MAYBE FIFTY YEARS WASN’T ENOUGH. It’s been that long since the day a shiny badge was first pinned on my chest. At the time I felt it was an immense honor and responsibility to be chosen to serve my community as a police officer. I had just spent four years with the Marines and had some idea about service, honor, and protecting others. It was a privilege now, as a civilian, to be able to continue to serve, protect, and help people.
The best way for me to explain the important job of policing a free society is to let you know you policing is a calling — not a job. It is a calling for those who wish to help society function better, zealously protect the rights of others, and work with community members to resolve budding social problems. Others should not apply.
The Founders of our society were concerned about fairness, equality, and freedom. That’s who we are as a nation. And that it is our job (often delegated to police officers) to continue that concern. Those who can best ensure that is our nation’s police. This is because police work on the street, with people, not in office buildings or courtrooms.
If you have not thought of police in this way, maybe you should start. Police are our first line of justice. Think about it. Police are like the canaries that coal miners used to carry, acute sensors to detect the early presence of dangerous gases. Police are in our communities and neighborhoods to do just that — to make early detection of dangerous social “gases;” our ills, social problems, and the times when we don’t live up to our nation’s values.
As a young patrol officer in an urban city I found that I came upon many of those social problems. I saw daily the result of discrimination, racism, unemployment, poor education, inadequate healthcare, and lack of jobs. I couldn’t solve these problems, but I could, at least, not exacerbate the problem. I could do something.
For instance, I recall making sure a woman with an advanced stage of breast cancer was immediately taken to a hospital despite her husband’s denial of her illness and condition, saw that neglected children were reported and cared for, and mediated in squabbles that most likely would have resulted in some kind of mayhem if I didn’t intervene. Many times, my arrival on the scene of a dispute was the first step toward keeping peace in the neighborhood and preventing injuries. Many of the police calls to which I responded alerted me to those who were neglected and oppressed in our society. They were our nation’s underclass — those who were poor and lived on the street or in substandard housing. When I was able to deal with their problems or concerns fairly and equitably, I felt I was making a big difference; that I was helping to make the American ideal work — even if just a little better. We must never forget that. When the ideals we profess as a nation fall short in practice, it is often seen by police way before it was noticed by anyone else. Police are our “eyes and ears,” our “early warning system.”
That’s why police matter and are important in our society and why I have argued strongly over the years about the need for them to be educated, carefully selected, well-trained, controlled in their use of force, honest in their actions, courteous and respectful in their demeanor, compassionate, and closely in touch with the communities they serve. I have also strongly argued that those who are police leaders must be committed to the growth and development of those they are privileged to lead. They must be more like coaches and team leaders than drill instructors. They must be mature and committed to the continuous improvement of the systems in which they work. All this makes for a strong foundation in which honesty, moral action, and respect for human rights become the standard of American policing.
Serving as a police officer also requires courage – both physical and moral. In many instances, the latter trait is more difficult than the former. When a man or woman puts on a police uniform, they are highly visible representatives of our government and who we are as a people. They should be the epitome of our nation’s values. When police fail in this, we all stumble. Those of us who experienced our nation’s civil rights movement know this to be true. And once we fall as a nation, it takes a long time to get back on our feet again.
In such a positive police environment, citizens can go about their daily work and interactions knowing that should trouble arise, their police will fairly and effectively “sort it out;” that order and justice will always be well-served by fair and effective police officers, and that police leaders will always be cognizant of our society’s “big picture.”
A lofty ideal? I hope so. I have always believed we in America should have extremely high expectations of our police. This is how excellence is nurtured in other areas of our social and civic life: on the athletic field, in the classroom, during the conduct of business, and how we go about governing one another. We should have as high a set of expectations for our police as we do in these other important and necessary functions.
During the time of our nation’s birthing process, Edmund Burke noted,“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” This means that we need to make sure our police meet the high standards we expect of them.
For those of you who are police, or considering becoming one, these are the standards to which you should aspire. It might take another 50 years, way beyond your career as it did mine — but I am convinced it will eventually happen if you do not lose your way or sight of the goal to effectively and impeccably serve others.
[For more see my book, “Arrested Development.”]