The media (and the federal government) are now screaming for “more accountability” for police actions.  So what does that mean?  (USA Today, 8-25-14)

With the coverage of the situation in Missouri, local police have been characterized as untrained racist thugs who are given high grade weapons to use on anyone and anything they please.  The federal program that allows the transfer of outdated or surplus military equipment to police agencies is under review by the Obama administration.  But let’s look at a little history.

in the seventies, police agencies hired returning Vietnam vets and put them on the streets.  They had lots of critical skills, and could handle most anything the community could present.  What they lacked was equipment.  Many purchased their own equipment, including weapons, ballistic vests, and other essential safety gear.  Police officers in those days were not well trained, not necessarily motivated, and possibly doing the job for the wrong reasons.  Racism was common, and many Florida police agencies (my experience at the time) had few black officers, even fewer Latino officers, and almost no female officers.

Then came the vehicles.  With SWAT teams popping up, the need to get close to harm’s way to rescue downed officers and civilians, and to get closer to the bad guys, became important.  (A few years ago, Toronto police dealt with a mentally ill person for hours before approaching him with the protection of an armored vehicle, then used a Taser through one of the gun ports to take him down, disarm him, and take him for mental health treatment.)  The vehicles that are employed in these situations are large and expensive, and of course similar to the vehicles used by the military.  It seems that when the military gets done with them, the police could put them to good use.

If we fast forward to today, the complaint is that police officers can do whatever they want, including trampling on the Constitution, misbehaving and even breaking the law, without suffering any consequence.  The public perception is changing into one where officers are seen as bullies who use their power to abuse the citizens.  But think about this for a moment…

  1. Police can rarely do anything without a cell phone video or nine recording the incident.  It is now rare to have a complaint of misconduct without an accompanying video.
  2. Police officers are seen doing things that citizens don’t like, including speeding in patrol cars without an emergency; getting free coffee at the convenience store; parking patrol cars in fire lanes and other prohibited spaces; shopping at retail stores on duty; and more.
  3. Anything that an officer or former officer does that gets him or her in trouble is reported as, “(former) officer arrested and charged with …”  A recent local article in the news showed a “retired officer” arrested on child pornography charges; it turns out that the guy was retired at age 66, did have child pornography, but was an officer for a couple of years when he was in his thirties.  But the public sees it as an officer who is fresh from a thirty-year career and just retired, taking up the vocation of dirty old man.
  4. Social media has many more stories of bad cops doing bad things than good cops doing good things.
  5. Public misinterpretations of police actions lead to stories of bad cops, bully cops or overzealous cops when they are just doing their jobs and trying to keep from being hurt or killed.  A middle-aged woman related a story to me that started out, “I got stopped and the cop treated me like a bank robber…”  What really happened is that she had no tail lights visible on her car, and a state trooper pulled her over on the interstate.  The trooper approached the passenger side, asked for her paperwork, and while doing so stood outside the line of fire as he was trained.  It was night time, the road was busy, and the trooper did those things meant to ensure his safety.  The woman got a written warning from the trooper, but she was still upset that he approached in the way that he did.  In her mind, the trooper was a bully, throwing around his badge.

So what can we do about this?  The Missouri case is one that we can continue to watch and take some cues on what to do.  In that case, the agency administration did not release any information to the public, including the officer’s name, until after the rioting started.  The public wants to know, and experience has shown that if they don’t get any information, they will simply make it up.  We all know that within the first few hours after the shooting, the agency had a general idea of what happened, including the fact that the officer suffered severe facial injuries and was transported to the hospital for treatment.  This was not released to the public, and even now is not widely known.  Not being “up front” with the people is a bad idea, whether the information is good news or bad news.  The news conference that starts out with, “this is what we know so far…” is a great idea.

Officer should watch what they do with an eye towards public perception.  A speeding patrol car with no apparent reason is a bad idea.  Stopping at the grocery store or Wal-Mart on duty in uniform is a bad idea.  Being loud and obnoxious in the restaurant is a bad idea.  Cussing and swearing in public is a bad idea.  The list goes on.  In short, don’t give them anything to complain about.

Agencies should develop a relationship with the news media and the public through traditional media and social media that spotlights that good that their agency and officers do every day.  Sounds simple, not so much though.  (If the social media side is a little scary, find a fifteen-year-old and hire him or her to take care of the agency social media profile…!!!)

Finally, understand that these things happen, they come in cycles, and this too shall pass, and we will be better for it.

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