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The State of American Law Enforcement - A Love-Hate Relationship

Most people only meet an officer when they are arrested, questioned, or cited. That makes it hard for them to like cops.

April 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

Meeting the high expectations to which people hold police officers is a tall order. To do so an officer must fix any problem immediately, including longstanding relationship and substance abuse issues. The officer must also utilize high-tech tools to find and examine evidence even for minor crimes, not speak in any way harshly, and leave even a person who hates anyone in uniform with a smile.

Given the astonishingly high standard that Americans expect of their cops, it's surprising that most people have a positive view of law enforcement. The profession even ranks among the top 10 most prestigious in a recent Harris poll, with 46 percent of respondents conferring law enforcement very great prestige and 27 percent considerable prestige.

More specific officer traits also garner praise. In a 2006 Gallup poll almost half of Americans rated the honesty and ethical standards of police officers as high. In a 2005 Harris poll, an even higher percentage of Americans rated their communities' police officers highly for quick response, not using excessive force, being helpful and friendly, and being part of the community.

Not too bad, especially considering that sometimes it seems police officers are ranked just below lawyers and ambulance chasers in profession popularity.

New York-based ABC reporter Richard Esposito agrees that the public's perception of police is good and has in fact improved in his 27 years as a journalist. "It's had to do with reforms, sensitivity training, and the diversity of police forces across the country," he says.

So what about the percentage of people who don't hold police officers in high regard?

Despite the favorable numbers, most contacts police officers make are with people they must arrest or reprimand. Such people are inherently negatively disposed to officers. "Obviously, it's usually the people committing the crimes who don't respect us," says Officer Michael Pecha of the Omaha (Neb.) Police Department.

Blue People

To be sure, not everyone has a positive view of law enforcement. And much of this feeling stems from the situations surrounding people's interactions with the police. Whether the recipient of a speeding ticket, a suspect, or a victim of a crime, seeing that blue uniform usually means something is wrong.

Even those who respect police officers might feel uneasy around them. Some are afraid that they could be treated unfairly because of stories they've heard. For others, the mystique surrounding the uniform and the badge, along with the requisite authority, is simply too foreign. No matter a person's opinion of police, an invisible barrier separates members of law enforcement from the uninitiated.

"Some of my friends just don't treat me the same," admits Officer Raymond Gallardo of the Des Moines (Iowa) Police Department. "They're still friendly; they're still my friends. However, there's a little difference and I can't really put my finger on what that difference is."

Immediately after 9/11, Americans had an exceptionally favorable opinion of police officers, seeing them as brave rescuers who risked life and limb to bring citizens to safety. Yet police were still second to firefighters in the outpouring of support. Now the 9/11 effect has long since faded from public memory, and most police officers have no illusions about their place in society.

"My brother told me, 'If you want everyone to love you, join the fire department. If you want half the people to love you but half the people are going to hate you, go ahead and be on the police department.' So I knew what I was headed for," says Pecha of Omaha PD.

Law enforcement requires cracking down on those who break the law. This inherently creates opposition, if not outright enemies. People who have never worn the badge can never truly understand what it is to be a police officer. Sometimes this lack of understanding leads to unrealistic expectations. Other times it leads to outright hatred for anyone in uniform.

"We're members of a blue minority group and we're never going to be completely understood except by other blue people," says Joseph Wambaugh, former LAPD officer and author of fiction and non-fiction about law enforcement. "It just isn't something that we sit around stewing about. It's the price you pay when you enter this club."

Police officers do talk about their interactions on the job, but such talk is usually limited to telling more universally appealing humorous stories at parties. Not everyone appreciates cops' requisite gallows humor, and more poignant anecdotes often involve realities of the job that the average person cannot and does not want to fully understand. Officers themselves can't dwell on the negative aspects of their job too often or they couldn't keep on doing it.

The CSI Effect

The general population doesn't understand what it takes to do police work, although they might mistakenly believe they do. A proliferation of movies and television shows that play fast and loose with the truth to make the job seem more enticing to viewers has played its part in this confusion.

Popular crime show "C.S.I." and its spinoffs set in New York and Miami would have people believe that every police force has at its disposal high-tech gadgetry to solve every crime, as well as a team of experts to follow each case through to its quick and satisfying conclusion. Loyal TV viewers often expect the same from their local cops.

Some even go out of their way to "help" solve the crime a la Gil Grissom. "I've been on calls before where evidence was left behind, and the person who called the police had everything laid out like they would on TV, marked with little pieces of paper nearby," says Officer Raymond Gallardo of the Des Moines (Iowa) Police Department. "It wasn't that big of a crime. I wanted to laugh but I didn't. Maybe it was huge to them. You've got to respect that."

In other cases, victims of a crime are more demanding because of their misconceptions. When reality doesn't meet fantastical expectations, citizens take their frustrations out on officers. "It's a nightmare," says Patrol Officer Jeffrey Petkac of the Cleveland (Ohio) Police Department. "We call it the C.S.I. effect in Cleveland. Literally, people think that every policeman has a spectral analysis flashlight on his belt that can determine whether the killer wore soft-soled shoes or a tweed jacket. It's ridiculous."

Of course, not every agency has the resources of television crime fighters. But citizens don't always understand the realities of budget constraints and the fact that a more minor crime such as petty theft is not as high on the priority list as say a rape or murder. Officers have to just grin and bear it. Even when their skills as professionals are called into question.

What really irks Petkac is when people spend hours analyzing a decision he had to make in a split-second. He likens such talk to Monday morning quarterbacking. "My job, my profession, and one other—professional coach of a sports team—are the only professions in the world that everyone knows how to do better than us."


When citizens are truly ticked off they file formal complaints, the bane of many a cop's existence. These can go nowhere or lead to suspension, firing, or criminal charges.

As an example of the changing times, one police officer was recently indicted for killing bystanders while chasing a speeder, something that would have been seen as an unfortunate but unavoidable result of the job in years past.

"I think there are a lot more formal complaints that require investigation, and that puts fear into cops," says Wambaugh. "They're afraid they could be seriously disciplined for infractions that probably wouldn't have been considered infractions in my day."

Rich Rivera, training director of the Police Complaint Center, was a police officer himself for six years. He now spends his time taking citizen complaints, investigating complaints, and training law enforcement agencies how to facilitate the complaint intake process. He also compiles detailed statistics of the complaints people report.

Demeanor complaints are the most common in New Jersey, where the Center is based. "People just want to be treated like a human being. They don't want to be berated, degraded, humiliated, demoralized," says Rivera.

The same holds true for police officers. They want to be respected. Sometimes a mutual sensitivity to disrespect finds officers and citizens at cross purposes. Sometimes it ends up in the courtroom and involves larger issues of civil liberties.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—public enemy number one for many cops—says that it takes on these issues of public complaint to promote transparency in law enforcement and champion citizens' privacy.

The ACLU says it seeks to improve law enforcement policies for citizens and thus claims to support police departments. However, its focus is on what citizens believe is wrong with law enforcement, which puts the organization at odds with officers who see it as more concerned with the rights of predators and less with the rights of their victims.

"What law enforcement does inherently implicates civil liberties, so any time that's the case you're going to have pushback," says Ray Gronberg, a reporter for the Herald-Sun newspaper in Durham, N.C., and adjunct faculty at the University of North Carolina Journalism School.

Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Thanatopsis @ 8/31/2014 8:34 PM

"not speak in any way harshly, and leave even a person who hates anyone in uniform with a smile."

Are you serious? You have either spent your entire life with some remote tribe or simply never interacted with a cop or observed them with anyone else.

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