In May the International Brotherhood of Police Officers (IBPO) issued a press release announcing its endorsement of Sen. John Kerry for president. Thanks to the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, the story spread across the country in a matter of minutes headlined, "Police Union Endorses Kerry."
The headline was accurate. The public's reading wasn't.
In an age when American political thought has been reduced to sound bites, the story was read by most of the public as "Police Endorse Kerry." This is an example of political shorthand, and it's one of the ways that you as police officers cease to be individuals.
The problem with political shorthand is that it's often just flat wrong. Let's consider the case of the IBPO endorsement of Kerry.
The IBPO is, at approximately 50,000 members, one of the largest unions representing police officers, and it did recently endorse John Kerry for president, reversing a 2000 endorsement for George W. Bush. That's the only germ of truth contained in the political shorthand "Police Endorse Kerry."
Of its 50,000 members, only about 15,000 members of the IBPO can be called cops; the remainder are corrections officers, emergency medical technicians, and other public safety personnel. This is significant because the total number of cops in the United States is estimated at anywhere from 750,000 to about 1.25 million.
Is 15,000 cops a significant sample for an accurate opinion poll? Well, perhaps. After all, 3,000 Nielsen families decide every week that the nation's favorite show is an overblown karaoke contest.
So if IBPO had polled its members to come up with its endorsement, then the political shorthand "Police Endorse Kerry" could be accurate. Except that's not how IBPO made the decision to endorse the Democratic senator. Instead, IBPO polled the 10 members of its executive board.
I spent most of my time in freshman political science preoccupied with the redhead two rows over, but even I can tell you that 10 out of 15,000 is not a significant sample. And we won't even talk about 10 out of 750,000, much less 10 out of 1.25 million.
OK. It's not my intention to slam IBPO. The union has every right to endorse a candidate on the recommendation of its executive board. And it bases its endorsement of Kerry on very real concerns. (For details visit www.ibpo.org.)
That said, I do have a problem with the way IBPO promoted its Kerry endorsement. The folks at IBPO aren't stupid and they knew that once they started papering the world with press releases the morons in the mainstream media would run with the story no questions asked and that the average American would read it as "Police Endorse Kerry," not "Police Union Endorses Kerry."
It's through this kind of political manipulation that everyday Americans come to the mistaken belief that all cops think alike. For example, you all support stringent gun control and you all favor the death penalty for anything more serious than a speeding ticket. These misperceptions that I have heard about cops come from a public that has misread reports on the political activism of police organizations.
In the last few years, I have personally spoken with or received correspondence from hundreds of you, and I can say with statistical validity that cops are as divided over the great issues of the day as anybody else. There is no monolithic "cop-think."
But law enforcement organizations promote cop-think because it helps advance their agendas. And the public swallows it and parrots it back as "all cops think this" or "all cops think that." And the truth is that all cops, just like all cab drivers, turret lathe operators, and neurosurgeons don't think alike. When the media and police organizations give the public any other impression, they diminish you and your profession.