The Need for Empathy and Understanding for Our Police
The role of the police is to protect and serve. The police are responsible for ensuring the safety and security of everyone. Their job is to aid all who are in need of assistance.
Being a police officer is among the highest forms of public service. It is a position of trust. As representatives of our system of justice, they are sworn to uphold the letter and spirit of the law. They must act with honesty, courtesy, professionalism, and respect.
Serving as a police officer can be very rewarding. But it has never been an easy job. It can be unpredictable, dangerous, and violent. It is filled with pressure and stress. Due to the increasing threats from guns, drugs, organized and “lone-wolf” terrorism and "active shooters," the police officer’s job has become even more demanding and complicated.
Policing has been described as one of the most difficult jobs, performed under the most trying of conditions, often at the worst possible of times. The essence of the job is dealing with ambiguity, tension and violence--all at the same time--and still making the right decision.
Police officers not only are expected to solve crimes, arrest criminals, and aid victims—they are expected to prevent crimes and injuries before they occur. They are required to risk their own safety in order to protect us.
Without advance warning, dangerous situations arise. As a result, many officers lose their lives or are seriously injured in the line of duty. The police must run towards danger - not away from it. For police officers, there are no “routine” encounters. Every situation is potentially dangerous. All police officers know this fact, and all citizens should be aware of it as well.
The police must stay extremely cautious and protective of their own and the public’s safety. Safety becomes “job #1” from an officer’s first day of training. Many police procedures are intended to maximize the safety of the officer and the public. For this reason, they can seem rude, offensive or unfriendly—especially to citizens who are not familiar with police practices. For example, even if someone just wants to ask a question, officers must still maintain a serious face and keep their distance until they are certain that there is no risk of confrontation or injury.
Being a police officer is a 24-7 responsibility. The police must answer all calls for help and respond to all kinds of danger. Even if “off-duty”, a police officer must still respond when needed to crime-scenes and emergencies.
Police officers carry a gun for a reason. Their jobs are dangerous. They are trained to use necessary force in order to protect others, as well as themselves. Often, they must patrol in high-crime areas where some people are illegally armed and hostile towards the police. They are trained to see danger everywhere.
While they are always armed with a gun, the police are trained to use words as their main “weapon”. In the vast majority of cases, their voice persuades people to comply with the law, not cause harm, and remain calm when there is violent conflict.
Officers must be able to understand many different people and many different situations. They must use their powers of perception, deduction, and reasoning to quickly determine what is happening and what must be done. Decisions must be made quickly. Lives often hang in the balance.
Every day, police officers save lives, quiet fears, and preserve the peace. They are often the “first-responders” to crime scenes, accidents, and medical emergencies. They must make arrests, quickly comfort victims, administer first aid, preserve evidence, identify witnesses, and stabilize highly emotional moments—often at the same time.
Their job regularly involves ensuring that bad situations do not become worse. They must keep people away from dangerous situations and maintain order among large and sometimes angry and panicked crowds.
Depending upon the situation, police officers may not always have the time to explain their actions or to be polite in their questions and commands.
In the ordinary course of their duties, police officers will see terrible cruelty, conflict, and harm. There is much tragedy and sadness in life. Over the course of their career, officers witness events that few of us ever see—or would wish to. Often unspeakable crimes are committed against the most innocent and least protected of our citizens. Too often, there is no reason or explanation for the crimes that are committed—only devastation in their aftermath.
Being a police officer therefore is not just a job. It defines who you are. The job impacts you physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Many crimes are traumatic and unforgettable. They can inhabit an officer’s daily thoughts and nightly dreams—often for a lifetime. Within a single day, officers may respond to a rapid succession of tragedies. The trauma and stress of being a police officer has even been likened to what soldiers experience during wartime.
As a police officer, you are expected to serve and protect our most challenged communities. Every day the police "walk the beats" ravaged by poverty, unemployment, broken families, guns, violence, addiction and mental illness. They do so without the "backup" to repair these problems - or even offer the prospect of hope. There is no 911 for the causes of crime - only its effects.
Officers grieve when people are harmed. Many remain haunted about “what might have been”. Individually and as an institution, the police are highly critical of themselves when they make mistakes or accidentally cause harm. They own the lasting burdens of guilt and regret. They also suffer deeply when they lose one of their own. It is for this reason that great attention must always be paid to the mental—as well as physical—health of our police.
Policing can be particularly difficult because officers must often confront people who—because of anger, desperation, mental illness, and addiction—are not thinking or acting rationally. These moments can be highly unpredictable, volatile, and can go terribly wrong. We owe it to our police - and ourselves - to make sure that they receive the best situational training and resources.
Notwithstanding their best efforts, police officers are only human. They must make split-second decisions where citizens' and their own lives are at stake. Sometimes they make serious mistakes about people's actions and intentions. They may act too quickly or too slowly. They may use weapons and force mistakenly—or fail to do so—at their own and others’ peril.
The police know all too well that their judgments may be second-guessed and criticized. This is especially true in this time of transparency—when security and cell phone cameras often record interactions between the police and citizens and are shared with the press and throughout social media. A single cell phone video, from anywhere in the country, can now act as an indictment against all police officers.
Being a police officer means that you are expected to be right thousands of times during your career—and never to be wrong, not even once. Police officers must live with their split-second decisions for a lifetime.
Every day—for many reasons—officers must ask themselves: Why do I continue to risk my life and reputation? They are constantly looking over their shoulders. Nonetheless, they cannot be afraid to do their job.
Police officers are both glamorized and demonized by the press, social media, and popular culture. The swings in public perceptions of the police can be sudden and extreme. In reality, the police are human—capable of acts of great heroism, as well as fatal flaws and mistakes. No different from all of us, they bring to their jobs their own life experiences, fears, faults and prejudices—as well as those of their colleagues. That is why every police force has an oath and code of conduct that all officers must follow—and should provide extensive and updated training.
Unfortunately, within every police force, there are “bad actors” who betray their badges by engaging in corruption, criminality and the abuse of power. It is no less the job of the police to police their own and root out suspected wrongdoing. Local District Attorneys, the US Department of Justice, public defenders, the ACLU, community leaders and personal lawyers have also been essential to ensuring the integrity of how the police are policed.
It is important to remember, however, that the overwhelming number of our police officers work hard every day to ensure that they are following the law and deserving of our trust. They know that their job is to honestly serve and protect — and to treat everyone with fairness, respect and courtesy. In a democratic society, effective policing requires the assistance and commitment of its citizens. This bond of partnership is essential.
The police understand that the trust of the people is hard earned over long periods of time — and quickly destroyed within single moments. Like few other professions, the police understand that close scrutiny and harsh criticism are the constant companions of the job. For this reason, the training and oversight of our police must remain open to new ideas, approaches and reforms.
Having a police officer in your community should be a source of great comfort and security to you and your family. They are there to provide you with protection and assistance. Hopefully, the police will earn your trust and respect—and you will understand their service and sacrifice. You and your family should want to greet and call upon the police. And they should want to greet and call upon you.
There should be many reasons to welcome and thank the police—and few moments, if any, to regret their presence.