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The State of American Law Enforcement - 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.

July 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

Persecuted Patrol Officers

However important the patrol officer is deemed within the law enforcement community, he or she is without question its most recognized agent. Certainly, the patrol officer and his iconography—badge, helmet, and baton—are the most emblematic of the profession. And nowhere are such fixtures more prominent than in the editorial cartoons of the nation's newspapers.

When it comes to caricatured indictments, the patrol officer runs second to none. His is the shadowy effigy portrayed violating citizens' rights with flashlights, batons, and guns. It is an image that has been beaten into the public consciousness with the same zeal as the sins of some of our quick-to-pound forefathers who fostered the bias. From Eula Love to Malice Green, from Rodney King to others less famous, patrol officer/citizen contacts have been the flashpoints for lawsuits, civil protests, and riots.

These episodes have left many—particularly those in minority communities and with left-leaning sensibilities—with the impression that patrol work and police abuse are virtually synonymous.

In the aftermath of a Cincinnati police officer's criminal indictment, Glenda Pottorf of South Lebanon, Ohio, called the charges a slap on the wrist. "I think the family didn't get any justice for the death of their son," the 37-year-old factory worker said. "No offense to police officers, but I think they can kill you and get away with it. ... Cops can be murderers."

If Pottorf's reaction is typical of many in minority communities that still view police officers as little more than occupying armies, then the statements of one police labor union representative reflects the feelings of street cops who see themselves offered up as sacrificial lambs in federal charges of civil rights violations with increasing frequency: "Nobody has a problem with bad cops being prosecuted, but everybody has a problem with good cops being persecuted."

Treated Like a Stepchild

Persecuted or not, many patrol officers suffer from a sense of being unappreciated. And nowhere is that lack of appreciation more pernicious than when it's in-house.

Century Station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has one of the highest gang concentrations in the nation and the deserved reputation of being one of the department's "fastest" stations. It also has one of the faster turnover rates of patrol personnel.

A former Century deputy explained some of the stressors that come with working patrol at Century Station.

"I never knew when I was going to be home or when I'd get a good night's sleep," he reflects. "I was always going to court on my days off and could never plan anything around my family. Getting time off was nearly impossible and, on top of that, I was getting drafted to work overtime shifts that I didn't want to work, simply because the station was understaffed and things were always kicking off. I was stressed and getting irritable. It was putting my marriage in jeopardy."

The LASD deputy's sentiments are echoed in the words of a Dallas patrol officer who is currently in the process of making a lateral transfer to another law enforcement agency.

"Patrol is the bastard stepchild—anything that needs to be done gets dumped on us. We're always riding short. If there's an opening in a non-patrol spot they'll let a patrol officer go without backfill. Before long, you have multiple vacancies and those officers that remain are the ones that get stuck handling everything. They get depressed, morale gets impacted, and pretty soon things back up. Calls don't get answered for several hours, and arrests don't get made. It's no secret that Dallas has had the highest crime rate per capita of any major city in the U.S. for eight years running."

When asked why this might be the case, the officer pauses. "I don't know. But I do know this: Everything that's communicated to patrol seems to be negative."

He elaborates: "When word came down that the sheriff's department was going to assume the handling of traffic accidents on our highways, the department sent a memo to our officers. This memo had huge bold letters, all capitalized, and underlined—basically saying that we're not off the hook, we'd still have to assist on traffic collisions, if needed.

"It wasn't just this incident that told us that the command staff sees us as lazy. The police chief himself came to third watch at Northeast Station. He said he wanted an honest chat with the troops. But when the man didn't like what he was hearing, he got into a shouting match with a couple of senior FTOs on the watch and called one a 'lazy, do nothing' officer.

"He couldn't have misjudged the officer any worse—the man is the hardest working officer on the watch. And the chief just savaged him. Everyone knows what happened, and it shows how out of touch the chief is relative to patrol. But then, nobody wants to tell the truth in staff meetings. They just want to toe the company line. They're in a world of their own."

It would appear that for some agencies, patrol will remain in a world of its own, as well.

The Future

Patrol isn't for everyone. Frustrated with a new generation of officers that asks, "Why?" before complying with orders, many old timers wonder what the bitching and whining of the youngsters is all about. Increasingly sympathetic to decriminalizing certain laws, while wishing for harsher penalties for still others, the new guard is equally bewildered by the old.

Meanwhile, the success of each generation is evaluated differently from agency to agency, from station to station. The bean counters will continue to tally the numbers of citations written and arrests made. Administrators will look askance at the guy who has one more citizen's complaint than they feel comfortable with. And patrol officers will continue to wonder just how important he or she is in a world where his captain rarely appears at briefings and her chief is never seen.

But make no mistake about it: Patrol is where the rubber meets the road. It is the most visible component of law enforcement operations. As such, its best interests should be monitored by those who have been there and done that as opposed to those who have had but a cursory exposure to its nuances while on the administrative fast track.

There have been improvements. As noted, technology has helped streamline much of the officer's work, with the paranoia that attached itself to many implementations such as GPS and dash cameras having largely abated. Moreover, many agencies now have peer support groups and psychological counseling programs available for their patrol officers.

But while improved technology, medicine, and tactics have helped officers, such advancements have in some degree been offset by a society that has become increasingly inured to violence, accepting of it within virtually all segments of its population, perhaps none more than its officers. Perhaps that's why 2007 was one of the deadliest years the law enforcement community has experienced in decades.

It's been said that working patrol is as much an art as it is a science. Always respected, it commands commensurate attention and not just fashionable lip service. Having a mission statement is fine but, for a mission to be successful, law enforcement agencies have to give their patrol forces the tools necessary to carry out that mission.

For patrol to be a success, agencies will have to establish and maintain rigorous hiring and training standards, allocate sufficient personnel and logistics, offer competitive pay, and be willing to confront the community with sometimes unpleasant truths about itself.

This will require parity in discipline and not the firing of a lowly officer and the mere administrative transfer of a member of the command staff for the same offense.

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