In the summer of 2016, I retired from the Houston Police Department after a little over twenty-one years. After I’d told a few friends I was leaving, I remember having the conversation with one or two of them that I felt sorry for the young officers who were just entering the job. So much had changed over the brief time I’d been there. Not the job itself, which doesn’t really change. In detail, maybe, but in a broad outline, no. Not the essence of it, at least.
While the application of technology to policing has revolutionized many aspects of the profession, the shape of its mission remains essentially the same. Police officers are still directed to a location. They arrive and try to resolve a problem. A crime is documented, a crisis is averted, and order and peace are maintained or restored. Occasionally an arrest is made, if it’s necessary.
During investigations, officers sift through the documented crime, have the evidence analyzed (if there is any) and try in a different way to recover a sense of normalcy. The officers in administration try to keep it all going, accounting for dollars spent or reporting on the success or failure of some new program. Things have a habit of running smoothly, even without the intervention of command staff.
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For eleven years, I was an investigator in the department’s Homicide Division. It was an interesting job and sometimes even rewarding. Many consider a city’s murder rate and the subsequent clearance rate of those murders to be a major element in the barometer reading of a city’s health. But people’s possessions are very important, too, and the return and prevention of future thefts is probably more meaningful to a neighborhood than the prosecution of a random murderer. We feel unsafe when someone breaks into our home and invades what should be a safe space for all of us. Or when a thief steals something we’ve worked hard for.
But I think in one sense even the investigative divisions are a little like window dressing. The “real police,” as we used to call them, are patrol officers. They resolve the overwhelming majority of situations without the intervention of anyone else, including their supervisors. They are more likely to face the danger of an armed encounter with an active shooter. They are certainly more likely to face the danger of an internal affairs investigation. Frankly, I don’t know where our society keeps coming up with good patrol officers, the ones a friend of mine used to call “worth their weight in gold.” They’re the ones who are going to catch the burglar in the act.
Along with new officers come the same controversies, however: the shooting of men of color, the complaints of brutality and misuse of authority, corruption solitary or systemic. They are a byproduct of the quest to define the proper role of the police in a democratic society that is constantly in flux. That never changed either. From the moment I put on the uniform and was sworn in to the moment I took it off along with my badge, the department was always in the news for one thing or another. I imagine it’s the same everywhere else, too.
Which brings me back to the beginning. I vividly remember a conversation me and several other rookie officers shared with one of our sergeants years ago when I was still in patrol. He said, “I feel sorry for you kids just starting out now.”
Mike Walker worked for the Houston Police Department from 1995 and retired as a patrol lieutenant in 2016. For eleven years, he worked in the Homicide Division (four as a crime scene investigator and seven as a murder squad investigator). Walker was a supervisor in patrol, reactive investigations, and administration.