The profession of law enforcement is a challenging, often rewarding career that in the right hands brings honor, worthy service and benefits the community served. It should not, however, be placed in the hands of those who show up to collect a regular paycheck and are content to perform whatever they are told to do, without question.
Authority, much like a gun, is a tool that can be used lawfully and morally to benefit society, or it can be utilized to commit horrific acts under color of law. Many students of history would bring up Hitler’s regime at this point; however, our own country’s history is replete with examples of the abuse of authority even though the laws and courts permitted or even ordered such abuses.
Most of us were brought up to respect and obey authority, which for the most part is a good thing for a peaceful, productive society. Those within law enforcement, as well as the military, are people that particularly appreciate lawfulness and order within their communities and lives.
In considering this, there was an experiment conducted in the 1960’s by Stanley Milgram that focused on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. The essence was that Milgrim selected a person to be an instructor who would test students learning a series of word groups. The instructor was actually the test subject who would be told to flip a switch to shock the students if they answered incorrectly.
As the experiment proceeded, each incorrect answer would require increasing levels of voltage, the students, in league with Mr. Milgram were not actually shocked, but would increase sounds of discomfort to screaming and then fall silent as if severely injured or killed. Even though the test subject instructor would become more and more concerned or upset, 82% of those tested continued to inflict what they thought was harm to another human being, simply because an authority figure told him to.
This result was disconcerting to scientists who repeated the experiment with additional safeguards, only to find similar results. Obedience to authority over personal conscience is a powerful force. We have seen what results when apparently legitimate authority is used to oppress political enemies, dissenters or disfavored racial, ethnic or religious groups..
The capacity to dehumanize particular groups of people through political propaganda, sensationalized media reporting, and skillful emotional manipulation by community leaders with an agenda is worth contemplating. We can look in recent headlines and see how political favor can change in what seems to be an instant. The former Egyptian President, Mubarek, can offer testimony to that sudden change from US ally to persona non grata.
I would be surprised if any LEO has not been placed in a situation in which someone tried to use them an implement of political or personal agendas at some point in his or her career. A neighborhood dispute or a county ordinance passed to annoy a political rival are some examples I personally dealt with. Fortunately, keeping out of the game was simple in these instances. The challenge becomes more difficult when laws are passed; technology changes, and more capabilities to ostensibly fight crime are available.
Most of us agree that the country is disturbingly divided over a multitude of issues and in fact, seems to have lost its way. Law enforcement has become more challenging and difficult. Politicians, rather than working to unite the country, are becoming more party and ideologically driven partisans, rather than representatives of their constituents.
Financial irresponsibility, gridlock, and over reach by both political parties to the detriment of the country are increasing the anxiety and anger of the people in general. Media, as well as some federal bureaucracies, have arguably targeted groups to isolate and intimidate them. As a result of this, the potential for unrest becomes within the realm of possibility and that leads to the heart of the issue.
Many people who have been taught that the Constitution and Bill of Rights gives Americans their rights. In fact, once the original words of the various founders through debates, congressional records, and published pamphlets are reviewed, those things recognized in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, existed prior to the Constitution. These rights also existed before our government.
The Constitution, rather than being laws for the people to follow, is the people’s law for the government to follow to ensure that the rights we were born with are protected. This was the , original purpose for our government. The attitude that citizens are born with rights that government is here to protect creates different laws than does an attitude that government has supreme authority over the conduct and wellbeing of the people.
LEOs come from the whole of the people. They are American citizens, not just agents of the government. Laws affect us directly, as well as indirectly, through our families and our friends. Those that have been following politics have seen the increasing reliance on crises to pass legislation that wouldn’t have passed had the crisis not occurred.
Rahm Emmanuel, the Mayor of Chicago and former White House Chief of Staff, has been quoted as saying “Never let a crisis go to waste” in context to legislation otherwise unpalatable being pushed through. Take advantage of the public’s emotions running high to pass legislation which, if the citizens had time to consider dispassionately, wouldn’t have passed. This, in some cases, puts law enforcement in the difficult position of enforcing laws gained through subterfuge, rather than clearly understood principles.
While politics has always been a dirty, messy affair, there is a line beyond which people will not tolerate. It is incumbent upon those who serve as LEO’s to be mindful of their consciences, as well as their oath of office, that of supporting and defending the Constitution. Politicians, media, professors, and so called constitutional experts can proffer opinions as to what is constitutional or not. They forget, however, that the final authority is “We the People” and the reason for that is to prevent the manipulation and abuse of authority. Enforcing the law as we were told to do is not sufficient.
Careers can end in an instant due to injury, illness or being laid off. Rather than basing our conscience on our careers, considering the impact of laws without the protections government employment provides would be a better measure. Considering the impact to our children and grandchildren or friends without our protection through government service, as well as the impact of those government capabilities being utilized against our families or ourselves, will prove sobering and enlightening in many cases.
Our country faces challenging days ahead. Law enforcement will be on the front lines, often in the proverbial, if not literal crossfire, which will require all of the wisdom, prudence and courage at our disposal. Having a clear view of our purpose, our conscience and our duty will serve well to ensure that we maintain the ability to look ourselves in the mirror at the end of our lives in confidence that we served our community, country and families to the best of our ability.
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Juli Adcock began her career in law enforcement with the Escambia County Florida Sheriff’s Office as a patrol deputy until she was injured in a riot situation. She transferred to Judicial Security and retired in 1998. Juli pursued career advancement training with an emphasis on officer survival, interviews and interrogation. She worked with a local Rape Crisis Center and in victim’s advocacy, complementing her college course work in psychology. She currently resides in New Mexico and is an instructor with The Appleseed Project (www.appleseedinfo.com). The Appleseed Project is a rifle marksmanship clinic teaching the fundamentals of firing an accurate round downrange every 3 to 4 seconds, out to 500 yards, as well as American history. She has trained military personnel at White Sands Missile Range who are certifying as Squad Designated Marksmen. Juli instructs basic handgun skills to new gun owners in preparation for responsible personal gun ownership. She also writes for The Badge Guys (www.thebadgeguys.com). She can be reached at [email protected] or through Law Enforcement Today