I am a retired Maryland police officer and currently serve as the manager of a police training unit. I have been in law enforcement for 43 years and proudly wore a uniform for about 28 of those years. Most of my police career was in patrol with some time in community services. I also serve as the chair of the Fallen Heroes Committee and have done so for the past 13 years.
In past years, when I facilitated and spoke at Fallen Heroes ceremonies, I read poems, testimonials, and talked about some of our heroes: this included Officer Frank Whitby of the Baltimore Police Department, whose heroic actions in April 1974 inspired me to become a police officer, and my friend Corporal Ted Wolf of the Maryland State Police, who was gunned down during a traffic stop in March 1990.
I stopped doing that this year. To me, being a cop is the greatest profession in the world. Whether your beat is in a small town or a large metropolitan city, the men and women who put on a uniform do it for the same reason, TO PROTECT AND TO SERVE! As corny as it may sound, it is the truth. It’s always been that way. From Constable Darius Quimby of the Albany County New York Constable’s Office, who was stabbed to death making an arrest Jan. 3, 1791, to Deputy Sheriff Troy Chisum of the Fulton County, Ill., Sheriff’s Office, gunned down responding to a battery and disturbance call on June 25, police officers put their lives on the line daily. In return, they ask very little.
No one will ever get rich in our profession. There are few accolades, certainly nothing like those in Hollywood or pro sports receive. No notoriety, unless something bad happens – then the publicity comes. When this happens, I think of Paul Harvey. For those who don’t remember or know Paul Harvey, he was a radio broadcaster and the son of a police officer. His father was killed in the line of duty when Harvey was only 3 years old. Years later, Paul Harvey created the narrative “Policeman,” in which he states, “Less than one half of one percent of policemen misfit the uniform. That’s a better average than you’d find among clergy!”
If Harvey were alive today, I believe he would be saddened and angry at the way some folks talk and write about the police and how they are sometimes portrayed on social media and in some news broadcasts. The FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted summary for 2018 was released a short time ago. Last year, 55 officers were feloniously killed. Eleven of those officers were ambushed. That’s an alarming 20 percent! In 2016, there were 17 ambushes. In fact, I write this on the third anniversary of the ambush of five officers in Dallas on July 7, 2016. This is but one incident of 38 ambush-style murders of police officers since 2015. In spite of all this, every day more than 850,000 men and women will put on that uniform and “hit the streets.”
The climate has got to change. Just a few days ago we had the Starbucks incident in Tempe, Ariz. Almost daily someone will say to me, “I bet you’re glad you retired.” Parents of young officers share their concerns with me about the fears they have for their child’s safety. My wife tells me daily, “I’m so glad you are off the road.”
The current environment is shocking, but not new. It occurred in the ’60s and ’70s and strides were made that reduced the tensions. It can be done again. I’m not saying there’s a simple and quick cure available, but I believe there is a common-sense approach. Dialogue between police officers and communities must begin again. I’m not talking about an organized event between command staff and community leaders; I’m talking about conversations between beat officers and community members. Don’t get me wrong, organized events are great. However, I believe a lot more will be accomplished when beat officers and community members interact and a trust is developed.
The “human side” has to come out. We have to show that police are caring human beings and a part of the community. Young folks have to be taught and see that police are friends, helpers, allies, safe to approach, not someone to fear. Parents, clergy, educators, politicians, media and, yes, the police have to spread this message. It’s a simple message that has been done before and can be done again. It will take time, there are barriers to overcome, but I believe it will work.
We don’t have to “reinvent the wheel.” There are many established programs that police departments have adopted and are successful. My old agency has a “Coffee with a Cop” program where officers make themselves available to community members to talk every month. The program has gone national with community members and coffee shops hosting “Coffee with a Cop” across the country.
Programs like that help lessen incidents like we saw in Tempe, Ariz. There are numerous other programs out there, also. Traditional programs such as “Shop with a Cop” that occur around the holidays every year geared toward needy youth, National Night Out held every summer, Neighborhood Watch, citizen police academies, Explorer programs, DARE, GREAT, other school programs, Special Olympics – and I’m just scratching the surface. A lot of agencies have also created specialized units to deal with multicultural issues, mental health issues, quality of life issues and senior citizen issues, and have community service units to deal with specific issues as they arise. These programs are great and get positive reviews.
But I am a realist. We all know that some folks will not participate in these organized events or buy into them. They just don’t trust the police. This is where the beat officer may make a difference. Most community policing programs state that everyone in the agency, no matter their assignment, is to practice and participate in community policing.
We have to get beyond looking at this as a “touchy, feely,” worthless PR gimmick. The National Crime Prevention Council study on community policing states that officers find that practicing this concept has made them more effective, made the job easier and safer, there is less litigation therefore careers are longer, and morale is better. Keep in mind the outreach to the community is never intended to jeopardize an officer’s safety. Officer safety is the No. 1 priority. As mentioned earlier, being more interactive in a positive fashion when it’s applicable makes the job safer. Engaging in conversation with residents on your beat, tossing a football or shooting baskets for a few minutes with a group of teens, stopping by a community picnic or Little League ball game while you’re working can make a world of difference. It shows the human side of an officer, shows you’re part of the community. Is it going to make everyone love the police? Of course not. Will it help relieve tensions and possibly create some trust? I think so. Will it happen overnight? No, in some cases the tensions and mistrust on both sides have been festering for a while and it will take some time to fix.
There are a lot of good people out there that want this tension to end. Let’s get it done.
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