Over the last 10 years, law enforcement has averaged 158 deaths in the line of duty according to numbers from the Officer Down Memorial Page. That is an enormous loss of life. We have also sustained a few figurative bumps and bruises due to calls for service requiring our attention that became problematic when things were not wrapped up neat and tidy. All the while, our critics sit in their sterile environments taking shots at us.

The most disturbing critique came from President Obama. He said the widespread mistrust of law enforcement that was exposed by the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man in Missouri exists in too many other communities and is having a corrosive effect on the nation.

He blames the feeling of wariness on persistent racial disparities in the administration of justice. “It makes folks who are victimized by crime and need strong policing reluctant to go to the police because they may not trust them,” he said during a recent speech. But he wasn’t finished. “And the worst part of it is it scars the hearts of our children”[1]. Wow! We are corrosive and scarring the hearts of our children Mr. President? Are you serious? I’m just asking!

Even if he had irrefutable evidence for such a divisive and polarizing statement, it does nothing to unify. Add to his comments, adversaries with an agenda that make a living throwing political blows to our command and control structure and we are left feeling like a “punch-drunk” boxer.

Police work is muddled. While the law might be black and white, the problems encountered are often anything but clear. Most people contacted are having a bad day. The result is that many citizens are left with a negative impression of our service. They psychologically transfer the blame of their misfortune to our presence. What are we to do? I’m just asking!

When I began my career we placed the emphasis on public relations. We were taught and trained to be the polite purveyors of competent professionalism. Ready, willing, and able to help the public with any need related to crime. But things changed. As citizens became empowered and vocal discord reverberated through city halls across America, our strategy shifted. Providing exceptional service was now insufficient. We needed to prove capable of their trust, and may I dare say affection?

What a paradox that I used the word “dare.” DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) became one of the first programs to soften our exterior and connect with the public. I have no problem with it, but we didn’t stop there. Public relations turned into Community Oriented Policing (COP) programs. Now the strategy in many jurisdictions is called Community Outreach.

Outreach is a term that has been used by churches. It is synonymous with evangelism—spreading the gospel. What gospel is law enforcement trying to spread? I’m just asking!

Before you shout at me I acknowledge there are many answers, but none bigger than the need to market our services. College courses, police conferences, and various seminars have been launched toward that end. But at what cost? I’m just asking!

When Community Oriented Policing became vogue, my department proudly declared that we had no COP programs—it was more of a philosophy. Here is a list of programs we “didn’t” have:

  • DARE
  • Crime Prevention and its’ subsidiaries
  • Child Awareness
  • Officer Friendly
  • Every Fifteen Minutes (EFM)
  • Crime-biter Awards
  • Bicycle Rodeo
  • Reality Check (Narcotic education)
  • Gang Awareness
  • 25 to Life (Similar to “Scared Straight”)
  • Fraud seminars for the elderly
  • Shop With a Cop
  • Tip a Cop
  • Annual Open House
  • SWAT demonstrations
  • Citizens Academy
  • Neighborhood Watch
  • Business Coalition
  • National Night Out
  • Citizen Ride-Along
  • Leading participant at various civic events

We had more. Those are simply the one’s I remember. Each program had purpose and value, but there was a cost to be paid, both in dollars and human resources. Each program was not entirely funded by grants and donations, nor did we receive additional personnel in our table of organization to staff the programs with the exception of DARE. So where did the money along with the men and women required to perform these duties derive? I’m just asking!

At my department, they came from existing resources. You have no doubt heard the mantra, “Do more with less?” I became weary of hearing those words. As a police manager I was consistently doing more with less and felt like a clown juggling balls in a circus. At one point I managed our Neighborhood Watch program. This is a wonderful endeavor, but I needed a “speakers bureau” to keep up with the requests. Since we didn’t have one, nor could we authorize overtime, I declined many requests or pulled beat officers to fill the need. The wheels were coming off the cart yet we held fast to many of these … hold onto your coffee … sacred cows.

Did you hold your java securely? Good! The newest “outreach program” is Coffee With a Cop. Before you know it we will have Vacation With a Cop. Forgive me if my sarcasm appears blunt. I do not intend to poke fun at these programs, but I always engaged the public with professionalism when visiting a local coffee stop—and it wasn’t forced. I didn’t need my employer to give it a name. Just like those previously listed, it is worthwhile and endearing police officers to the public. But is there a slow, eroding sacrifice being made with each Community Outreach program? Is there a sacrifice in safety latently occurring in the mindset of our officers? Has other work invaded our mission statements to the degree that confusion in purpose exists? I’m just asking!

There has been a recent trend in social media. LEO’s have been captured on video performing good deeds. I don’t want to trivialize each random act of kindness. They receive thousands of “likes” every time they are posted. I am one of those who like them! I appreciate cops who have maintained a sense of compassion. It is appropriate.

But is there a paradigm shift occurring in the mindset of police officers to that of social worker? If so, is the shift driven by police management? Is it due to the barrage of bad press? Is that why a police captain and subsequently a chief of police marched with demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri? Are you kidding me? Is that what happens to “punch-drunk” leaders? Or should I say “people in charge,” because they certainly are not leading? I’m just asking!

I do not suggest the disturbing number of on duty deaths is related to social programs, because the numbers do not support the theory. But if your department is filled with discontent, one reason might be attributed to the list of priorities in practice. Has social work or appeasement surpassed enforcing laws as the main concern? I’m just asking!

Law enforcement professionals should remember that we represent light in dark places regardless of the fiery arrows launched in our direction. We seek to shield others from harm and capture those who hurt the innocent. As we shield, we should also deflect criticism with professionalism and truth, and have confidence that a majority of those we serve have faith in our services, regardless of comments made by the president.

Is law enforcement trying too hard to be liked? Are we compromising our core duty to appease others? Are we balancing our policing efforts with Community Outreach programs in a way that is healthy for our organizations? I’m just asking!

Reference:

  1. Superville, Darlene, Obama Says Mistrust of Police Corroding America, AP Report, (September 28, 2014).

Jim is the author of The Spirit behind Badge 145. He worked in military and civilian law enforcement for thirty-one years. While in the USAF he flew as a crewmember aboard the National Emergency Airborne Command Post—a presidential support detail. Following his military service, he served for twenty-seven years with the Fountain Valley Police Department in Orange County, California where he retired as a lieutenant. During his career in law enforcement, he worked with, supervised, or managed every element of the organization. He holds a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice from Southwest University and graduated from the prestigious Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute as well as the IACP course, Leadership in Police Organizations. Jim is married and has three adult children and three grandchildren. You can contact him at [email protected] or view his website www.jimmcneff.com which is geared toward helping officers.