How many times in your career—regardless of how long you’ve been in law enforcement—have you made or overhead somebody say the following? “My [insert rank, sergeant to chief] forgot where they came from!”
Yep, we’ve all either said it or thought it at some point.
The Temptation to Generalize
I recently had the opportunity to view a bodycam video of an officer who faced a deadly encounter. The officer did a good job in handling this crazed, knife-wielding suspect who wanted to die. The officer de-escalated the situation, showed remarkable restraint, and took the subject into custody.
However, since no situation is ever handled perfectly, this incident does offer opportunity for discussion about the various tactical options the officer could have employed. Honest critique is healthy, recognizing that this officer was the only one standing in his shoes at that exact moment. And, as in any incident, one small error and the officer as well as civilians could have been injured or killed.
So officers viewing the video have a right to discuss and analyze. As I said, it’s healthy. Even disagreement is healthy, as long as it’s respectful.
What‘s more troublesome for me were the chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, and other high-ranking officials who made their very public comments. Such as: “That’s how every officer should handle it,” or “He’s a hero.”
Sorry. Lumping all knife encounters into one perfect response option is dangerous. Especially considering the Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor.
While I don’t claim to be an “expert” in use of force, I‘m a police officer who understands how quickly things escalate (as do most of you!). Making definitive statements about how all things should be handled is creating a divide in our profession. Instead of saying, “That’s how all officers should handle it,” we need to make statements such as: “This officer handled this particularly deadly threat in a manner that worked while dealing with these specific variables.”
Jumping to, universal statements (“This is the way all officers should handle all similar situations”) is, frankly, nuts. Why? Because there are so, so many unique variables to any given situation that to take a single incident and categorize it as the way to do is a dangerous thing to communicate to both officers and the citizenry. It creates false expectations for everyone, especially when it comes from the upper ranks.
Explaining What We Do
We must do a better job of communicating the realities of policing and, in particular, deadly force encounters. Instead of bowing to political correctness, bosses need to stand up for their officers and educate the public and the pundits who know nothing about this job.
So please choose your words wisely. Comments about a particular incident can and will be used against one of your officers, whose actions—and circumstances—were different. We see it all the time: Officers whose actions are both tactically and lawfully correct are being second-guessed all the time.
Instead of worrying about elections and how bosses are perceived in the public, start spreading the truth about how dangerous this profession is and how officers are forced to make split second-decisions in rapidly evolving situations.
When I got promoted I made a promise not only to myself, but to those that worked with me: I was never going to forget where I came from. Being out on the beat, making arrests, writing tickets, directing traffic, and so on.
Not forgetting where I came from allowed me to not forget what my officers do on a daily basis. I cringe when I hear stories about command staff personnel who give the benefit of the doubt to the complainant over the officer. This lack of support is, in my opinion, what’s hurting our profession.
The result? Officers doing less and hesitating because they don’t believe they will be backed up even if they do everything legally correct.