Remembering the Purpose

Good cops are humble servants, who remember why they got into this line of work

By Ben Singleton  |   Jun 11, 2015

Years ago, I was sworn in as a police officer. I was given a copy of the oath I took and a copy of the U.S. Constitution. I took these documents and recognized that I was to celebrate the privilege of serving my community and preserving the American way of life.

Every citizen in the country has the right to be dissatisfied with the service provided by law enforcement, and pursue change. The matter is theirs to deal with. We serve at the will of the people. Our budgets, salaries, equipment, personnel, and support are all provided by the people of our respective communities. (Yes, they actually do pay our salaries.)

So what does this mean? Well, I think we have to keep the public happy overall. We have to provide a valuable and worthwhile service. Fair?

Of late, it seems that we are losing the support of our communities. We have been questioned, criticized, suspended, fired, and charged criminally for questionable acts while performing our duties. It has become a large part of the public discourse.

Why?
Before we jump to the justified shooting of a robbery suspect and demand that the public stop meddling in our business, let’s remember that it is this same public that we work for. Let’s also consider that although an incident like this may have been the catalyst for the uprising, it isn’t the entire story.

When I was in the police academy, I watched countless videos of officers being killed in the line of duty. I was told over and over again, “Don’t let this happen to you.” “Don’t let your guard down for a second, or they will kill you.” We trained and prepared ourselves for “the fight of our lives” every day. We hit the gym, cleaned our weapons, donned our body armor, and prepared for war.

After graduation, we hit the street to find bad guys. We trawled the city late at night looking for someone who was worthy of our attention. We read books on criminal behavior and learned the habits of felons. The criminal was our adversary, and we wanted to defeat him.

As a country, we are very good at finding bad guys, and putting them in jail. Our cops excel at this.

What we failed to consider, though, is the collateral damage we cause in doing so. Our mission is righteous and just. But we have to remember that the true mission of law enforcement is the preservation of peace.

This week a video was published where local officers were seen dealing with a disturbance at a community pool. There were several officers on scene. One of these officers was visiting with a group of teens about the incident, getting information, asking them to stay put until they figure out what happened, and so forth. Then another officer began shouting for these same teens to “Get your asses on the ground.” Minutes later this officer (in my opinion, justifiably) draws his weapon in response to several other teens rushing over while he is taking control of a female who refused his orders.

I will point out that these two officers exhibited two completely different ways of dealing with a group of teens that were causing a disturbance.

The public does not understand armed encounters and tactics. They didn’t see all of the videos we saw in the academy. They see a group of teens getting a little rowdy because school let out for the summer. People with guns show up, start yelling and cursing at them, and then violence ensues.

How Do We Fix It?
We enjoy discretion. It is a necessary tool in the course of our business. In Texas, officers can lawfully arrest any person who commits a traffic violation with exception given to speeding and open container violations. Yes, in Texas, if you fail to signal your turn or forget to put on your seatbelt, you can be arrested and put in jail. 99.9% of the time this doesn’t and shouldn’t happen. It doesn’t happen because officers are cognizant of our authority and take great care not to abuse it.

We need this discretion because .01% of the time, the person that committed this violation is on his way to kidnap a child, for example. And the only way we can prevent it, and preserve peace, is to use this tool.

One of my mentors once told me that I should be careful not to abuse this particular tool because if we do, it could easily be taken away from us, stripping us of our ability to stop that would-be kidnapper.

It is in this light that I view the video of the pool party incident. If we continue to respond to these calls with aggression and vigor, although it is lawful, we will lose our authority to do so. We will also lose confidence from the public in our ability and desire to preserve peace.

It is this discussion that needs to be had in order to resolve the relationship issues between police and citizenry. And we need to allow it. We cannot discourage protest and assembly.

The public is firmly on our side when it comes to major crimes. Pedophiles can’t even take refuge in prison. But when it comes to minor misdemeanor offenses, the public is speaking out against our aggressively proactive approach. It will not stop. They will keep speaking until legislators hear them.

We have to change the tenor of this conversation before we lose the tools that we use every day to protect our communities.

We will always have the ex-con, meth addicted, child-raping burglar who visits our communities. This guy needs your full attention and application of the law. He does not get to enjoy the peace that I speak of. He has come to take your citizens’ goods, rape your children, and peddle hard drugs. He is the one who you swore to protect your citizens from. Learn to identify this guy and separate him from the others. He is the wolf.

Just remember that one of the hardest parts of our job is remembering that everyone is not the wolf. People have a right to disagree, and to speak out against you. That right should be celebrated not discouraged.

Humility
We didn’t get into this business to be appreciated. We are here to serve the community and protect its citizenry. We chose to defend those that could not, or would not, defend themselves. We do it because we value human solidarity and service to others. We know that it takes men and women like us, risking life and limb, to keep our loved ones safe at night.

We need to acknowledge that we serve at the will of the public. If the American public doesn’t want us engaging in vehicle pursuits, we will not be doing so. If the American public doesn’t want us donning SWAT gear to respond to violent scenes, we will not be donning SWAT gear. This is why we have to be very careful not to abuse the authority we have, and the equipment we have to support it. It can very easily be taken from us by the same people who we mistreated on that pool party disturbance call.

The argument that the public doesn’t understand and that “they” are making our jobs harder is an unwinnable one. We work for them. Otherwise we are no better than the various tyrannical dictatorships around the world who turn a deaf ear to their citizenry. The public is not against us. The public needs us and they know it. But, we have to conform to what the public wants out of their police force.

Yes but if the public only knew!” Tell them! Let’s engage in conversation with them. Visit with the citizens of your community about the incidents that are happening there. Ask for their help. Offer help to them. They need to know how hard our work is, and how much we sacrifice for their safety.

Officer Safety
We have come a long way in the study and pursuit of officer safety. Perhaps too far. We make the declaration that the officer’s safety is paramount. It’s as if we took an oath to protect ourselves. I remember that I took an oath to protect my community. And I remember thinking that I was taking on a dangerous position so that others didn’t have to. I took the responsibility very seriously and I believe I became a valuable asset to my community. I am very proud of that decision and the bravery it took to carry it out. I like the idea that I risk my own safety so that others don’t have to. I would rather not taint that idea with a focus on my own well-being and the lengths I should be permitted to go to preserve it. It is a dangerous job, and I happily accepted it for all that it is.