Six Things That May Change the Way You Think About Police Officers
As a member of the law-enforcement community (and the Christian community), I’ve been asked repeatedly lately about race relations in America, the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police officers and the increasing violence against police officers. I would like to respond by providing some insight into the training and daily practices of police officers. Here are six important things everyone should keep in mind (and prayer) when assessing the actions of police officers in our country.*
1. No one is more upset about bad police behavior than good police officers.
At the end of my law enforcement career, my chief asked me to design an ethics program for our agency. I was eager to get involved. I know there are times when officers may act inappropriately. We’re all fallen human beings, and the standard for police officers is higher than just about any other profession in the country. We have to be perfect in times of crisis with little or no time to consider the options. No one is more offended when officers fail to meet ethical standards than the hundreds of thousands of police officers who work hard to uphold the honor of the badge. We want offenders banished from our ranks more than anyone else does, when it is justified.
2. Police officers are more than reactive; they are proactive.
When I first started as a police officer, one of my partners would start each shift by saying, “Are you ready to get out there and crush crime?” As a society, we Americans need to decide if this proactive approach is still acceptable. Do we want our officers to look for trouble before it occurs? Can this be effectively achieved without offending the sensibility of some people who think they are being targeted unjustly? (See #4 below.) As you assess each reported incident, remember what our communities require and expect of us and the risk this entails.
3. Police officers interact with a limited people group.
When I was working undercover in the inner city, I noticed how residents there (even the committed gangsters) afforded fire, paramedic and rescue personnel a great deal of respect. They didn’t always respond this way to the uniformed police officers who patrolled their neighborhoods, however. Why the difference? I think it’s largely due to the kinds of interactions police officers are required to have with the community. Paramedics aren’t required to capture the source of their victim’s heart attack, but police officers are expected to catch their victims’ offenders. Much of our interaction with people is, therefore, resisted.
Next time you’re reading a report about a police incident, take a minute to rewind the event in your mind. Try to imagine what these officers had to face when they arrived and the nature of the people they had to encounter.
4. Police officers don’t work aimlessly.
We’re focused. Every shift begins with a patrol briefing where officers review crime trends in their city. Traffic officers study where accidents have been occurring as the result of speeding motorists; patrol officers study the most recent unsolved crimes in our jurisdiction.
Imagine, for example, there’s a street robbery series in the north end, the suspect is a red-headed white male in a tan compact car and he’s been using a blue-steel handgun. Guess what officers are looking for today? A red-head in a tan compact car.
Now if you happen to be a law-abiding redhead who drives a tan compact car, you may be momentarily inconvenienced today if you drive through our town. It has nothing to do with a bias against redheads. It has everything to do with the reports we’ve been reading in briefing.
Which brings me to something incredibly controversial. When officers read the crime reports prior to each shift, they recognize something important: some groups are involved in crime at rates that seem to be higher than their proportion in the general population. Police officers are disappointed about this. Many of us are African-American. I personally wish, as a police officer and follower of Jesus, this disparity didn’t exist. I wish there was something police officers could do to change the underlying social structure of our society. But we’re not social engineers; we’re simply employed to deal with our society the way it already is.
If our communities want us to continue to “crush crime” proactively, they need to understand what it takes to do so. Next time you hear about a police contact that seems to happen for no reason, think again.
5. Police officers do all they can to limit their use of force.
Perhaps the most important goal of every police officer is to get home alive at the end of the shift. Therefore, officers try to respond proactively, by anticipating the level of force they are about to meet and trying to exceed it at an appropriate level. Also, when officers are unsure about the level of force they are about to encounter, they may appropriately prepare for the worst. If an officer is about to turn a corner on a suspect he thinks may be armed, it’s appropriate for the officer to draw his handgun, even though he may not yet find himself staring down the barrel of a gun.
They don’t make these decisions lightly, and believe it or not, they don’t make them based on race. In fact, there’s good reason to believe officers are only now considering race when using deadly force. A recent study found that “while (officers) don’t want to shoot anybody, they really don’t want to shoot black suspects.” Next time you hear about a police officer who had to use deadly force, remember that the officer likely did his or her best to assess the level of threat they were facing before deciding to respond in a particular way. Their split second decision, as good or bad as it may have been, will be judged for years to come.
6. Police officers are typically well received, in spite of all the negative publicity.
Most citizens, regardless of race, economic status or geographic location, greatly appreciate the men and women in blue. Approximately 93 percent of persons who requested police assistance in 2011 thought the officers acted properly, 86 percent felt the police were helpful and 85 percent were satisfied with the police response. About 93 percent of persons who requested police assistance reported that they were just as likely or more likely to contact the police again for a similar problem. Unjustified shootings are tragic and wrong, but research (detailed in my full-length article) shows they occur in a very tiny fraction of police interactions with the public.
We’re in a difficult era in America as we try to understand how we got here and what we can do to make it better. While politicians, sociologists and philosophers theorize about how to solve the problem, police officers will continue to guard the public safety. While some of us collectively look for broader answers, law enforcement must continue to do its job.
* Adapted from a longer article, “Six Things That May Change the Way You Think About Police Officers,” by J. Warner Wallace. Used by permission.