Op/Ed: Wit, Wisdom, and the Police


Wit, Wisdom, and the Police. The following article has been written by David Sullivan. It includes editorial content which is the opinion and story of the writer.

Several years ago, I purchased the book, “Wit and Wisdom of the American Presidents”. It contains over 400 quotes from George Washington to Bill Clinton. I was surprised how many of those quotes could be applied to all aspects of law enforcement and police operations; from the chief on down, to the politicians, and the police/community/media relationship.

My favorite quote was by President Dwight D. Eisenhower who said, “The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions”. So, I looked up the origin of the word “scapegoat”. It seems it comes from an ancient Hebrew ritual where all the sins of the people are confessed over the heads of goats. The goats are then taken to the edge of the wilderness and allowed to escape into the wilderness taking those sins with them thus saving the people from punishment. Hence, escape goat or scapegoat. The modern definition means someone who is made to take the blame for others but unlike the ancient ritual, there is no wilderness for the scapegoat to escape into.

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When it comes to crime related issues, the police department seems to be the ultimate  scapegoat. Little media attention or community activism is directed towards a court system that “plea bargains” about 90 percent of all cases submitted by law enforcement investigators. Those plea bargains often reduce felony crimes down to misdemeanors, and in turn drastically lowers and even eliminates the prison and jail time a criminal should be serving. About seventy percent of those criminals will commit further crimes and the new crimes will be plea bargained yet again. It is unfortunate that plea bargains are a necessity in an overwhelmed criminal justice system.

Then there is the deteriorating, crime friendly, crime infested infrastructure city services should be addressing. Primary blame, however, seems far removed from city services, who’s responsibility is to address infrastructure concerns, and the municipal court responsible for prosecuting code violations. Again, the primary blame is far too often placed on the police department and the beat police officers tasked with patrolling dozens of crime infested, code ignored apartment complexes and neighborhoods along with answering calls for service, taking criminals to jail, and keeping citizens safe on the roadways. Unfortunately, scapegoat seems to be synonymous with a blue uniform and badge.

Then there’s Theodore Roosevelt’s quote, “Do what you can where you are with what you’ve got”. What the police department’s “got” is what the city budget gives it. Along with the money, the department also gets the usual pep-talk from city politicians telling the police they must do more with less while these same politicians, with the mind set it’s their police department, attempt to direct operations themselves through members of the command staff and division commanders.

Op/Ed: Leadership, Management, Supervision

When it does come to politicians, several quotes come to mind. President Kennedy said, “Mothers all want their sons to become President, but they don’t want them to become politicians in the process “. President Hoover said, “Being a politician is a poor profession. Being a public servant is a noble one”. President Truman also weighed in with, “My choice early in life was either to be a piano-player in a whorehouse or a politician. To tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference “. Truman also said, “If you can’t convince them, confuse them “. While elected officials regard themselves as public servants, many they serve consider them to be little more than self-serving politicians.

Perhaps politicians just cannot distinguish politics from public service. President Woodrow Wilson said, “If you think too much about being reelected, it’s very difficult to be worth reelecting”.

I immediately thought of many of our police department’s current style of leadership when I read the following quote by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead and find no one there”.

Op/Ed: A Missed Opportunity in Policing

While varying styles of leadership best serve police departments, I would argue that many chief’s “leader-dominated”, “rules-oriented”, “manipulative” styles are not a good fit and negates the knowledge and expertise of all officers and compromises the management function of command staffs that cost cities millions of dollars a year. The very intelligent, highly trained and self-motivated rank and file are any chief’s greatest asset, yet for the most part are ignored. Woodrow Wilson said, “a nation is as great, and only as great as it’s rank and file”. I am sure that can include any rank and file and certainly that of any police department. By choosing autocratic leadership, chiefs probably look at police officers as basically insecure with little potential for leadership themselves and manages by ever changing operational procedures and general orders that stifles creativity, creates resentment, resistance, and low morale.

Police officers deserve the “participative” style of leadership where the leader listens, welcomes suggestions, praises and rewards good work, believes police officers can think for themselves, and are able to separate the dynamics of leadership, management, and supervision. Communication needs to go both ways, not just downward. Where police departments are concerned, leader-dominated leadership should be limited to short periods during emergency situations and when conducting operations designed for no discretion, no tolerance enforcement.

I found something that is not a quote but a tag line from a movie; “Loyalty above all else; except honor”. Most police officers adhere to this both on and off the job and in fact choose it as a way of life. Though it may have come from a Hollywood writer it is what makes the police rank and file the quintessence of all public servants. And contrary to community activists, politicians, the media, and public opinion, one very rare bad apple does not spoil the barrel.

Op/Ed: How Many Police Officers Are Needed?

Finally, George Washington, “Laws made by common consent must not be trampled on by individuals” and Calvin Coolidge, “No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave”.

Author: David Sullivan, a former police officer, is a retired 26-year Air Force veteran where he was a hospital laboratory managing director and superintendent of Bacteriology and Hematology training responsible determining Air Force laboratory training needs, developing lesson plans, study guides, workbooks and measurement tests. He got into policing with the Dallas Police Department at the age of 48 and stayed in patrol until retiring at the age of 65. At the age of 76 he returned to policing with the Lakeview Police Department serving the cities of El Lago and Taylor Lake Village, Texas as a patrol officer until retiring once again at the age of 82. He has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, and is now working on his second book.

Op/Ed: Wit, Wisdom, and the Police

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