As Americans watch their police officers throughout the country remember fallen peers during National Police Week, we should look for ways to develop a deeper relationship between the "server" and the "served." Helping to make our neighborhoods safer places to live can help reduce our officers' exposure to harm.
From a police perspective, departments and officers can embrace an empathetic model of law enforcement that enhances community policing. Agencies begin implementing it with the hiring process, develop it in the training function and continue it throughout an officer's career with a culture of professionalism and trust. We must care about those we serve and make going "above and beyond" the norm rather than the exception.
Consider the New York City police officer who bought a downtrodden man a new pair of boots in December during a cold snap. Empathic policing is the officer who drives down a street looking for bad guys but also contemplates how crime-prevention tactics could make the local playground safer for children. An officer may arrest a juvenile, and later follow up with the parents to check on the kid's well-being.
The officer does this because he cares, and realizes that keeping at-risk children on the straight and narrow will pay dividends later for the entire neighborhood. It will also make the officer's job safer. It's a style of policing I noticed in a peer who had some toy Hot Wheels cars on hand for boys he came across.
This model of policing doesn't focus on policies, mandates and standardizations. It instead flows from the Golden Rule and our nation's Judeo-Christian ethic that all men and women are created in God's image. It allows officers to arrest prostitutes while not acting haughty when speaking to them. It involves catching a burglar and wondering how his life would've turned out if he had a fatherless childhood mired in suffering, neglect, and abuse. Empathetic police work is doing a job that values justice and doesn't make excuses for criminal behavior but doesn't forget that we're all human and deserving of clemency when appropriate.
This model of police work isn't designed to make officers soft or drop their guard when dealing with people. Police work is a dangerous business, and officers must remain alert and firm. It's not a replacement for sound tactics and control measures designed to protect officers. An empathetic model can build a lifetime of trust that's a vital component for successful police work.
For those who are "served," supporting your police officers can take many forms. Holding us accountable and demanding professionalism are important steps. Elected officials ensure more transparency by purchasing cruiser cameras. More open communication channels with police leadership help complaints or problems get addressed swiftly.
Good pay and benefits that include attractive retirement plans for those who serve helps communities recruit bright and brave candidates. The old adage of "you get what you pay for" is applicable when trying to attract individuals who will risk their lives to protect you. And understand that police officers are human beings prone to the same mistakes and temptations as everyone else. When they error—especially with applications of force—it isn't necessarily an ingrained prejudice that caused it. They may have messed up under stress.
When the media puts a lot of focus on a particularly bad officer or department, the community must recognize that there are about 800,000 police officers in the country. The bad apples aren't representative of good law enforcement personnel.
By find more ways to work together, our public servants in blue and those they serve can begin to forge authentic long-term relationships of trust and confidence and make our country a model of public safety.
Tom Wetzel is a northeast Ohio suburban police lieutenant, SWAT officer, trainer, and certified law enforcement executive.