Oh, say can you see
American police officers standing tall
What so proudly we hail’d
Saving those from oppression, violence and crime
through the perilous fight … so gallantly
Forsaking their own safety to bravely protect Americans
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Our valiant police officers keeping our homeland safe and free.
Though we can’t predict the future, we can prepare for eventualities. This article addresses some law enforcement problems, but not solutions for all. Many issues are tendered by presenting the problem as questions because answers depend on individual agency concepts.
For generations, statements to the effect that police, firefighters and military personnel, whether active, part-time, or retired, are heroes to whom all thanks and gratitude are due to them for honoring us with their service. Truth is cops run to gunfire, firefighters enter burning buildings and soldiers face the enemy not out of duty, but because they believe their personal safety is secondary to those they are charged with safeguarding. Reality is that they would rather be a dead hero than a live coward. To their compatriots, cowardice is a fate worse than death.
As a former law enforcement officer and firefighter, I’ve always found those who volunteer for law enforcement, firefighting and military positions do so more for the comradery, excitement and prestige. To them, knowing that the person with whom you are standing shoulder-to-shoulder knows you’ve got their back regardless of the danger is the ultimate level of trust. Being part of an ethical, honorable and exclusive segment of society is the driving force. Lofty aspirations of service to the community are way down the list (at least when you’re young), regardless of official and public sound bites.
Danger and hazardous duty has always been related to police work, but it wasn’t until Columbine that it became apparent that concerns for officer safety were over-prioritized. The Jefferson County (Colo.) Sheriff stated on national television that he didn’t send his officers into the school building because he didn’t want any of his officers hurt. (1)
This was followed by another police chief writing: “Most officers have families, just like everyone else. Their main goal is to get home safely at the end of each shift, and I agree with that philosophy 100 percent.” (2)
Soon thereafter, the police community took a close look at itself and thankfully realized the “main goal” is to see that those they have sworn to protect got home safely. We’ve moved on from Columbine. Now it’s time to move to the next level(s).
A cop’s job has inherent dangers, but according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the top 10 fatal work injury rates per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers (2019) (3) doesn’t include police officers. However, it stands to reason that if there was a list of civilian workers intentionally injured or killed, cops would not only top the list, they’d be the only ones on the list.
In the Fall 2019 issue of “The Chiefs of Police” (Police Ethics and Lethal Force in the 21st Century), I wrote about overcoming fear by referencing the 1950s movie, “High Noon.” The message this Hollywood production sent was about the the basic concept of American law enforcement officers: The duty, obligation and personal creed that separates us from everyone else is ensuring safety for those we are sworn to protect. The storyline (below) is worth repeating inasmuch as it also portrays the very essence of what being a cop is all about — the safety of others and not about personally staying safe.
No one is saying or expecting law enforcement officers to sacrifice their life, but each officer has the duty to protect the public during lethal force encounters. The very nature of the police occupation is centered around perilous activity. If the work involved only taking reports, directing traffic and calling in a SWAT team when danger appears, the job could be done by social workers or clerks.
In the “High Noon” movie, the town marshal (played by Gary Cooper) learns on his wedding day that a man he sent to prison is returning on the noon train. The ex-con and his three fellow thugs are bent on revenge. The town marshal is torn between leaving on his honeymoon, as planned, or staying to face the perps — to honor the ethics of his position. The town selectmen tell him, in so many words, “stay safe” and go on with your travel plans.
The marshal plans to swear in some deputies and this show of force should be enough to quell the worries of the townsfolk. Things don’t work out quite as planned, and this lone cop ends up facing the four violent criminals alone. The “safe” path surely would have been to continue on with his honeymoon and let the incoming marshal handle the situation. But there would be a period of a day before the new badge would be arriving and the people should be “safe” during this short interval. The concerns he has for his own personal safety, his marriage and townsfolks is overridden by his ingrained fear of being a coward.
The bride (played by Grace Kelly) begs her groom to give it up. Boarding the same train the ex-cons exit, she leaves. Key the theme song … Tex Ritter wails the watchwords of police officers of all time:
“I do not know what fate awaits me,
I only know I must be brave,
for I must face the man who hates me,
or lie a coward, a craven coward,
or lie a coward in my grave” (4)
The bride returns just in time to blow one of the gang members away to save her man, who then outdraws the ex-con. In real life, sometimes the perp wins and sometimes the spouse doesn’t come back, but to a sworn, duty-bound, honorable and ethical American police officer in either one of those situations is preferable than being labeled a craven coward for the sake of their personal safety.
The Subtle Message
At least a decade ago, law enforcement officers of all ranks ended conversations or written messages with the term (some might call it a prayer) to stay safe, be safe or keep safe. These terms as a closing comment or sign-off have become ubiquitous. Officers use it among themselves, trainers finalize sessions with it and police columnists end their writings with this same line.
Not that this is wrong or not good. To the contrary, looking out for the well-being of fellow officers is one of the requisites of being a police officer. The original implication might have been well-intended, but the message, especially since Columbine, could be an insult. Today, such a statement/plea/order says the speaker/writer is implying they believe the persons being told to “stay safe” are so stupid that they would take unnecessary risks. Or that they should place their safety above those who they are obligated to protect.
Wishing one to be safe can also apply to other professions as well. We surely hope all construction workers, truck drivers and pilots conduct their details in a safe manner. There are very few livelihoods where “safe” is secondary to the profession. Law enforcement is a career where ethics trump safety.
Police officers, by their very nature, are charged with not only putting themselves in harm’s way for the physical protection of society, but must be the stalwart, the guiding beacon of honesty and integrity — the last line of defense against violence as well and moral decay. Should American law enforcement officers lose their moral compass, we will witness the breakdown of society.
The story has often been told of the Jewish boy who is punished for using the dairy towel to dry the non-dairy dishes. When he questions his father about such an archaic law, the elder explains that the dietary laws have always been in effect, and if you break one law and allow it to go unpunished, all of society begins to break down. It is difficult to argue with this reasoning, as the Jews have been around for almost 6,000 years.
We have often heard the declaration, when relating to American police officers, as “our country’s last line of defense.” This has usually been in reference to physically standing guard against enemies’ intent on committing violence. A truer meaning has not been tendered. But seldom espoused is the underlying definition of the American police officer — he and she stand for the epitome of civilized society. America’s very existence depends upon the rigid blue line never wavering in the face of outrageous criminal conduct, civil riots, moral decay or political trickery run amok.
Perhaps, it would generate better faith in subordinates as well as fellow officers to end communications with “stay ethical” or “stay honest.” These terms represent a belief that the communicator believes the recipient already is (remains) ethical and honest and is wishing them to keep that in the forefront of their mind.
The American Police Officer is a balance of
benevolence to the community with enforcement of the law,
in concert to the Constitution, all the while
adhering to highest moral and ethical ideals.
American police officers are the envy of the world and it’s not because they are safe. It is due to their professionalism and qualifications based on a high ethical and honorable standard. Ethics — or ethical behavior — is defined as a set, or system of, moral values and principles that are based on honesty and integrity and have been accepted as professional standards.
Police officers are in the business of ethical behavior. This is their stock-in-trade, forte, signature, persona, identification and what differentiates them from other professions. When one police officer violates this trust, this code of honesty, all are tarnished. Adherence to, or the practice of, any voids of integrity is counter to the code of ethics that is part of each officer’s sworn duty, his existence for being.
It is surely every law enforcement officer’s daily practice to live safely, to protect and serve, to stand beside and back-up fellow officers and … to always do the right thing. Safety is mostly a matter of practicing rules of common sense. There is little temptation to violate safety procedures. Not so for ethical matters.
Temptations abound to subvert those of power
to commit lapses in discretion for the gains of favor.
Law enforcement trainers find it most difficult to teach common sense, likewise ethical behavior. Law enforcement instructors might best encourage their students to Stay Ethical as they personally set a moral example while always being on the lookout for those badge-wearers who might be subject to temptations.
Who’s in Charge?
America is made up of city, village, township and county — “local” — cops in addition to state troopers and investigators. Added to this protective guard is a growing mix of federal alphabet soupers — e.g., FBI, ATF, IRS, DHS, TSA, DEA, et al. Federal law enforcement agencies have immense investigative abilities including, but not limited to sophisticated forensic laboratories, deep data bases and vast under-cover operatives.
Recently, the Department of Homeland Security has been examining local police jurisdictions. For example: “The Department of Homeland Security is advancing its plan to use surveillance drones for ‘public safety’ applications …” (5). What DHS seems to be saying is they plan to use camera-equipped drones for stateside activities beyond terrorism to something it calls public safety.
Prior to the proliferation of civilian concealed carry, it used to be “us versus them,” meaning carriers of the shield against all civilians and armed citizens would be a danger to law enforcement officers. Obviously, the shoot-a-cop-at-every-stop never happened.
Now, it might not be as clear exactly who “them” is. A significant number of these decent, law-abiding citizens have become “preppers” — not so much because they fear the end of times, but more that they fear their own government. In other words, if chaos reigns, they are not sure who they can trust — the military, federal agents or the cops on the beat.
In the event of a real (or rogue government-generated) catastrophic terrorist attack and/or a communications gridlock (no internet/cell phones), where will you be standing? Will (can) you continue to serve and protect the citizens regardless of political, federal law enforcement or military pressure?
Regardless of sworn duty, ethically the local law enforcement community is devoted to never surrendering the intrinsic duty to protect our fellow Americans from all enemies, foreign and domestic. We owe an obligation to our neighbors (the parents of the kids with whom your kids go to school) to reassure them of our commitment to serve and protect them from each and every adversary.
If total widespread chaos transpires and the military moves in, the commander won’t be asking: “Chief/Sheriff, where do you want my troops?” He or she will mandate, “Turn in your firearms and go home, we’re in charge.”
Here’s a new twist on an old line: Two, fully decked-out SWAT members — a local police officer and a federal agent — are standing guard at a terrorist bombing site. As blue strobes probe, sirens yelp and armored vehicles rumble, one law enforcement officer says to the other, “Everyone in the world is the enemy, except you and me … and sometimes I’m not so sure about you.”
On the backside, we need the feds as much as they need us — even under martial law — and competing for bragging rights is not conducive to protecting society. Are we, the city kitties, smokies and county mounties, to forsake our sworn, moral and ethical duties and become subservient? In other words, should federal agencies be taking a greater or lesser role in local or state law enforcement?
What plans does your agency — independent of your funding source — have in place to protect its officers from future health (pandemic) issues? Though the function of the government is to protect the citizenry, law enforcement officers have to protect themselves to be able to carry out that function.
Should masks and gloves be mandatory for every contact with members of the public and/or other officers? Should sanitizing crews be employed to clean the inside of patrol cars (offices) between each shift? (This might seem to contradict the Stay Ethical ethos, but this is department-wide, not concerning individual officer conduct).
2. Qualified Immunity
Probably the most pressing issue today and in the long term is QI. A number of locales have already scaled back this civil protection, while federal lawmakers consider eliminating (or restricting) it.
“If qualified immunity were successfully removed, there would be effects on multiple levels. There would be a mass exodus of good, moral police officers due to the fear of excessive claims against them that could not only take away their jobs but also the possibility of their freedom and personal assets. An enormous vacuum would be created as officers left the profession and others were hesitant to step up to a life of service. Those officers that stayed in the profession would be reluctant to take action when called for service due to the fear of repercussion. The level of service to the public would suffer and crime would increase.” (6)
Suppose QI is declared unconstitutional? Could law enforcement agencies, or law enforcement officers individually, become LLCs (Limited Liability Corporations), or some other form of insulation from private lawsuits?
3. Private Security
As gated communities proliferate and retail stores add additional layers of private protection, should this trend be encouraged or discouraged? Perhaps legislation can be introduced to require non-public entities to contract with traditional police agencies if they wish to have special patrols or coverage. Though this seems like a slippery slope, poor incorporated communities have long utilized this practice.
4. The Vote
The top LEO of any jurisdiction should be an elected official so as to report directly to the people, not one who must be subservient to a non-police official with the power to issue “stand-down” orders. Police, per se, are a quasi de facto fourth branch of our constitutional republic. Perhaps it’s time they become autonomous — a de jure branch, much like a sheriff.
If the following defines the American law enforcement officer, how do we test for these attributes? Should discretionary power (the Chief’s “sixth sense”) be greater or equal to machine, written and oral testing?
The American Law Enforcement Officer is a physically fit, man or woman epitomizing theologically inspired (7) moral and ethical values including the inherent traits of bravery and common sense; entrusted by a physical-boundary-set political division of society with the authority, duty, obligation and power to maintain tranquility, protect property and persons and investigate and arrest anyone violating the codified laws of this physical-boundary-set political division.
The trend has been to create a composite of society within a police department — to have the makeup of law enforcement members represent the variety of citizens. Perhaps, it should be the other way around … the community’s primary goal should be to emulate the American law enforcement officer.
6. Saving Lives
Though this is not exactly a police prerogative, it might be in the best interest of law enforcement and the community, per se, to campaign for EMT/Life Squads to be on patrol 24/7. An entity that is always ready to respond to drug overdoses and other medical issues, including shots-fired dispatches (after the area is made safe by law enforcement officers) would be a significant advantage for the safety of the general populace as well as law enforcement officers. In addition, it would help relieve pressure on responding officers by requiring the EMT/Squads to become first responders to medical, suicide and drug dispatches. If a police officer is injured, EMTs would be available earlier.
7. The Taser
The fallout from the tragic Kim Potter case has created this question — wouldn’t it be best to fit tasers with a pulsating strobe light and siren/bell/whistle that are activated when removed from the holster? Not only would it warn the officer that he or she is holding a taser, but the sound and blinking light could distract the perp while at the same time letting him or her know what’s coming next … if compliance is not instantaneous. (8)
Staying ahead of the coming curves of life for law enforcement officers might best be addressed by simple matters, such as utilizing the term “stay ethical” when signing off with fellow officers and sanitizing officer environments to more complex issues, from equipment modifications to campaigning for major changes that embrace full-time EMTs on patrol, elected chiefs of police and qualified immunity protection.
(1) There were many investigations (available via a Google search) into the tragic mass shootings by two students at Columbine High School in Columbine, CO on 20 Apr 1999. The first responding LEOs did not enter the building, even while hearing the sound of gun fire from within the school. Just like everyone tuned to network television that day, I saw and heard The Jefferson County Sheriff, in no uncertain words, admit he did not order his men in because he “didn’t want them to get hurt.”
(2) From a personal email to the author in response to my published questioning of the actions of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s comments following the Columbine tragedy. Identifying the Chief who wrote the email would serve no purpose.
(3) U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics: https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/cfoi.pdf
(4) The movie version had slightly different wording that included the character’s name, Frank Miller. Not to offend persons of that name, the wording was changed for the highly-successful recorded version made popular by singer Frankie Lane. The revised wording used in this article is quoted here: https://genius.com/Frankie-laine-high-noon-lyrics
(6) Chief Deputy Christopher Hodges, Brown County Ohio Sheriff’s Office, 5 Jan 2022.
(7) American Police Officers are NOT the enemy; nor are they hand-holders, social workers, jack-booted-thugs or heroes. However, evil-doers may deem them the enemy; they may become hand-holders when comfort is needed or social workers when helping the indigent and even jack-booted-thugs when breaking down doors to protect us from evil doers … and when heroic acts are required, they’ll be there. As to the reference to G-d; He is on the face of our currency, part of our Pledge of Allegiance and is always an option in oaths of office or court testimony.
(8) The recent criminal conviction of a LEO (https://www.cnn.com/2021/12/23/us/kim-potter-trial-thursday/index.html) for mistakenly – in the heat of the moment – using her firearm when she meant to deploy her taser might have resulted in a not-guilty verdict had her attorney stressed her action was no different than a LEO deploying stop sticks or the Precision Immobilization Technique that unintentionally causes death to a criminal suspect or other innocents.