In our last article (Ferguson: One Year Later) we looked at how, in the aftermath of a series of high-profile incidents occurring largely over the last year, the social and political atmosphere in which we are policing has begun to drastically change. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO was a flashpoint that ignited the current distrustful scrutiny of cops everywhere, but hardly the first and far from the last such incident that has fed a long-simmering – and in some places now starting to boil over – antipathy toward law enforcement among certain elements of our society.
Even if you live and work far from where any of the events now fueling the current hostility toward law enforcement occurred, you have probably been affected in some way. The wheels of politics and policy-making are beginning to turn in response to things you’ve never done and are not responsible for. A public unwilling or unable to understand policing or that cops are not indistinguishable automatons are demanding reforms whether needed or not. Highly publicized criticisms and protests over tactics that may, in many cases, be entirely appropriate feel like a punch in the gut to officers who know they may be the target of the next round of protests even if they do nothing wrong whatsoever. The effect on the psyche of police officers everywhere is significant. We wrote:
“Saturated with criticism of our profession, frustrated at the willful ignorance of those unwilling to accept that sometimes people acting violently must be met with force, and tired of being presumed guilty by association when one of our ranks does screw up, police officers’ morale has lately been plummeting. The sense of anger and/or weariness is palpable. The changing landscape feels foreign for veteran cops and many are starting to wonder if it’s time to get out. An alarming number wonder why anyone would enter the profession today and even actively discourage young people from considering law enforcement as a vocation.
So, as we mark the one year anniversary of the deadly confrontation between Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, we face the ongoing fallout of a year of constant and often harsh scrutiny. Taking care of ourselves emotionally becomes a priority…”
So how can we begin to take care of ourselves emotionally? How can we take care of our colleagues, profession, and even supporters in the face of such harsh treatment from the public we serve? It can be hard, but it is possible. We offer the following four approaches to begin healing ourselves and, in a larger sense, the growing chasm between “us and them.”
Maintain a Healthy Perspective
The importance of “keeping a proper perspective” is something we’ve visited and revisited many times over the years and, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, something we must hit once again.
Even when it feels like everyone is against you, that the voices questioning, challenging, and degrading police have become the rule rather than the exception, and champions for law enforcement few and far between, remember that is a largely media-created perception. First, media outlets are not established to report the ordinary, and no one – not even you or me – really cares to read, watch, or listen to that, anyway. As a matter of routine reporting, neither journalists nor their consumers care much that millions of police contacts resulting in thousands of arrests go off without a hitch each day, that almost all of those arrests are of cooperative suspects requiring little more force than police presence and the application of handcuffs, or that the relatively few cases where greater force is required still do not result in any injuries or death. Most calls for service end without anyone being cited or arrested, and this is the norm day in and day out.
News media look for the “out of the ordinary” stories, controversy, and human drama. I’m fine with that, and okay with discourse being driven by conflict. I also understand how some people cannot differentiate between what events are so out of the ordinary to make the news and the vast majority that never will, and assume the worst based on their own skewed perspective of reality. That is a product of their own intellectual weakness and anti-police confirmation bias.
We need to resist the same such weakness and biases, however. When we lose perspective and begin to believe the most vocal against us somehow represent the whole of society, we’re going to feel unaccountably embattled and embittered. The fact is, most people still have at least respect for law enforcement, if not some degree of admiration. I have heard more words of support and affinity citizens this past year than in the previous eighteen, from people of all races and backgrounds.
Don’t be sucked into the “Us vs (ALL of) Them” way of thinking.
Hold Yourself Accountable
Any lingering presumptions by any of us we are still operating in relative anonymity, out of the sight and hearing of all but the principals on any call or stop, are misguided and naïve. Cameras are everywhere; if one is not in the possession of the people we’re directly interacting with it’s safe to assume that a bystander has one at the ready should our interaction ramp up, voices are raised, or it looks to turn physical. Such is policing in 2015.
In our last article we looked at how the past year’s events have impacted Illinois, specifically with legislation surrounding the use of body cameras. While I am an admitted “body camera skeptic” and doubt they will be as effective as most of their proponents believe, I also know a lot of officers who favor their use and, in some cases, swear by them. I also see their value in countering false claims of police abuse and bias, especially when it might be supported by heavily edited cellphone footage. My department is already recording audio on most calls for service, which connects to dashboard cameras for traffic stops. I’ve already had a number of people whip out their cells to start recording our conversations only to put them away when I point out I’m also recording them.
I can also admit that part of my reticence toward being audio and/or video recorded is my propensity for sarcasm and creative profanity that, in certain contexts, remains to my mind perfectly acceptable tools of the effective street investigator. They don’t always look good on YouTube, however. I have had to learn to temper my language, especially after a couple uncomfortable conversations (and one brief unpaid “vacation”) stemming from supervisory disagreements over my word choices (or, more accurately, “choice words”).
I have had to hold myself more accountable in my words and attitude. If I do choose colorful words or phrasing, it had better be defensible. How much more, then, must we all hold ourselves accountable in the digital age where any of us can find our worst selves downloaded on the internet before our shift has even ended?
Hold yourself strictly accountable to current law, whether legislated, administrative, or current case law. You don’t have to agree with it, you just have to abide.
Know your use of force policies backward and forward, and be prepared to respond properly and defensibly at all times. As much as is possible, never allow yourself
Hold your emotions in check. Cops are losing their cool and getting in trouble time and again, and embarrassing not just themselves but all their brother and sister officers who are scorned by mere association of the badge.
And hold yourself accountable to obey the law you’re sworn to uphold as you expect others to obey it, the Code(s) of Ethics you are expected to follow, the policies and procedures of your agency, and the moral code that guides you. Expect failure to be revealed and know it will taint all of us.
We must all hold ourselves more accountable than ever; we owe it to each other.
Hold Fellow Officers Accountable
And then there’s this one. Being “our brother’s keeper” is never comfortable, nor is it when accountability is imposed on us from the outside. It is going to become extremely important in the coming paradigm, however.
None of us enjoys being second-guessed, and armchair quarterbacks judge with the luxury of time, distance, and a more fully understood set of facts on the table than any of us is afforded under stress. But acting as that armchair quarterback, while offering the grace of knowing we weren’t there, nor what the officer(s) who were felt and experienced, is an important learning exercise to better prepare us to “expect the unexpected” and act appropriately when it is our time to respond. It helps us avoid repeating mistakes, to understand how perception and response are affected by stress, and to view and understand the aftermath from the perspective of not only the responding officers but also administrators, involved citizens, journalists, and politicians. Again, we don’t have to agree with how any of them perceive what happened or think it could have been better handled, but we should strive to at least understand how they have come to their conclusions. Only through understanding can we respond with both empathy and authority.
But sometimes our examination reveals uncomfortable truths: the actions of an officer or officers were over-the-top, constitutionally unjustified, or outside the acceptable parameters of law or policy; a use of force was inappropriate; the tactics used exacerbated an already bad situation and contributed to an undesirable outcome. If you’ve done this job for a while, as I have, we all know there are “those cops” whose arrival on a call has the potential to turn the most controlled situation into a full-scale goat f*ck, and about whom nearly everyone has a “WTF just happened?!!?” story. Guess what? These guys are very often the ones who wind up in the news, become YouTube antiheroes, or cost the department bushels of money in legal settlements. They are the ones most in need of outside accountability (or, in some cases, a compulsory career change). What they don’t need, when their behavior is clearly indefensible or brings discredit to their profession and cops everywhere, is excused. It makes us look all look bad when even some of us stand behind bad cops whose actions are objectively wrong. It makes us all look bad when just some defend bad choices made by even good cops. Defend the good officers against unjust punishment or having an otherwise exemplary career discredited over a moment in time, but be willing to challenge their questionable decisions. Only by doing so, and being willing to subject ourselves to equal examination, will our profession and image improve.
Stay Connected to the Public
Withdrawing from the public we serve – the public that currently seems so critical of what we do and how we do it – is very tempting. A lot of us have already pulled away, choosing an emotionally safer and more insular path. It’s also counterproductive. Now, more than ever, we need to engage the public beyond just responding to calls or during enforcement. Now is the time to raise our profile, engage in conversation, answer questions, and, yes, be honest even when honesty is uncomfortable. Most people still support what you do and want to trust their local police. Human beings are generally understanding (and forgiving, when it is necessary) in the face of forthrightness. See the rule rather than the loudest (and they will be the loudest), angriest exceptions.
When someone challenges you about police controversies, whether directly and in person or indirectly and impersonally (common in today’s social media saturated world), take the time to engage. “Seek first to understand” by asking questions, clarifying their point, and showing interest in how they’ve come to believe the way they do, if possible, and only then answer thoughtfully and with tact. Sharp answers, pithy clichés (“Next time you need help, try calling a crackhead” is a particularly common – and frankly stupid, since absolutely no one it’s ever directed at gives a damn – example), or insulting their intelligence gets you nowhere. Engagement does. Trolls can be dismissed, the ignorant informed, and the genuinely angry shown a measure of respect.
And again, know that most of the public still supports – or at least doesn’t hate – law enforcement. Raising our profile among potential allies only boosts our esteem among the people who should really matter, and who can hold the line with us against our detractors.