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When LE and Society Seem to Disconnect

Relatively recent attitudinal changes among not only the general public, but also many politicians and even growing numbers of active and retired law enforcement officers, toward the idea of marijuana legalization are sparking debate as our society and culture struggle to accept an emerging paradigm that challenges old assumptions.  In just a few short years the concerns first raised over “medicinal marijuana” became almost quaint as the possibility of outright legalization, at least on the state level, moved from theory to reality in Colorado and Washington, as lawmakers in other states consider following in their trail ”blazing” footsteps.  How many of you would have predicted this twenty-five years ago?  Do any of you think legalization won’t be coast-to-coast in another fifteen? 

The shifting attitudes and liberalized laws are creating sometimes contentious rifts between camps on both sides of the issue.  This isn’t unusual or unexpected; whenever significant cultural change sweeps a society such rifts naturally emerge.  As the change becomes normalized the contentiousness abates.  This is really an ongoing evolution dating back millennia.  This one just happens to have a direct bearing on law enforcement, forcing many in our profession to confront the idea that certain fundamental truths they’ve held and continue to hold about drugs in general, and marijuana in particular, are being rejected by the people they serve.   When a rift develops between cops and citizens – which many already see and point to on this and other issues – the threat of growing isolation from their communities threatens not only effective policing and civic buy-in of law enforcement efforts, but also takes an emotional toll on officers who feel ideologically estranged from the very people from whom their authority is derived.

When Law Enforcement and Society Disconnect

Culture evolves. Like it or not, societal evolution is inevitable and whether the resulting change should be celebrated or mourned will inevitably be debated.  To illustrate this I like to use a simple example from just recent history:  The laws, culture, and mores of our society in early 2014 are vastly different than they were in 1970, and 1970 was a world removed from even a decade or so before.

These were years of great cultural change and they had a profound effect on policing and how it is done today. The actions of, and reactions to, the cops of that generation  in Chicago, Birmingham, Little Rock, New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco resonate today. Many practices that might have been SOP or de rigeour for a police officer in the early sixties fell under harsh scrutiny in the era of Civil Rights and social change.  Most cops today would look askance upon the practices of their forebears if they witnessed them today.  To be fair, many agencies and officers of the day were able to adapt and change, recognized their role as enforcers of the laws without prejudice, and helped to orderly usher in the coming and inevitable changes.  But others saw themselves as protectors of the status quo and didn’t hesitate to put down what they saw as a revolution or dangerous dissent – sometimes in the form of merely uncomfortable ideas – with whatever force they thought necessary. We should honor those officers who stood with integrity against disorder and law-breaking without resorting to oppressive measures or violating rights.  Those who responded to otherwise peaceable protestors with excessive or inordinate force, or tried to punish those whose sins were really nothing more than challenging the status quo, should be remembered for the lasting legacy of distrust they fostered.

Remember our role. We serve at the will and pleasure of the people and only so far as the laws allow us. Becoming isolated or disconnected from those we serve – to lose sight of their will, duly enacted under law – risks our becoming self-serving or out-of-touch.  When law enforcement and society disconnect so much their goals diverge there will be pushback, and it will be directed at us.  That’s how it must be.  When cops become so disconnected from “regular” people we not only cannot see eye-to-eye but lose a sense of empathy or understanding, a destructive “us versus them” dichotomy forms.

Our culture is evolving now, as it actually must from time to time, and as a generally conservative institution, evolution can be painful or confusing for law enforcement.

Development of the "Us vs. Them" Mindset

The "Us vs. Them" mindset descends directly from distrust and cynicism, and then goes a step further.  The "us" in this case are law enforcement – the officers and ancillary staff – who police a community. The "them" are initially the criminal element.  Nothing wrong with that, really, it's the idea of the thin blue line standing between law and disorder. The problem is that, as distrust and cynicism expands, so do the number mentally placed in the "them" column.

Eventually those considered as “them” expands beyond the criminal element to include those who may be law-abiding but differ in outlook or opinion from the point-of-view held by most cops (distrust and cynicism can even bleed across the profession as divergent opinions are revealed among the ranks, too). 

The cynicism and distrust of “them” is revealed in interactions with citizens, online commentary to media by cops, in the social interactions police officers have with non-cop family, friends, and acquaintances, and countless other ways deeply held attitudes bleed out into public scrutiny.  It’s not long before the idea of the police as a vital part of society is replaced with the idea that it's an institution separate from, but designed to act upon, the people that make up that society.  This breeds resentment on both sides. 

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We use marijuana legalization not to create a debate, or to either advocate or condemn the shifting of the legal sands, but to illustrate the larger point of how law enforcement reacts to what may be perceived as direct assaults on how it does business, its mission, and certain deeply held convictions within the profession.  Many in law enforcement bemoan what appears to be a rolling tide of legalization, while others celebrate it.  Many – most, maybe – will simply shrug and carry on with the day-to-day duties of protecting and serving as best they can. 

Of course LE should have a voice at the table, as should any stakeholder in the debate – that’s critical in a democracy.  But regardless of how the democratic process plays out we must make sure the thin blue line doesn’t become an abyss.