In the first part of this three-piece series I discussed the challenges we face as society teaches younger generations that law enforcement agencies and professionals are purely punitive in nature. In the second part I discussed the completely incorrect yet seemingly growing societal assumption that all law enforcement officers are anti-gun and are “government thugs” who care nothing for all civil rights. In this, the third and final piece in the series, I’d like to discuss something that has potential to be insulting to some, but is a reality that we must address: Those young, new, rookie officers who have no professionally disqualifying characteristics but whose values may not make the grade when it comes to the concept of “protect and serve.”
Now, I’m going to try to relate this both to a relatively new movie in the market and mix that up with my own personal experience. First, the movie – bear with me – DIVERGENT. In the movie, society has been reshaped after a holocaust, and structured into five factions: the characteristics of each faction are more important than the names, so that’s what I’ll list here. They are:
- The Selfless
- The Peaceful
- The Honest
- The Brave
- The Intelligent
Obviously, those are all characteristics that we, as law enforcement professionals, should embrace. Some of you reading this might not understand why I feel that ALL of them have an important place in our characterological makeup, so let me comment briefly on each.
The Selfless – It requires a great deal of sacrifice to not only leave your family to go to work each day, but to do so with the certain knowledge that you may well not return to them at the end of your shift. It takes a level of sacrifice to risk your health and well-being, day in and day out, in the service of total strangers. It is far easier to sacrifice for friends and family but it takes a higher level of sacrifice to make the same commitment of selflessness to total strangers, especially when those strangers might be the dregs of society. We still serve them. We still protect them. We cannot allow our own egos and prejudices to affect how we treat those that we see of lesser value in our world. We must at least strive to attain that level of selflessness.
The Peaceful – As much as our job can require us, at any moment and without notice, to resist, answer and overcome violence, we should never seek it out with pleasure. Committing acts of violence in the name of our profession should be something we do because it’s a requirement and never because we like or enjoy it. Now I know that’s impossible. I know we’re all human. I know – because I’ve been there and done that – that when a scumbag criminal who has victimized the innocent resists arrest and justifies our use of force, it’s all too pleasurable to put him in his place and slam those cuffs on harder than need be. Just because it’s human and I admit to having done it, doesn’t make it right. Those are the moments I look back on with regret. Those are the moments that I SHOULD feel guilty about even if I don’t. Law enforcement professionals should be keepers and seekers of the peace; not eager to enforce our will over others and taking no pleasure when we are given no choice but to use force to protect others.
The Honest – This shouldn’t require any comment. Less than 1/10th of one percent of all cops are “dirty” cops; the corrupt; the power-leveraging, self-centered, abusive cops. But that’s not to say that the other 99.9% are all honest all the time. The truth is that “honest” is a matter of perception and what one cop feels is perfectly acceptable, another cop might feel is dishonest. It boils down to their own upbringing, training, community and agency culture. I stand not in judgment but feel it’s important for us to always keep in mind that our performance must always be defendable as impartial and ANY accusation of dishonesty can negatively impact the defensibility of our impartiality.
The Brave – Again, DUH! You have to be brave… you have to have courage… you have to be able to face fear and risk and still perform to the highest standard to be a law enforcement professional. Not everyone can do it. We take the oath and do the job in part to protect all those who don’t have the same capability we demonstrate day in and day out. It’s something to be proud of… but not arrogant about.
The Intelligent – Again, DUH. Of course we want cops to be smart, but there are two different kinds of smart: common sense smart and educated smart. Law enforcement professionals HAVE to have a balanced mix of both. If you tip the scale either way you increase the risk of actions that are hard to defend, or statements made that smear the officer/agency. We all make mistakes and say things we shouldn’t (I’m living proof of that!) but that can be minimized if you start with an applicant that is reasonably intelligent and has a life experience that has taught him/her plenty of common sense. THEN you train that officer and evaluate them in the field to insure that they can apply their education with the filter of common sense.
Keep all that in mind as we now discuss some personal experiences and outlooks…
As a military and law enforcement veteran I’ve been through plenty of background investigations. Typically, those background investigations all include the same things.
- Criminal history check
- Financial records check
- Driver’s license & history check
- Drug & alcohol use history check
- Psychological evaluation to rule out homicidal/suicidal tendencies
- Friends & neighbors interviews to check general character
As we look at that list we can see the obvious things we’re trying to rule out. We don’t want to hire cops who have a tendency to commit crimes. If they have any criminal history, most especially one of violent crimes, we don’t want to turn around and give them a gun and the potential ability to enforce their will on others, and we certainly don’t want to put them in a position where they can commit acts of violence against others under the color of law.
We don’t want to hire cops who can’t pay their bills or, worse yet, CAN pay their bills but don’t. There are too many temptations that crop up on the job that will test anyone who faces financial challenges or has lower financial responsibility traits.
We want to make sure that the cop is not only properly licensed but that s/he drives responsibly. As a patrol officer drives around in that marked car, representing the agency and the government entity that employees him/her, it’s best if they drive in accordance with the law. (NOTE: I KNOW cops speed. I don’t need a bunch of comments insulting cops on their driving habits. Let’s be real: EVERYONE speeds. Cops get grief for it because they are the same people who enforce the speed laws. Here’s reality: People who get speeding tickets don’t hate the speed law, they hate hypocrisy. They don’t realize that VERY FEW speeding tickets get written unless the person is doing 15+ miles per hour over the speed limit and even cops don’t habitually drive THAT fast.)
Drug & alcohol use is checked to insure that the applicant doesn’t have an addiction. Recently, with several states legalizing marijuana, the question has been raised about why applicants to law enforcement agencies will get qualified for marijuana use; after all, it’s legal now, right? Here’s reality – we’re not disqualifying cops just because they have smoked marijuana OR because they drink alcohol. We’re disqualifying candidates because they have demonstrated such poor judgment that they either have become addicted and dependent on those substances, which gives them an unacceptable vulnerability to bribery and manipulation, or because they’ve demonstrated a behavior that demonstrates a lack of concern for clean decision making and total control over their behavior. In other words, just like we cite drivers for Driving Under the Influence or While Impaired, we disqualify applicants for Living Under the Influence or While Regularly Impaired. It’s a measure of their judgment and indicative of their sense of self-worth.
We psychologically evaluate applicants to rule out homicidal tendencies, and if you need help understanding why we don’t want to give homicidal people a gun, stop reading here and go about your day; same thing for suicidal people. But it isn’t just all about the homicidal/suicidal indicators. It’s also about WHY. Uncontrolled or unmanaged stress can often lead to destructive or self-destructive behavior (like drug and alcohol abuse or excessive use of force). That’s why stress management classes are taught in the academy. That’s why physical exercise is focused on as a stress-management tool. If you’re screening an applicant and s/he’s already showing aggressive or violent tendencies, we all understand that it’s a bad idea to hire them. My question is: How many agencies disqualify a candidate based on the psych screening but never give a referral for mental or emotional counseling? Think about it.
Finally, we interview friends and neighbors to see if there’s something we haven’t found. I’ve seen candidates who sail through all of the other background sections only to fail when the neighbors get questioned. One guy was known in his neighborhood for torturing and killing pets, but he had no criminal charges and no psychological indicators when evaluated for violent tendencies. So… we (law enforcement in general) might have made a mistake or missed something earlier on, but a canvas of the neighborhood reveals a potential problem. Or it just may reveal that the neighbors are all jerks and making up crap about your candidate. That’s a judgment call but you never even have a clue if you don’t take that extra step.
So, where does that leave us? It leaves us with a candidate whom we have every indication is not a criminal, not addicted or dependent on any substances, is a clean, safe driver, is financially responsible, not prone toward violence and has a decent reputation in his neighborhood. In all of that, we have yet to seek or find information on the applicant’s background that indicates, except by accident, his or her sense of selflessness. Oops.
For those who don’t think selflessness is imperative to law enforcement I encourage you to consider another profession. Selflessness, passion and compassion are absolutely emotional requisites to being a good cop. You simply cannot put on the uniform and badge and do the job properly unless you are motivated to serve others. PROTECT & SERVE, remember? SERVE & PROTECT in some places because the agency leadership has realized that service has to be the larger focus and, in fact, is what mandates the protection part.
Further, being committed to peace, honesty and bravery requires a level of selflessness. Don’t think so? Let’s see…
To seek peace you have to control and set aside your desires as driven by anger. Instead of selfishly giving in to what YOU want to do to satisfy YOU, you have to be selfless and do what’s right and legal instead.
To be honest you have to be willing to admit your own mistakes whether they be in judgment or action. You have to be willing to sacrifice a little bit of your own self-image and risk harming your reputation as it may be negatively impacted by how others perceive you. To be honest you cannot selfishly defend yourself 100% of the time but you have to selflessly admit your shortcomings.
To be brave you absolutely have to be willing to accept potential or proven risk to your own health and well-being, selflessly accepting that risk and functioning in it to perform whatever task your job requires at that moment in time.
So we see that three of those five desired characteristics are only possible with the first one: You can’t have peacefulness, honesty and bravery without selflessness – yet we do nothing to intentionally look for this trait or encourage it directly.
- A person cannot be selfless AND greedy.
- A person cannot be selfless AND a coward.
- A person cannot be selfless AND an addict.
- A person has to be selfless to be inspirational.
- A person has to be selfless to be a strong leader.
- A selfless person is harder to corrupt.
- A selfless person is more trustworthy.
A LACK of selflessness can encourage or support a host of undesirable and unacceptable behaviors where law enforcement professionals are concerned… so why aren’t we actively seeking such people?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this three part series and I look forward to all your comments and responses. If you’d rather make them privately than publicly, please feel free to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.