The Dangers We Control

In this moment we occupy, why do we continue to tear each other down?

By H.K. Slade  |   Jul 15, 2019

To me, the best part of being a police officer was being a beat cop. A lot of people look down on long-tenured patrol officers, but we never tell stories about that one day on a cushy assignment when got to go home early. No, the best cop stories happen on night shifts, or insanely busy weekends, or running to a hot call, lights flashing, sirens blaring, half your squad at your back as you all roll towards danger. That’s patrol for me.

My current assignment is arguably great, too. I’m in training. My job is to identify the things hurting police officers and develop training to help them overcome those threats. By way of example, we followed the ambush of several San Diego police officers on June 24th, 2018 with particular interest, and less than a month after the release of the BWC footage, every officer in my department is going through training in the shoot house based on that incident.

At least once a year, we have an officer who was in a life-or-death situation come up to one of my unit and say, “When I saw the gun/knife/threat, it was like a scenario you put us through and the training just took over.”

Those are really good days.

I usually begin my day by combing through the internet looking for the things that are dangerous to cops. The first things that come to mind are guns and bad guys, but I also have to look at things like public perception, new case law, and changes in technology, because these are all things that can be dangerous to officers. The truth I’ve finally come to understand after fighting it for years is this: The biggest danger to law enforcement is … us.

Identifying the Problem

In 2018, there were 51 officers who lost their lives because a criminal shot them. That is significant and we must continue to train and prepare for that danger throughout our careers. Another 34 officers were killed in vehicle crashes. Again, our training, our equipment, and our policies must focus on making that number as small as possible. Personally, I won’t be satisfied until those numbers are at zero, but I also recognize the realities of police work.  Still, that was 85 officers taken from us in 2018 by the dangers we prepare for the most.

That same year, at least 159 officers took their own lives.

Add to that the officers who were fired, retired, or arrested due to the effects of self-medication (alcohol and other drugs). Finally, consider all the officers who quit in 2018, leaving their squad short, their former coworkers stretched that much thinner, leaving the next check-in a minute or five further away.

I’ve read a lot of articles holding the media and politicians and the public accountable for their share of these loses, and I agree whole-heartily with most of them. There are some good articles out there and I won’t waste words restating their points.

I can’t control the outside world. But I can control what I say and do, so that is what I will concentrate on. Bottom line: What worries me is how ready we are to tear each other down.

“Part of the Job, Right?”

I am not preaching from a pulpit. As recently as last month, I was still making snide comments about how the SWAT guys get paid to do pushups and giving the community guys hell for having “office hours.”

It seems every unit thinks every other unit is a motley bunch of slackers. Having been in training for a little while now, I’ve had the opportunity to work with every unit in the department, a variety of departments from across the country, and multiple generations of officers, from raw recruits to guest instructors 10 and 20 years retired. We all do it. In any gathering of three or more officers, nearly every cop I know finds a way to slip in a jab about how some other officer/unit/generation isn’t as good as we are.

Now, I know it’s part of the job to take a joke and make a joke. I’m not talking about being PC and afraid to speak because it might hurt someone else’s feeling. That would be an over-correction. What I’m seeing that concerns me isn’t the good-natured ribbing that is part of the camaraderie that makes this job bearable over the length of a career. That’s not want I’m concerned about. What does concern me is the belief among officers that every other department, every other unit, and every other generation is somehow “less”: Less brave. Less tough. Less dedicated. Less hard working.

It’s confusing to me because when everyone feels that way about everyone else, how can it be true? How can everyone be “less”?

What’s the Cost?

Snide comments might get a laugh and make us feel better about ourselves, but there’s a cost.

The cost comes when an officer has finished his or her shift–a shift filled with untold dangers and stress, when he or she has had to endure the news and elected officials and sometimes even their family telling them they are racist murderers.

That officer only has one place where they can count on support, one group of people who can understand how heavy the badge can be some days: other cops. And then we eat our own. We tear them down. We tell them their department is garbage. We tell them their squad is a sampler plate of soup sandwiches. We tell them their academy wasn’t as tough as the ones before it. We tell them they don’t have a right to be as tired or overwhelmed or angry as us because they don’t make as many arrests or write as many reports or work as many weekends.

The cost is that officer quitting. Or crawling inside a bottle. Or eating his or her own gun.

Another Way

What is it exactly I’m suggesting as a solution? I’m not asking that we stop bantering. What I’m asking from my brothers and sisters is simply that the next time we catch ourselves about to tear down another cop to make ourselves feel better, we pause to remember every department, every unit, every generation, every cop, has something they do that no one else does.

There is as much value in a juvenile detective’s work as there is in a K9 officer’s. An SRO might have enviable hours but have to operate under such intense scrutiny that their days are like a tightrope walk. There’s some challenge or task each officer faces when they put on the badge that no one else knows about, and the fact that they put that badge on means that, today at least, they are in the trenches with us.

By all means, continue to occasionally tease your buddy about how his squad spends their days. But when we do it, let’s do it with a friendly smile and not a sneer of contempt.