During a recent conversation with several other veteran officers of various police ranks, a debate arose regarding the most important overall trait for the 21st century American police officer. Opinions initially diverged slightly, with some officers advocating the need for humility, some for integrity, and still others advocating an unwavering moral compass as a directing force for officers. It was difficult to argue against any of these foundational, righteous, essential traits, but another opinion eventually rose to the surface. The quality that ultimately won the debate was courage.
We all eventually agreed that courage as an essential trait is nothing new for professional police officers. Officers have always had to face uncertain, troubling, or even terrifying situations on a regular basis. Whether a lawman in the Wild West, staring down murderous outlaws on a dusty street, a 1920s rural deputy chasing bootleggers along mountain roads, or a present-day undercover narcotics detective breaching a door during a no-knock search warrant, physical courage and the ability to override the natural inclination toward safety and self-preservation has always been a keystone attribute for the law enforcement officer. Why is that even more so true today?
In the past decade, American law enforcement officers have come under extremely intense psychological, emotional, spiritual, and even physical assault. In days gone by, a police officer, by simple merit of the profession, was given a default benefit-of-the-doubt by the majority of citizens. Most parents would gush with pride as their young children espoused a desire to grow up to become a police officer. Juries would generally trust the word of a deputy, and certainly in contrast to the suspect with a lengthy criminal history. Those days are, for the most part, gone.
The American law enforcement officer is now continually scrutinized over his every utterance and facial expression, often in the public sphere of the Internet. Officers are viewed with disdain and unmerited distrust due to their chosen profession, and derided by the radical anti-police subculture which permeates social media. Officers are frivolously sued in civil court after failing to meet unrealistic expectations in their professional capacity, and their livelihoods and public reputations hang in the balance. Officers are mocked and slandered by anonymous Internet detractors, or even in the once-admired mainstream media. This makes officers anxious while on-duty and driving along city streets, where they are sometimes ambushed. With this new onslaught of destructive forces leveled against officers, agents, deputies, and troopers, the absolute demand for courage has become crystal clear.
New recruits need courage to choose a career that is so disparaged and mocked. They will need the moral strength to stand tall against the protests of their relatives and friends over their choice of direction. Recruits and cadets also need the courage to still believe in the nobility of the calling of law enforcement, against all the allegation of those who despise law enforcement.
Front line officers need the courage to do the job, day in and day out, and face those physical risks that the majority of citizens cannot imagine actually exist. Officers must valiantly go into the dangerous neighborhoods, conduct the vehicle stops, be the first through the doors during search warrants, chase the violent offenders, and face the unknown over and over during every shift. They must also summon the courage to continue to assertively, proactively patrol, fully realizing that their motives and intentions may be publicly questioned, dismantled, second-guessed, and attacked on the evening news.
On a secondary, but equally essential level, courage is necessary more than ever before for law enforcement spouses. Our supportive, selfless partners need robust courage to send their loved ones off daily into the unknown, while trusting the internal administrative processes to protect their families financially and legally.
First-line supervisors also face even more complex challenges. They will require courage to embolden and inspire their young officers to stay assertive. Many times veteran supervisors have weathered difficult storms, both professionally and personally during their careers and have lost some of their idyllic aspirations to go out and save the world. They have oftentimes had front-row seats to watch officers metaphorically chewed up and spit out by their administrations, by city governmental influences, or by the misguided need to influence public perception.
Against all of these caustic influences, street-level supervisors require courage to constantly energize their officers forward. First-line supervisors must fearlessly lead by example by working alongside their troops in the streets, going toward the dangerous or ominously unknown situations, and demonstrating by their behavior the inherent value of doing the right thing, regardless of the possible hazard or liability to oneself. Street-level leaders must also have courage to accept an astounding amount of professional legal liability, as they are responsible for the actions of the dozen officers under their guidance.
Finally, courage is crucial for law enforcement administration, command staff-level officers, chiefs, and sheriffs. Just as officers need courage on the street to fight crime, administrators should summon courage in the hallways and conference rooms to beat back the cancerous political correctness that often undermines public safety. Regrettably, valid stories abound of less-courageous law enforcement executives sacrificing the career of a subordinate on the altar of ignorant public dissent, all in an effort to prolong or even bolster their own careers.
These story lines should not exist. Chiefs must summon the courage to stand tall against ill-informed, and often malicious city councils and mayors, even to the detriment of their own possible career advancement. Sheriffs require courage to speak forthrightly to their citizenry and voters, in and out of election season, without consideration of their own professional longevity. Chiefs and sheriffs must declare the truth in their professional capacity, loudly, and without apology, disregarding the effect on their job approval rating within the community or with their governing bodies. They must be courageous to speak out publicly in defense of their maligned officers, in clear and certain opposition of rampant anti-police vitriol.
An unfortunately common opportunity for chiefs and sheriffs to publicly show their support for their officers is in the immediate aftermath of officer-involved shooting incidents. During the initial media coverage, police executives are called on to make a statement to local reporters. Once the initial internal investigation reveals no grievous or negligent errors by the officer, chiefs need the courage to overtly state their support for and trust in the officer. A non-committal published statement such as “While all the details are not out, it appears our officer acted appropriately” is extremely important for morale, both for the involved officer and the department at large. These few words, spoken in the public arena in support of an officer, are incredibly powerful for an agency. A public statement such as this will undoubtedly draw criticism from the raucous anti-police minority, however, courage is the antidote to such madness.
Courage has always been a necessary prerequisite for the professional law enforcement officer in the United States. In recent years, unfortunate deterioration in the public support for officers has become the norm, overt cop-hating has become an acceptable sport, and a renewed need for unbridled courage has become evident. From the newest recruit to the seasoned police chief, courage has never been more necessary for those within our chosen profession. Build it within yourself. Surround yourself with those with similar values. Inspire courage in those officers you lead. We will all be better for it.
Lt. Kory Flowers is a 20-year veteran of law enforcement who serves with the Greensboro (NC) Police Department. Flowers trains law enforcement officers nationwide on various subversive criminal groups, leadership, and tactical communication.