. The kind of scandal that shatters careers, topples administrations, and hangs scalps on the belts of special prosecutors.
The sad thing is, and this is after taking away those headlines arising from honest mistakes, well-intentioned miscalculations, and even full-on (but mostly benign) HUA transgressions – the type of Ooopsy! moment any of us might someday have to live down – there are more than enough examples of public malfeasance to give us reason to reach for the antacids on a regular basis. The question is what should we think – and do - about them?
Picking up the morning paper, or tuning in to your local news, can be bad enough with the hometown coverage of law enforcement. But if you are a regular to Officer.com, or any other law enforcement website, you see a daily news cycle that sometimes reads like a national clearinghouse of bad acts. All in one place, day in and day out, and it becomes disheartening and a little overwhelming. It sometimes seems the only news about us is bad news, or that the media is biased against us. We know there are multitudes of good, uplifting public interest stories out there. How come they don’t get the headlines? We know there are stories of hard-working cops, intrepid cops, and cops who go the extra mile. How come they aren’t being featured? Add to it the number of cop haters who monitor law enforcement websites for these very same stories in order to justify their contempt for us (and throw their two cents in on the comments section to get a rise out of as many as they can) and its seems we never catch a break.
Actually, quite a lot of stories about those hard-working and intrepid cops, who go that extra mile and make us all proud do get press, both locally and on these pages. Look again. Scan the history. I see them every day on Officer.com, and read them in the local papers at home and when we travel. They are out there, but negative stories grab headlines and attention. Negative stories generate comments and letters to the editor. Negative stories grow legs and run, surviving long after everyone has forgotten that nice public interest piece about those nice officers who rescued a puppy or collected toys for sick kids or took a dangerous predator off the street.