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From Bad Press to Better Policing

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. 

 

Imagine these two headlines and subheads in your city’s paper:

 

Mayor announces huge budgetary surplus; City council to consider significant property tax rate reductions for coming fiscal year

 

     and,

 

Mayor, secretary discovered dancing nude in council chambers; “White, powdery substance” also found

 

So, which article is about something that will have the greatest impact on the largest number of people and for the longest time?

 

And which will everyone still be talking about next week?

 

If it bleeds, it leads is the old adage, and for good reason.   People love scandal; on some level they want to be outraged and, if the uniformed representatives of the public trust can be counted on for occasional public scuttlebutt (no matter how small or, for that matter, real) the press can be counted on to report it.  The hard part is that prevailing negative emphasis creates a lasting burden on how we are perceived by the public – and how we perceive them - and our efforts in the community.  

 

It has been suggested by some readers that police websites such as Officer.com should get out of the business of running news stories that show police in a negative light, that we face enough scrutiny in the mainstream media without having to endure it here.  Or that the profession would be better served if such online magazines were exclusively portals of trade information, absent any news content at all.  There are plenty of places for people to go for news besides here, even the negative stuff, so why be so indulgent.  And besides, some add, it just attracts trolls to the site to read the stories and stir trouble with inflammatory comments.

 

I disagree. 

 

As hard as they can be to read, and despite the inherent “cringe factor” they hold, these stories hold value for us.  First, if not featured on sites such as Officer.com, they will slip beneath most of our radars.  They will remain, at least for most cops, relegated to local coverage.  Not so for the cop haters.  These articles are being picked up and posted to their websites whether we like it or not; staying well-versed in the good, the bad, and the ugly of police news keeps us involved in the dialogue rather than relegated to a bystanders role.   

 

Second, they serve a cautionary role.  You know you’ll never go too far with your words, never cross a line using force, never break the public trust, and certainly never look the other way if your buddy does.  But are you sure?  Have you ever barely bit back a harsh epithet you would never want overheard or recorded?  Been first to lay hands on a suspect after a harrowing, adrenaline-soaked pursuit?  Been tempted by an illicit offer that would never have been made if not for the power or allure of the badge? 

 

Human frailty being what it is, all the moral foundation we bring to the job may not always be enough.  Sometimes simple fear of discovery lays check on our basest impulse.

 

And finally, they are instructive.  We can learn, individually and collectively, from the failure of others.  Whether the failure is small and inadvertent or a deliberate abdication of duty and honor, we can draw lessons from the fall.  Trainers and supervisors would do well to study the media and draw lesson plans from them.

 

Stories of police misconduct are embarrassing for all of us.  They should be.  But they should also serve us.  Learn their lessons, study their reasons, and arm yourself against their repetition.

 

We owe it to each other.

 

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Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.

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