Following the publication of a recent article, “Why Are You So Judgmental?” it became clear that it had triggered the interest of many in the civilian world.
Generally speaking, civilians believe that cops and their agencies should be making a concerted effort at self-correction in a manner that is obvious to all. The law enforcement community members should be striving for “perfection” as do those who live in the civilian world.
I exchanged some rather lengthy messages with readers and followed them up with an engaging telephone call discussing this issue in detail.
Pondering the meaning of life and navel lint has never been one of my claims to fame. In fact, some consider me a Neanderthal in those areas. But, throwing caution to the wind, I’ve decided to wade in.
In a street cop’s world, the question is: how do we define perfection? I’ve had shifts where escaping at the end of the day without an ass-chewing from the sergeant was perfection – at the time. But, in the bigger sense, has the concept of “perfection” in street coppery ever been given a formal definition?
Is there any person – either dead or alive – whom we could declare to be the “perfect cop?”
I’ve concluded that the answer is NO.
THE WORLD OF ABSOLUTES
A long-time friend, Mike and I spent enough time yammering about this yesterday that beer should have been involved. Oh, well.
Mike is a successful engineer; a manufacturing engineer to be exact. In a manufacturing plant, Mike’s job is to take design drawings from other engineers, calculate the parts, the people, the equipment and the processes necessary to produce the product originally envisioned.
In Mike’s world perfection is an absolute: either the end product meets specifications – or it doesn’t. The quality statistics are expressed numerically and then put onto graphs which can be colored, compared and posted on the wall for all to see.
Since we humans have a tendency to project our values and thoughts on others, I suspect Mike figures police work can be measured just like his work quality is checked.
What kind of graph or pie-chart would be needed to measure the rate of perfection a law enforcement agency had on their last one hundred Domestic Violence calls? I’ve got nothing.
A COP’S WORLD IS ANYTHING BUT PREDICTABLE
In our world, we seem either to be tied up on paper somewhere, on a call somewhere, or fishing for someone who is currently breaking the law.
For example, when people request that a cop stop by their home for a visit (being politically correct here), it generally is NOT to share a piece of birthday cake.
Rather it’s probable that the family has consumed too much liquid intelligence over a period of hours and Uncle Dan has engaged in fist-fight with cousin Fred and the whole thing has turned into a mess that Grandma can no longer control. So, we’ve been called in to take control and restore civility – or some sense thereof.
Each of these human encounters is unique. Typically, they involve a face-off between a various number of human beings, having various backgrounds, and in various levels of intoxication along with other contributing factors. “Perfection” would be defined very differently by each person at the scene.
Based on these factors alone, a universal “perfection” is impossible to recognize or measure.
WHAT IS THE GOAL, ANYWAY?
The shortest answer: as cops, we are striving for the ‘BEST’ possible outcome in every situation.
Very few encounters between street cops and the public can be held up as be “totally good” –or- “totally bad.”
We coppers generally agree, there is almost always room for improvement. That is best evidenced by the heavy use of video tape and other recordings of prior incidents in training classes. Every action and decision made by a street cop is subject to second-guessing, i.e. a Monday-morning Quarterback review.
There are some absolute yardsticks against which our actions can be judged:
- Constitutional law
- Statutory law
- Case law
- Agency policies & procedures
It must be recognized that on each contact, almost anything can happen. As said by the Supreme Court: “Cops operate in dangerous, tense, rapidly evolving situations which require split-second decisions.”
Street cops are almost always interacting with civilians whom they may have had no prior contact. It is impossible to pre-plan a cop’s “appropriate” action in response to every possible option. Public satisfaction (or lack thereof) with the outcomes of a cop’s work therefore depends in part upon the public’s faith in the motives of the officer(s) involved.
Of course, civilians have the right to insist that the cops on their streets have received the necessary training and tools to perform the job. That’s their right.
“PERFECTION” HAS MANY FACES
Consider the conclusion of a typical Domestic Violence call. Examine a few possible conclusions. You pick which one is “perfect.” Note: in each case the patrol cop has engaged in a fist-fight which was initiated by the male half of the couple in trouble.
#1 – The male half is not injured. The cop is hospitalized with non life-threatening injuries. The cop will probably be off work for a month in recovery.
#2 – The male half is seriously injured, possibly fatally. For the cop: it was determined to be a good shoot and he had only a bruise from the fist-fight.
#3 – The fist-fight ended with no one injured. The cop calmed the scene and departed with the warning of jail if he returned on that shift. Following the cop’s departure, the male assaulted the female producing injuries requiring hospitalization.
In many worlds, measuring perfection is an absolute. Not in ours. Obviously, none of the above options can be considered “perfect” upon which all participants will agree. Which is “best” depends on individual points of view.
THE STREET COP IS THE FINAL WORD
Agencies develop and regularly update their General Orders. Those documents provide guidance to the cops on how the bosses expect the rank and file to do their jobs. By design, these policies are intentionally vague and open in many areas because no policy book can ever anticipate all of the situations a cop will face.
Final authority on every action – including the use of deadly force – is vested in the patrol cop at the bottom of the food chain. He is the one who must face, one-on-one, the bad guy who wants to kill him. The cop must be able to justify his actions, e.g. acting to protect his life or the lives of others, but once justified, the final decision rests solely in the cop’s lap.
We cops, through our oath of office, pledge to protect life and property. Sometimes, the best we can do is to minimize the loss of one or the other. But, a loss at some level is bound to happen in some instances.
A loss of life or property DOES NOT make the call a “failure.” Hopefully, It will be judged to be the “BEST” we could do, all things considered.
My friend Mike fairly believes that John Q. Public wants to see that law enforcement agencies are working hard on issues of self-correction and self-improvement. That is exactly what he must do in his daily work and he believes cops should be held to a similar standard. Fair enough.
I believe that our LE community has failed to allow the citizens to understand the details of our jobs. Citizen academies are a good start, but more is needed.
The reality is that police agencies are too often being overrun from outside agencies, bureaus and commissions trying to run their business. There are outside agencies which exist at the local, state and federal levels and all of them are sticking their collective noses in our stuff.
The worst part: too often, the people giving the directions have little (or no) understanding of our current working conditions and the associated challenges. Some might say “But, they are the leaders, chiefs and sheriffs from across the country who bring their insight to bear on how to best do the job.”
Oh yeah? When was the last time you saw a chief plant has fat ass in patrol car to work an entire shift just like one of his patrol cops? I thought so. Me either. Most of the brass I encounter these days couldn’t log on to the in-car computer – much less write a ticket or take an incident report. And they think they know what is going on out on the street? BULLSHIT!
I give a ton of credit to those few leaders who actually hit the streets regularly and then listen to their people who are out there, every day. Businesses long ago found that the best solution to nearly every problem was found with the people actually on the line. Law enforcement is a couple of decades behind the curve on this approach.
These outsiders are the numbskulls who are on panels of outfits like PERF which last year set a record for producing the dumbest, most inane set of operating recommendations for cop agencies that has ever seen the light of day. Not only was it dumb, if implemented, some of the recommendations are bound do get a few cops killed.
AND THEN, THERE WAS TRAINING
One of the most important factors in getting cops to produce the “BEST” outcomes: officer training.
However, when budgets get tight what’s the first thing that gets cut? Training.
There isn’t a cop carrying a badge who doesn’t face this reality no matter where he/she works.
While I understand that the public wants perfection, the real question is: Will the public cover the costs (with tax dollars) to get the training done? History shows us that often, the public won’t come up with the cash necessary.
IT IS NOT ALL ICE CREAM AND SUGAR COOKIES
It is also critical that the public come to know more of the details of our daily job. Members of the public need to understand our boredom, our frustrations, our challenges and how we use our resources to cope.
Equally important: they need to see that use of force ain’t pretty. When I must physically force someone to do something, it’s probably gonna get ugly. Currently, when we must use even the lowest level of force (think United Airlines and the felon doctor being removed from the plane), people were shocked, appalled and blown away.
We need to show the public what force is like across the board – up to including deadly force. They need to know what we face – and that it isn’t all cookies and ice cream. By having an understanding of what force truly looks like, they will be better able to put various incidents in context when they happen.
I have concluded that I can’t change ALL of policing. For me, I am focused on street cops. They are where it all begins. They are the front line of our crew.
I will teach classes, speak and write to patrol cops – in small groups or one at a time. That’s where I judge I can have the biggest impact on my brothers who actually do the job every day and put their lives on the line for all of us.
At the bottom line, it’s all about saving just ONE life.
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