Photo via Thomas Hawk (Flickr).
"You know I always got your back. I may be holding a knife and looking for a suitable insertion point but, I got your back nonetheless." — A Facebook "Friend"
It isn't always easy to know who's got your back. One sergeant recently noted that he'd known many cops who would go out of their way to back up fellow cops, not just in the field, but in-house. He'd also known quite a few sergeants that he could count on to speak up candidly on his behalf. Along the way, he'd even seen a lieutenant or two who had likewise gone to bat for a subordinate.
But, he noted, the higher one went up the food chain, the harder it was to find such stalwart examples. Willingness to do the objectively right thing came secondary, then tertiary, to doing what was politically prudent: not making waves. Heaven forbid that whatever the boot cop was going through might prove catching.
Those who fail to watch the backs of those who depend on them probably comfort themselves with the notion that they are in good company. Hell, no less than George Washington sold out Benedict Arnold, thereby precipitating Arnold's own betrayal of the American revolutionary cause.
If the willingness to leave one out to hang seems more manifest the higher one goes up the food chain, perhaps it's because that's often where the help is most desperately needed.
A former Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy who's now chief of another department related to me a conversation he'd once had with a high ranking LASD executive on such matters. The executive explained that with each promotion they cut off a little bit more of your nutsack until you basically had no balls.
While I like to think the story apocryphal, sometimes I can't help but wonder...
To be sure, there are administrators who have put themselves out on behalf of their subordinates.
One of the strongest administrators I ever knew-and I think it's safe to say the nutsack thing never entered the equation-was a female captain who took more than one unpopular stance against then L.A. County Sheriff Sherman Block. It cost her politically and took a toll on her physically, but she had the respect and affections of those who were fortunate enough to work for and with her. Years after her retirement, her name is spoken with deep respect among those who knew her.
Then there's the former Lakewood Station Captain who had the temerity to speak out on behalf of a deputy who had been wrongfully terminated in the aftermath of a justified shooting. In the short run, it cost him a promotion or two on Block's watch, but eventually the department did right by him.
Sadly, their examples are what make them conspicuous. For while a sheriff might not think twice about pulling strings to have a special investigation conducted on behalf of a political benefactor, one might reasonably wonder how strongly that man might go to bat for his troops, as opposed to parading them before cameras in a mea culpa grandstand for having fired more rounds than was deemed reasonable.
If there's been a saving grace to my own prickly nature, it's that it hasn't left me vulnerable to the vacillating courage of others. But more than keeping others at arm's length, it was recognizing whether or not they had someone else's back before worrying about whether or not they'd have mine.
I was hardly alone in my vigilance. Many cops routinely scout in-service sheets for the names of watch sergeants or watch commanders before deciding whether or not they'll show much initiative on a particular shift.
Among their concerns is whether or not the supervisor has a demonstrated prejudice against patrol personnel and might deem their officers more often than not guilty of whatever they are accused of. They make mental notes as to those occasions wherein these managers have shown backbone or remained conveniently mute on matters of principle that might be politically untenable to support. They file away the not-so-little things, such as whether or not their would-be savior has even been in a patrol cop's shoes long enough to possess the requisite empathy with which to evaluate an officer's actions.
They wonder if the sergeant is just as willing to invoke the "spirit of the law" with them as he expects them to practice it with others. Has he been party to the officer's decision-making process and willing to admit as much up front, and not just when faced with the inevitability of its discovery? Is he recognized as capable of standing up to his own peers when asked to act as a hatchet man on behalf of some wingnut who's got a hard-on for a subordinate? Is he capable of recognizing when a questionable act is due to an honest-to-God mistake and not something borne of malice?
Ironically, those most suspect are often the most demanding. They want traffic citations issued (but woe be unto the cop who cites the wrong person) and arrests made (but don't you dare use force). They say they trust your judgment, but send a sergeant to make sure all is in order. They give you marching orders, then reassign you when the articulated goals are met to some third party's dissatisfaction.
I'm the kind of guy who really wants to afford cops all the latitude necessary to do the job aggressively (in the best sense of the word) and safely. But I'm not naive.
That's why I hope the next time someone sends you out in the street with the promise that he's got your back you make sure their fingers aren't crossed behind their own.
Otherwise the only lumbar support you may find is when it's pressed up against the wall.
(And since I'm talking about those who have others' backs, I'd be remiss if I didn't close with this link to sheriffs who have the backs of their officers and their communities. If the thoughts that they communicate are embodied within their actions, these are the kind of leaders that America law enforcement needs.