Police Life

Are they Enemies, Civilians, or Neighbors???

I recently read an article in the New Yorker about a former CIA employee who’s currently driving a patrol car around his hometown of Savannah, Georgia.  While I don’t agree with everything the article puts forth or attributes to the officer, this officer and NYer author do offer an important point that I try to address and ingrain in my trainees and squadmates.  At the end of each shift, and especially at our retirement, we cops rejoin the ranks of “The Public.”  We should always ensure that we’re conducting business in a manner that avoids tempting karma to compel us to suffer beneath the jackboot of an overzealous, badge-heavy street judge.

I strive to be the cop that I want to answer my 911 call, investigate my robbery, or reprimand my driving behavior.  I believe it’s imperative to keep an eye on the long-game: every contact is an opportunity to build or destroy a relationship with the community and develop mutual trust and respect.  Along the way I hope to remain “intel-positive,” meaning that I gather more intel to do my job than I give away to bad guys and trained observers.  I generally want the public to leave with an improved opinion of me, my agency, and my profession, but will never always be possible.  Regardless of how much effort I put into my long-term strategy of relationship building, I ALWAYS have to account for the short-game that I’m going home tonight…in one piece…with the same number of holes and blood volume I arrived with.   That means my strategy and my tactics will not always align.

I can’t treat everyone I meet as a trusted neighbor who means no harm and is just having a bad day.  That constant approach would eventually get me or someone else hurt or killed.  That requires a dependence on sheer luck that I refuse to buy in to.  I can begin interactions with the neck-tattooed ex-con, the outlaw motorcycle gang member, and the soccer mom by treating them all with respect and dignity, but I’ll never use the same tactics.  And, as soon as I can analyze and react to their behavior, body language, and actions, those three citizen contacts will likely all go very differently.  They should.  Everyone deserves dignity and respect, until their behavior dictates otherwise, and a cop who gives a self-proclaimed criminal the same leeway as a soccer mom won’t stay together long.  It’s a recipe to send Officer Humpty Dumpty to pieces in VERY short order.

The tactics officers use are key to their safety, survival, and mindset.  As citizens ourselves, we’re afforded the same personal rights as the people who contact (with rare exception).  We do not give up our right to self-defense because of our job, and we are not cannon fodder to be self-sacrificed at the altar of Public Relations And Community Policing.  First responders of all colors did not volunteer to be injured, maimed, or murdered.  We volunteered to help, to pursue and cage the villains, and ensure our neighbors sleep unafraid of the night.   This is an important point in the present international conversation around American policing.  While I can agree that we cops can improve the mindset and paradigm we ingrain to our recruits and promote within our culture, I simultaneously put forth that the public can use as much retraining as the most jaded and cynical among us.  If you act aggressively toward a cop in any circumstance or for any reason, you should expect some measure of swift and immediate consequence, however subtle or small.  No one gets to shout profanities and puff-up on you in your office, why would the public expect anything different in my mine?

Labels are a big part of our conversation, whether we consciously realize it or not.  Whatever you as a cop call “The Public” is a tremendous indicator of what your intrinsic relationship is with them.   Are they enemies?  Civilians?  Neighbors?  Even if generally similar, officers will have different general interactions with each group.  [AUTHOR’S NOTE: IF YOU EVER REFER TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC AS ‘THE ENEMY,’ RESIGN AND GO DO SOMETHING ELSE.  IMMEDIATELY.   WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE.]   That said, I can know and reasonably trust my neighbors but still take swift and immediate action if any one of them unexpectedly committed crimes against me.  And, until that day comes, I’m sure you’d agree that we get along a lot better if I place them in the ‘Neighbor Box’ for as long as possible.  They alone get to decide if and when that changes.

It’s just as important for us to examine what we call ourselves.  Warriors?  Enforcers?  Guardians?  Servants?  Each of these also has a very different relationship with The Public.  Even though I believe we are all these things, and more, at different times throughout each shift, what are we generally?  What’s our “norm?”

Part of the dilemma, though, is that most of our recruits show up for the first day of Police Academy underprepared.  What do you think the average 24-year-old can tell you about persuading violent people to understand and comply with their perspective?  Our baby-cops don’t have the life experience in reading body language, conflict resolution, and pre-emptive violence to survive on the streets.  We have to teach them all that and ensure their basic proficiency in an unrealistically short timeframe.  Did you know German police have a two-year training program?  They make the time in training for recruits to better raise the least common denominator, and I wish we could do the same thing here.  The logistics for accomplishing that require far more time and words than I have here, but it’d certainly be a worthwhile investment.

So, while I agree with the New Yorker article and its subject on the importance of keeping our relationship-building strategy as our first-and-foremost objective, I would offer that we MUST also ensure our officers have the training and mindset to go home that night.  We cannot afford to offer ourselves up as sacrificial lambs any more than we can afford to view the general public as enemy combatants.

If you’re interested, the New Yorker article can be found here:


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