[The following is an essay from a long-time friend and colleague, Chuck Wexler, Executive Director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). In it, Chuck reflects on his time working among and learning from police officers at the top of their organizations and those in the ranks. If policing is to be improved, seen as a legitimate and trusted public function it will be when the overwhelming majority of officers in a police agency are seen by community members as “Good Cops.”]
The Good Cop
“Nearly 40 years ago, Boston was knee deep in racial conflict over integrating the city’s public schools. Most cops on patrol wore riot gear. But Officer Paul Carr, a few of his colleagues, and I, a civilian with a new graduate degree, were assigned to a special unit out of the commissioner’s office to identify victims of racial violence.
“It was on a cold winter night when Paul did something that defined for me the policing profession’s honorific: ‘The Good Cop.’
“Paul was at the scene of an arson attack at a predominately white public housing complex in East Boston. He found a black family had been burned out of their home. Paul took it upon himself to check the family into a nearby hotel and used his personal credit card to cover the bill.
“That story, and many others like it, feel lost to history right now. Across the country, the killing of George Floyd and others has left many officers feeling paralyzed, unable to talk about their work in ways that do not come across as defensive, self-congratulatory or insensitive to race. There seems no oxygen left for stories about the cops who do so much good in their communities.
“Through all my years at PERF and prior to that in Boston, I have had the benefit of knowing many of you. And what you have shared with me is this: when I ask you about someone in your department, the highest compliment you can give them is to say ‘they are a good cop.‘
“I instantly know what that means. This essay tries to capture those stories you have told me over the years about the good cop.
“The good cop uses discretion. They sympathize with the driver afraid to step out of her car because she has seen these types of encounters turn violent in the past. The good cop warns someone for a minor infraction or issues a citation rather than always making an arrest, especially during a global health pandemic. The good cop talks a wife into retrieving a wayward spouse who’s had too much to drink and is wandering the streets.
“The good cop still does their job, but they do it humanely.
“When the good cop puts on the uniform, they want to be seen as a helper, a friend. The good cop doesn’t want the badge and insignia to be a barrier that marks them as a member of a subculture, walled off from the rest of the community. The good cop knows that in some neighborhoods their mere presence can trigger raw emotions or painful memories of either aggression or inaction. But that just makes the good cop work even harder to be a beacon of hope in those communities – that calming voice that manages to restore order and safety.
“The good cop takes a seat on the park bench to talk, unguarded, to a group of teens. People who are chronically homeless know who the good cops are, because they are the ones who ask: ‘How are you doing? Do you need anything?’
“When the country is suffering one of the worst drug epidemics and someone is overdosing, the good cop dispenses Naloxone, and then works with social service agencies to try to get the person into treatment.
“The good cop intervenes with their partner and pulls them back when they are losing their cool. The good cop respects the sanctity of every life.
“The public is often surprised to learn that, outside of the firing range, most officers never fire their weapons during their careers. As we all know, most cops have very few complaints in their personnel folders, but have numerous citizen appreciation letters and awards. The good cop has been well trained in de-escalation and practices it every day.
“The good cop is willing to risk their life to save others. On 9/11, the good cop ran into burning buildings to guide people rushing down the stairs to safety. In an active shooter situation, the good cop recognizes that they need to rush in to save others, because that is part of their job.
“Most of all, the good cop is always good – even when so many others don’t see it that way.
“In every community, in every part of America, there are cops lying awake at night, devastated because they know what good policing is and they practice it every day. I know this because over the years I have travelled to many parts of the country and I have heard their stories.
“A good cop told me told me how he stood atop the Brooklyn Bridge, in the wind, patiently talking to a distraught person, helping him to see a way to save himself, and not jump.
“A good cop told me how he left his partners – and his service weapon – behind and sat with a man who had a gun pressed against his temple. They talked, the man put the gun down and the two hugged.
“A good cop bought an urn so a mother with no money could cremate her murdered son. A good cop took surveillance videos home to study them for hours on her day off to solve a homicide. A good cop helped a kid with homework; bought lunch for his prisoner; answered a mother’s call to his cellphone about kids smoking marijuana in her apartment hallway. A good cop got injured while rescuing an emotionally disturbed child who had fallen down the garbage chute in a high-rise building and was trapped.
“Good cops don’t crave credit or seek accolades. Their actions are seldom captured in police reports or on the news. What happens is often between them and the people they serve. And that’s it.
“Some people do thank the good cop. But the good cop almost always answers, ‘I was just doing my job.‘
“The good cop is proud to be held to a higher standard because they know the public has placed its trust in them. The good cop lives by the credo, ‘I am the community, and you are me.’
“I’ve always felt that the best way to summarize the work that police officers do is this: When you are in a crisis and need help, there is nothing better than a good cop.”