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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

High Expectations

Police officers are held to a higher standard than the average person. They can be not just criticized but sued for losing their cool, whether it be cursing or using excessive force. And considering the situations in which cops find themselves on a daily basis, maintaining a calm demeanor while simultaneously defending oneself from possible bodily harm can take its toll physically and emotionally. Cops see people at their best and their worst, but they must always show their best face, regardless of the circumstances.

Such high expectations have both positive and negative consequences.

"I think the public's criticism keeps us honest," says Gallardo of Des Moines PD. But in almost the same breath he admits that pressure to perform can take its toll. "There's a lot of stress involved in this job," he says, "and sometimes people can't handle that stress and because of that they do something wrong."

Bad cops do exist, and they should be disciplined. But Officer Marcus Benner of the Minneapolis Police Department worries that coming down too harshly on some officers could discourage them from doing their best. He's seen it happen. "It's sad to see a rookie, coming out of the academy all ready to go, one year later have all the air taken out of his sails," says Benner. "That's the saddest thing in the world when all they wanted to do was be a police officer and help the community."

The Police Complaint Center's Rivera concedes that when it comes to complaints, police officers are no longer given de facto benefit of the doubt, and that in fact the pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction.

"Years ago cops were gospel," says Rivera. "From my generation, under 40, if you were brought home by the police, [the question] was, 'What did you do?' or 'What did you say to the cop?' and now it's, 'What did the cop do to you?' I think there needs to be a balance."

For his part, Petkac is tired of people foisting responsibility for their troubles on the police. He recently had to respond to a domestic case. Because all domestic cases are given high priority, he and his partner arrived posthaste with lights and sirens. The urgent call turned out to be an 11-year-old boy tearing up his house because he was fighting with his mother. "That's not a police matter, it's a parenting issue," says Petkac.

More commonly, spouses call on the police when a domestic dispute arises. Long histories of physical abuse, alcoholism, and drug use often contribute to these altercations. Patrol officers can't possibly resolve such problems in one or even several calls. Yet they're often expected to do exactly that. They're set up to be the fall guy.

"If you've ever been to a restaurant where there are a lot of police, a parent will walk by and say, 'You better eat your vegetables or the police are going to take you away.' That hurts," says Petkac. "We are perceived as the bad guys."

There are ways to change the opinion of children and adults. It requires time and money, but in the end it's all about building credibility and gaining trust.

Turning the Tide

As pervasive as television has become in society, shows about police officers often have the power to affect people's views on law enforcement, sometimes for the better. Among the most popular and enduring police shows is Fox Television's "COPS." Its appeal doesn't end with the opening theme song "Bad Boys."

With its documentary style that follows officers on their patrol shift, "COPS" has shown viewers what a call is like from the law enforcement perspective. Not only has this view enlightened casual watchers as to the everyday goings on of police work, it has also helped bring new recruits into the ranks.

"Many police officers have told me they got into law enforcement because of the television show 'COPS,'" says show creator and executive producer John Langley. "Not a few, many."

Yet it isn't so easy to convince many detractors that law enforcement officers are out to help their communities.

Officer Benner of the Minneapolis PD prides himself on positively influencing citizens at an early age. As part of his agency's Police Athletic League staff, he coaches children as young as eight in basketball, baseball, and football. What began as a favor to a friend became a passion. He says he was hooked his first day as a volunteer.

"The best was that by the time one week of practice went by every kid on the team told me they wanted to be police officers," says Benner of his initiation into the Police Athletic League.

It wasn't easy convincing kids' African-American parents and neighbors to trust him, especially because he himself is African American. Some accused him of betraying their trust by essentially joining the enemy. But once they saw he seriously wanted to help children and others in their neighborhood, community members took his suggestion to help create change from within.

Now, they walk up to Benner and give him the names of recent high school graduates they would like to see join the police department.

Just seeing police officers in situations outside of patrol can help community members understand that they're flesh and bone, too. It's easier to hate a uniform than it is to hate someone you know personally.

"We're not out there trying to save the world," says Cleveland PD's Petkac. "If you are, you're kidding yourself. You're not going to save the world, but you might be able to save one person. You might be able to help one kid."

Keeping Pace with Media Technology

When it comes to winning people's hearts and minds, managing a police agency's image in the media is a whole different ballgame these days thanks to video cameras in cell phones, blogs, and YouTube. Today's cop and today's police agency is not only under the scrutiny of organized and professional news media but anyone who happens to have an axe to grind and pictures to back up his or her complaint.

Last summer one teenager videotaped an interaction with a veteran Baltimore police officer who got physical when the teen and his friends were caught skateboarding in a marked no-skateboarding zone and refused to leave. Almost a year later the video appeared on the Internet site YouTube. One of the teens and his mother were then asked to appear on "Good Morning America," where they decried the officer for his actions. The officer, who had no complaints on his record, was suspended without pay.

"That's the power of the Internet right now," says Rivera of the Police Complaint Center. "No longer are small towns and communities isolated from the rest of the world. Now they're making it to national news."

With the rapid pace of media reporting and individuals' ability to post their own videos and blogs online comes a tendency to show the public things out of context. But police departments are not new to the public relations game. They've just had to adjust with the times. "The important thing is we have even more media outlets nowadays than ever before," says newspaper reporter Gronberg. "Nobody has a monopoly on it."

What that means is that police agencies have to be quicker on the draw when trying to win the battle for public opinion.

Issuing statements as quickly as possible can help to alleviate tension about ongoing cases or cases of alleged police misconduct. Updated agency Websites that provide detailed contact information and showcase department involvement in the community also go a long way toward garnering public support and improving the way the public perceives its police.


In January 2008, POLICE Magazine launched a year-long article series focusing on the “state of American law enforcement.” If you’d like to read the other chapters, click on the links below.

Chapter 1: The Thinning Blue Line.  Law enforcement agencies nationwide are competing for a dwindling population of recruits.

Chapter 2: The Blue Mosaic.  Policies meant to diversify law enforcement agencies have changed police demographics and will continue to do so in the future.

Chapter 3: Teaching to the Test.  Does law enforcement training focus too much on qualifying and not enough on skills that can help you win fights?

Chapter 5: Can the Average Cop Thrive in the Age of Specialization?  The generalist cop is part of a dying breed, which means many of today's officers will need to excel at a specialty.

Chapter 6: Women Warriors.  Female police officers must walk a fine line between fitting in and making their own way in law enforcement.

Chapter 7: Working on the Front Lines.  The patrol officer is the backbone of American policing, but a lot of agencies don’t want to admit it.

Chapter 8: SWAT: Breaking the Mold.  Agencies nationwide model their tactical teams on LAPD SWAT. So what does it mean if that unit changes its policies to be more politically correct?

Chapter 9: Stopping the Next 9/11.  Improvements in intelligence gathering, training, and equipment give you a good chance of preventing the next attack and saving lives if it happens.

Chapter 10: Rules of Engagement. Today’s law enforcement officer is the best trained and best equipped cop in history, so why do policy makers think you have the judgment and intellect of children?

Chapter 11: Gangster Nation.  Big city street gangs have taken root in small town  America, bringing mayhem to Main Street.

Chapter 12: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't.  When a cop uses - or doesn't use - a less-lethal weapon in contemporary America, there can be hell to pay.

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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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