Story #1: A London jury meted out long sentences to Gary Dobson and David Norris for the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence, a 19-year-old black British man who was murdered in a racist attack at a bus stop.
Story #2: The Obama Administration just announced a revised definition of what constitutes a rape: Males can be victims, physical force is no longer required, and the deciding factor is lack of consent.
At first glance these news stories might seem to have little importance to police in the United States. The Justice Department emphasized that the new definition of rape applies only to FBI data collection: No laws have changed. And the murder convictions concerned a crime that happened more than 18 years ago in a European country.
But think again: Both stories shine a light on the way police actions are viewed by the citizens that police agencies serve. In the British case, outrage over police handling of the Lawrence murder led to an investigation, accusations of institutional racism, and reopening the case.
And the redefinition of rape in our Department of Justice was prompted by public demands for change in the way sexual crimes are investigated and prosecuted. Carol Tracey, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, said, “We still need to improve police practices and rid society of the stereotypes about rape victims.”
Times change, appearances can be misleading, and policies and procedures can become outdated. The officers investigating the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 thought they were just doing their jobs. They were satisfied that Lawrence was another out-of-control black youth who got caught up in gang violence.
“Just doing my job” is also the mantra of some officers today who think that it’s not really rape if a man is making the complaint, or if the alleged victim passed out after too many drinks, or if no weapon was involved.
But law enforcement never happens in a vacuum: At any moment an advocacy group, newspaper reporter, or citizen with a cell phone video may start asking questions.
In the Lawrence murder case, witnesses insisted that they had witnessed a hate crime—and a government commission started listening to them. In the U.S. Department of Justice, officials could no longer ignore the tidal wave of both men and women complaining about law enforcement policies regarding sexual crimes.
Business-as-usual practices can be risky in our rapidly changing world. All officers pride themselves on their commitment to fairness, integrity, and professionalism. But others don’t always see us that way.
Sometimes it pays to step outside our comfort zone to listen to what people are saying about us. Here are just two of the benefits for law enforcement: A perception that the police are leaders, rather than recalcitrant followers of social trends, and an opportunity to make necessary changes ourselves instead of having them imposed by others.
Jean Reynolds is author of The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers and co-author of Police Talk. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com