19 somethin’ 

Country recording artist Mark Wills released the song “19 somethin’” in 2002. It was an homage to the ‘70s and ‘80s as seen through the eyes of a young man. A young man who grew up playing Pac-Man and watching “Star Wars.” Anyone hearing the song could harken back to those days, and  it would likely bring a smile to their lips.

OneOldCop remembers those decades. Some memories do bring a smile to the lips, but some memories are not smile inducing. Like police officers serving today, police officers in times past  faced so-called public outrage for one reason or another.  Times when politicians, political activists and others marched, shouted, accused, and threatened police officers and their families. Officers were accused of everything from planting evidence on innocent people to, you guessed it, systemic racism.

There is nothing new under the sun, as King Solomon said in the Bible.  Or, as Yogi Berra said more recently in his amusing and illustrative oratory. It is déjà vu all over again. In fact, one can make the case that this round of turmoil, unrest or whatever one wants to call it is just the latest cycle of attacks on law enforcement.  One can also make the case that the complaints, accusations and rhetoric are, for the most part, a form of oral flatulence.

The fact most of the people stirring the pot are full of stinky hot air does not mean there is not some truth to their claims. Cops are human beings. They have biases. They have various understandings of right and wrong. They have various understandings of legal reasoning, and various moral codes. Those differences can create problems.

So, other than letting off some of this writer’s stinky hot air, what is the purpose of this piece? The purpose is to attempt to bring a little common sense and historical perspective to this matter. One would hope there is still some room in the dialogue for a little common sense, even in the world of twenty-four hours news coverage, YouTube, Twitter, and the rest of the communication channels people have to exploit these days.

Cops and other law enforcement professionals have seen this sort of turmoil, accusation and unrest before. It is part of the job. Unfortunately, police officers, like most public service employees, have limited ways in which they can deal with these situations.

Individual officers can at times simply say it is not worth it and move on to another occupation. However, most officers are stuck. They have a career to which they have devoted years. They have car payments, mortgage payments, tuition payments, and families that expect to eat on a regular basis. They must find another way to cope with the problems, threats, accusations, and other issues. Some NYPD officers may have done exactly that.

At least one news source reported arrests in New York City have fallen dramatically since Mayor De Balsio decided to side with Al Sharpton and Eric Holder instead of the officers who protect his city. If that report is true, it could be for any number of reasons, but it is likely due to the fact that officers are going to resist placing themselves at risk for routine crimes.

Some readers may jump to the conclusion that this writer is doing his own bit of throwing cops under the bus with that last sentence. Nothing could be further from the truth! It is just a simple statement based on years of experience and observation.

The Eric Garner case was a low level crime.  A routine arrest that went horribly wrong. That can happen with any sort of contact. This writer has seen routine calls where no one would normally have been arrested turn into full-blown battles with officers and citizens being injured.

The first time this writer was assaulted while on duty was under circumstances that were very nonthreatening, until they weren’t. In another instance, this writer was forced to use non-lethal, but incapacitating, force against a man who decided to attack another officer for no clear reason.  In another case, an officer this writer trained and once supervised was forced to use deadly force against a subject. The contact started routinely and calmly.  It ended with the subject dead, the officer injured, and Internal Affairs investigating everyone involved in the matter.  In today’s world, at least two of these incidents might have turned into a media circus.

The truth that few wish to acknowledge is that law enforcement officer is the only nonmilitary public service job where the members of the profession leave for work every day knowing someone may attack them. Even military personnel do not regularly face daily risk of direct attack if they are not in a combat zone or hostile area. To one degree or another, police officers enter a hostile area every day.

Police officers have a sworn duty to take certain risks to protect the public and the community. In some cases, the risk is standing in the middle of a roadway directing traffic around an accident or other road blockage. At the other end of the spectrum, it could be the risk of facing an armed suspect who is fleeing a crime scene, or has been stopped before committing a crime. In between, officers place themselves between warring parties in family quarrels, bar fights, and other altercations. They may also crawl into a smouldering wreck to rescue a drunk who smashed his or her car into a bridge.

Police officers take calculated risks regularly to fulfill the responsibilities of their job. When the risks become too high, they will seek to reduce those risks. They can mitigate some risks through training, equipment, and tactics. Other risks are harder to control. When the factors an officer cannot control increase the officer’s risks significantly, he or she has only one course of action.  The officer must reduce the possibility of those factors coming into play.

Officer Darren Wilson could have avoided all the trouble he faced by simply letting Michael Brown and his partner in crime go on their way. After all, it was a relatively minor crime. No one was seriously injured, and there were witnesses. Detectives could have followed up on the robbery, filed charges, and arrested Brown later under more controlled circumstances. Officer Wilson could have done that, but that is not what he was sworn to do.

The NYPD officers could have ignored Eric Garner that day. They could have let him continue his low-level criminal activity, or they could have allowed him to walk off, get a warrant, and let someone else arrest him. That is not what they were sworn to do. In fact, if the officers in New York or Officer Wilson had chosen to reduce their risk by not doing their job, it is possible they could have been charged with some form of dereliction of duty.

Law enforcement has faced this dilemma in the past. Officers have been charged with reducing crime, until a Michael Brown or Eric Garner incident occurs. Then law enforcement is vilified by their civilian bosses, the citizens they work to protect, and activists who seek any excuse to turn one part of society against another. Accordingly, the officers do what they must to survive.

Response times go up. The number of contacts or arrests for minor crimes or suspicious circumstances go down. An officer cannot be faced with the decision Officer Wilson faced, if he simply overlooks the suspect, or slows his response time until the suspect can leave the area. Also, officers cannot be accused of racism if they do not place themselves in the position of having to arrest someone in an area with a large minority population.

Government agencies do not pay police officers enough for the officer to risk going to jail for doing his or her job. So, officers reduce their risks the only way they can.  Eventually, the lack of arrests or detentions impact the city’s bottom line or cause crime to increase.  Then the public outcry goes the other way.

Officers are then told to enforce the law vigorously.  In other words, officers can go back to doing their job. The problem is when each of these cycles is completed, the officers’ jobs are harder, and the criminals have more protections. It makes the next cycle inevitable and dangerous.

This writer can almost see King Solomon and Yogi Berra looking down from heaven shaking their heads sadly at our collective and continued stupidity.

© OneOldCop.com 2015

About S. Eric Jackson

See "About."
This entry was posted in Civility, Ethics, Law Enforcement, Police, Politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply