Why Police Matter

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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.”]


  1. Great post. Chief, I am wondering if you have read Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow”. She was just in Madison for the University’s distinguished speaker’s lecture series. She takes a very different view on the role of police in society, and I would be interested how you would react to some of her conclusion.



    1. I am a big fan of Michelle Alexander. I am so sorry to have missed her talk here in Madison. I certainly understand how she would come from a different perspective with regard to police. I would hope, however, that she would concur with my “seven improvement steps.” Thanks for the comment!


      1. Chief,
        Have you ever been a student of Dr Thompson’s “Verbal Judo” class? Great Speaker….very helpful.


      2. I know of the course and have heard good things about it. But as a Judo teacher, it was quite easy for me to incorporate the principles — you know, solid oak v. flexible bamboo… Thanks.


  2. …To every action/inaction exists its exact opposite, so, regarding “Why Police Matter”, it really doesn’t matter one whit how much “good” police — or anyone else for that “matter” — may be perceived as having done or are presently doing in society, as this so-called “good” will be countered at some point in time by an equal amount of “bad”, never forgetting for one solitary moment that “good” and “bad” are both but subjective subtleties. Many “bad” people know full well that the road to hell which they tread, but seemingly never dread, is said to be depraved..err..paved with “good” intentions.


    1. Help society function better? In whose interest? To what end? How are you able to make such judgements in an unbiased manner? Are you sure that due to incomplete information,leading to judgements based on such,that you aren’t actually creating problems? Which would explain the uproar by many concerning the police.How do you come to make a judgement as to who is or isn’t oppressed? I know of several persons who while in school weren’t the most discerning students by far.Yet when they became members of a police force they instantly became all knowing persons with impeccable judgement in matters that a short time earlier they no knowledge or competence in at all.How is this possible?


  3. This my dear police chief friend that is what I thought police work was until I came face to face with the brass and the upper two-tier class and, after I was shot because of election fraud, I was called a slack cop for caring for people.

    Some think that being nasty is the only way to be a good cop…. I don’t unless it’s the only way to handle the situation.


  4. It’s all well and good to say all of that, and I’m sure there are cops out there similar to how you describe yourself. It’s unfortunate that it seems there are more that toe the thin blue line, and while possibly not corrupt bullies themselves protect those same bullies by adhering to Omerta just like other gangs of criminals.


    1. Wasn’t it Hamlet who said “all is not rotten in Denmark”? So it is with police. One of the major ethical advancements in policing will be to convince police that integrity matters with regard to their effectiveness and personal safety. Policing in America cannot be a matter of occupying poor communities. Cooperation and trust and legitimate authority will, I pray, eventually win the day.


    2. Chief, Just re-read the post and the same thoughts re-occurred. In addition, I have to wonder if you had enlisted in the NYPD facing the same challenges as Frank Serpico, what would you have done? Followed your ideals as you discuss above, and done as Serpico, refusing the bribes and turning in the corrupt brothers, and in the end being killed or almost killed either directly by your brothers or their partners in corruption, or indirectly by lack of back up as in Serpico’s case? Or would you have abandoned your ideals, as many do, and either become corrupt yourself, or stood behind the blue wall and been silent (omerta)? What you said sounds great in theory though.
      Also, not too long ago, the NYPD essentially went on strike due to something that the mayor I believe said, and over the time of the strike crime in NYC actually decreased, so do police really matter, or as it seems if you pay attention to the news, do they continually escalate minor matters into major matters to justify their existence?


      1. That’s always the question isn’t it? — What would YOU do? I am well aware of working within the police subculture and the pressures it can generate. A single officer dealing with organizational corruption is in perilous state. I would hope I would have done what Serpico did — I have a had a few ethical challenges myself during my street and leadership career. I survived them. Early in my career I challenged a corrupt captain during an arrest we were making regarding an after-hour tippling house. The dayshift captain showed up at 3 am and asked us what we were doing. I turned around and asked him what he was doing out so late seeing he had briefing in a few hours… He drove away. Nothing happened to us. We could do this because we were in an elite tactical unit and had each other’s backs. There is always strength in numbers. Honest cops in corrupt departments need allies. Men and women who will stand up, support doing the right thing and be able to counter any harm that may come to any honest cop. Having allies in the news media always helped us. Frank’s a true American hero!


  5. Pingback: Improving Police
  6. 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 am 49 year’s old and in College for Criminal Justice / Latent Evidence Degree’s. This by far is the best statement I have ever read, and is the most true! I wish more people in the training and hiring process would feel like this.


  7. Hi, I’m a few years late, well, more than just a few. So I hope you don’t mind my intrusion.

    I noticed you mentioned the Founders early in your essay. Now that some time has passed, have you had a change of heart about the issue of policing and the Founders?

    In the six years that have passed, things have gotten a bit crazy, to say the least. Cop shootings are up. Although we here a lot about the cops being shot, which has remained relatively the same. While police shootings have risen dramatically.

    After doing some research on history of policing in America. I have to say this isn’t the vision our Founders had in mind. Not even remotely.

    Given that, do you think the Founders would tolerate the behavior we are seeing now?

    Sincerely, Landy F.


    1. I would hope they would be appalled at the state of governmental affairs. The Founders were flawed men just as we all are. They had an idea from their experience with the “divine right of kings.” They knew that wasn’t how they wanted to live so they proposed a balanced process (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness) that seemed to flow out of the Age of Reason. They were wrong of course in so many ways — but right in many important ones about justice and freedom — they missed equality for women and slaves. I am reminded of a Justice Ginsburg quote that when she was arguing for women’s rights as a young lawyer one of the sitting Supreme Court Justices reminded her that “woman” was not mentioned in the Constitution. Her replay, “neither was freedom.” Some things must be implied, other’s changed and that’s why democracy (or living in a republic) should be a continuous process of improvement — all the time, 24/7, year in and year out!


    1. Chief, just came across this while searching for ways to get involved in stopping our police force from getting de-balled in wake of the floyd killing. I’m in PA and concerned that surrounding cities are going to defund and unarm them. We need a coalition started to bring the true numbers of police killings against all races. You and I both know that more whites are killed by police than blacks. Also not black lives but all lives…Any guidance and information is appreciated..


      1. True. More whites are killed by police than blacks, but the percentage of blacks killed (about 1/3 or more of the 1,000) is higher than their numbers in the population. I would also submit the the circumstances of the killings seem to be different. Most cops are good and decent people. They need to be supported now and the bad behaviors of a few cops out there who sully the profession must stop. We can do this but it will take time and effort. These are difficult times.


      2. Okay chief thanks for response. You have been around a long time. Can you get a coalition to support police in this country started or where direct me to. We cannot wait any longer. Citizens to show strong support for the police. You have a wide read blog.


      3. The best coalition is a local one. Friends and neighbors talk to local politicians and agree that you all (including police) can and will work together to support good community policing!


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