Here’s a Twist: Serve with Tough Skin but a Soft Heart

By Sgt. Charlie Eipper  |   Sep 20, 2019

It’s no secret that the relationship between citizens and police officers has soured over the last few decades. However, scenarios, where officers encounter confrontational citizens, are not new experiences. It’s just human nature and human nature is not always pleasant. I’m not making excuses for anyone but it’s a fact of our condition as humans and peace officers must embrace that.

The interesting thing about human nature is that it doesn’t bow to authority easily. This is particularly true when the authority is in the process of exacting justice. Unlike the always loved firefighter, we peace officers have a love/hate relationship with those we protect. We’re loved when we rescue someone or protect property but hated when we arrest someone or their loved ones. We must accept this truth for our personal health and our professional growth.

In my 26 years as a peace officer, I have developed a theory. I believe that every one of our citizens has some level of respect for the badge. That respect doesn’t always manifest itself in kind or friendly behavior towards us. Regardless, I believe it’s there and when it’s possible, we should challenge ourselves to tap into that respect. In other words, a little demonstrated grace toward the most hostile violator can change their heart.

Let’s consider the possible reasons why some are so hostile toward police officers. I understand it may be hard to swallow, but their attitude may be legit. You and I know there are some in our ranks that are just jerks. Perhaps the violator you’re dealing with has only encountered those kinds of officers. Also, remember that the violator is human, like us. They have bad days at work, kids that drive them crazy, and spouses who are ungrateful. The ugliness we experience from a citizen has a root cause. We shouldn’t assume that it’s just hatred for the police.

This is where we can make a difference.

I recently showed a training video to my officers of a traffic stop being made for a seat belt violation. The male driver immediately became hostile toward the officer. The officer was not very flexible, but he was still in the right. The driver became increasingly aggressive throughout the stop and eventually, the officer and his partner attempted to pull him out of the car. During the scuffle, the man assaulted the officer and his partner shot the suspect.

I made it clear that the officer’s demands and attempt to arrest the driver were completely justified. However, I had my officers consider another possible option: “Just imagine the driver’s face if the officer would have slowed the situation down a bit and offered the driver a warning citation.” I followed up with actual situations where I have changed a heart by showing grace amid great hostility. Some of the officers were skeptical — cynical, actually — of my suggestion and there were some who agreed with my point.

I challenged my officers to practice what I preached. If possible and reasonable, they were to give warning citations to the next two citizens who treat them harshly. This is a very tough thing to ask. I get it! And there’s no guarantee it will produce the desired effect. Grace is risky. But it’s worth it.

Let’s encourage each other to serve with tough skin, but soft hearts. When you do, be prepared to experience some tears and maybe even a hug. You will find that grace dispensed by those who wear the badge is powerful enough to change a heart.