To fight the unbeatable foe,
To run where the brave dare not go,
To right the unrightable wrong;
And I know, if I remain true
To this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest (1)
Policing by means of mandatory training, certification and the transiting from a trade to a profession was established during the 20th Century. Now, well into the 21st Century, these trained specialists are facing new challenges brought about by the proliferation of social media and its command of political, and public interactions. Though this powerful influence is testing old concepts involving tactics; the ethics and moralistic behavior of American police officers are not and never have been subject to variation.
The creation of Homeland Security, coupled with the threats of terrorist strikes, introduced a whole new level of law enforcement obligations that has put increasing pressure on America’s first line of defense. Not only do police officers have to continue dealing with the common criminal, handle domestic disputes, traffic accidents and other “regular” duties, but the new intensity of possible massive attacks is heavy on the mind. In addition, law enforcement officers (LEO) are being required to tender life-saving acts including the administration of specialized drugs to over-dose victims, all the while knowing their every act and utterance will be monitored by public and/or private sector surveillance methods. Added to all of this are back-of-the-mind worries of intentional, premeditated ambushes that significantly elevate stress levels.
Notwithstanding safety, the law enforcement community might be better off returning to primary duties of protect, enforce the law and keep the peace. Forcing additional non-lethal arrest tools or life-saving devices/drugs on the already over-trained and weighted-duty-belt only encourages more resistance from the non-law-abiding and those who have self-inflicted their own conditions. Burdening LEOs with secondary obligations as requisites due to society’s desires to make patrol officers social-workers and medical saviors reduces basic duty abilities and increases stress levels while increasing the possibilities of on-scene errors.
Stress is inversely proportional to efficiency
and directly proportional to risk.
CHANGE OF DIRECTION
Though courts have been hesitant to convict police officers of excessive force, this reluctance is changing as ubiquitous cameras continue to witness use-of-force by our LEOs. The conditions that contributed to this pattern may be a result of being overwhelmed by stress, complex responsibilities such as drug-abuser rescuer or perhaps training to a lower standard. Since the millennium, to be a police officer, almost no one is disqualified due to being obese, short, skinny and/or lack a superior physical strength and stamina. To compensate for these variations in a disparity of force compendium, all officers are trained to respond to the weakest-link level. In other words, they are trained to affect an arrest using the degree of force necessary by the puniest member of the force. Though ideological changes are socially and politically motivated; these critical problems remain: a) When microseconds count, death – either the perp’s or a cop – is only a split-second away. b) Criminals do not subscribe to society’s aspirations. c) The public struggles with these realities.
“Because they [criminals, per se] confront a social world
in which criminal activity is salient,
their views of the prestige of criminal
and conventional occupations may differ
from those of the general public” (2)
A MATTER OF SEMANTICS
Complications arrive with the definitions of words or phrases. Some have interpreted the notion that “police officers should never act in a cowardly manner” to mean cops must sacrifice their lives for the sake of not being labeled chicken. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a difference between sacrifice (purposely giving up one’s life) and duty (complying with a moral or legal obligation related to one’s occupation or position). An officer’s life is of no greater or lesser value than that of any other citizen. However, because of their unique duty they have agreed, by a sworn oath, to place their life – but not to the point of surrender – at risk. In a timely manner and short of suicide, a police officer is duty bound to place his or her life in jeopardy to protect members of society. The very nature of the police occupation is centered around perilous activity. If the work involved only taking reports, directing traffic and calling in a SWAT team when danger appears, the job could be done by social workers or clerks.
Being afraid is okay. Possibly the best definition of overcoming fear to perform one’s duty is found in the plot and theme song to the early 1950s movie, High Noon. Here, on his wedding day, the Town Marshall (played by Gary Cooper) learns a man he sent to prison is returning on the noon train. The officer is torn between leaving on his honeymoon, as planned, or staying to face the perp. His bride (played by Grace Kelly) begs her groom to give it up. She leaves without him as Tex Ritter wails the theme song – the watchwords of police officers of all time:
“I do not know what fate awaits me,
I only know I must be brave,
for I must face the man who hates me,
or lie a coward, a craven coward,
or lie a coward in my grave” (3)
The bride returns just in time to blow one of the gang members away to save her man, who then out-draws the ex-con. In real life sometimes the perp wins and sometimes the spouse doesn’t come back, but to a sworn police officer either one of those situations is preferable than being labeled a craven coward.
TYPES OF OFFICERS
When it comes to dealing with dangerous situations, there tends to be three types of police officers: Fool, Coward and Hero. Fortunately, the hero type overwhelmingly represents the American police ranks. In a small, treacherous minority are the others. Police officers carry firearms and less-than-lethal tools for two reasons: 1) For purposes of self-protection and, 2) To protect society. Ergo, since society allows police to carry these defensive instruments to facilitate the requisites of the job, it goes without saying that sworn officers are expected to use these tools to place themselves between danger and members of society when so required.
The Fool is one who temps fate by ignoring training procedures and expertise such as not wearing body armor or, for example, not notifying dispatch when stopping an armed robbery suspect. While apprehension of criminals is an end in and of itself, per se, only a fool attempts a collar at the expense of officer or members of the public’s safety. However, that is not to say that anything short of sacrificing one’s life in order to protect/save the life of one you are sworn to serve and protect is not part of the job. This is also not to say that bravado is the same as bravery. There is a difference.
The Coward is one who fails to institute a serious attempt to protect society due to fear or a mindset that equates personal safety over the moral and legal obligation to protect others. Officers failing to place themselves in harm’s way because of such a mindset are guilty of non-feasance at best or mal-feasance at worst. A coward is also one who flat-out ignores suspicious activity in order to avoid chancy confrontations. One of the duties of a Field Training Officer is to weed-out cowards from the ranks. Of course, if the FTO is a coward….
A POLICE OFFICER WHO DOESN’T BELIEVE
THAT COWARDICE IS A FATE WORSE THAN DEATH,
IS IN THE WRONG BUSINESS.
The standard that one may use deadly force if one believes they are about to be the victim of a lethal force assault is well established in law. This doctrine of self-defense applies to cops as well as civilians. Of course, this belief must be based upon something other than pure fear, such as the perp has a gun or a knife. Even then, being afraid the perp might use the weapon is not sufficient. There must be some overt action or non-action such as refusing to drop the weapon, that can only be interpreted as life threatening and immediate. Unleashing a hail of hollow-points without those qualifying conditions is the mark of a coward.
There have been far too many well-documented Rodney King (4) type beatings. These modern day “blanket parties” are acts of cowardice – actions of police officers who are in reality, cowards, trying to prove their bravery/toughness by acting aggressively when there is no chance, they will be hurt. Beating the sh-t out of some murderous scumbag might be the only punishment the perp will receive, but it is not, under any standard, an act of bravery. Besides, as justifiable as it might seem, police are only impowered to apprehend criminals – not inflict retribution.
The Hero is one who realizes an officer’s primary duty is to protect and serve the public. This American idol firmly believes they would rather be a dead hero than a live coward and would shun another officer who acted in a cowardly manner. However, this officer is not the fool inasmuch as he/she learns and practices safe tactics and procedures. American policing is the standard of the world, the epitome to which all others aspire. We didn’t get that way by unilaterally changing the rules of engagement for egocentric rationality.
The prudent-heroic persona should be the ultimate goal for officers. One can teach prudence to the heroic type person, but not the reverse. Heroism, like cowardice, is intrinsic and not readily learned. Self-preservation is inherent in all humans, though, unlike cowardice, it is not over-riding to the heroic type. Teaching self-preservation as a primary function goes against the grain of the heroic type.
Textbook ethics stuff is all well and good, but what happens in real life when a sworn police officer witnesses a fellow officer violate the law. Does the LEO arrest the offender? Tattletale to the supervisor? Adhere to the “blue wall of silence?” (5) Used to be the answer was: “It depends on the infraction.” If the violation wasn’t something major, like a class A felony and the public hadn’t witnessed it, then it was kept quiet or it was left up to a ranking officer. Problem was, just where do you draw the line? What infractions are actionable? Petty theft? Perjury? DUI? Violating a citizen’s civil rights because you were spit on? Turning your back, averting your eyes, not volunteering information are all acts of cowardice.
When it comes to police deviance there are two factors that determine the level of compliance: Peer pressure and trust. Peer pressure dates to grade school and is reprehensible when practiced by trained, sworn police officers who, by their very job description, are individuals. A person who is so mentally weak – cowardly – that he/she is compelled to go along with the illegal activities of others of his/her group, is not qualified to wear a badge. It’s one thing for a bunch of civilians to sneak off the work detail for a beer and an entirely different matter for professional – armed – officers to do the same.
Trust, in the form of reliance, is sometimes difficult to differentiate from trust in the sense of confidentiality. Confidentiality belongs to the “you ain’t sh_t if you’re not a cop,” “good ol’ boy,” “blue wall of silence ” schools. Not conducive to professional stature, this type of trust falsely conveys a belief that if an officer “covers-up” or keeps quiet about improper activity they can be trusted as backup when things get really scary. Professionals who stake their reputation on keeping their mouth shut when under a sworn oath not to, are not worthy of the honor of being one of “America’s finest.” Officers risking their back-up on a partner who supports the confidentiality mind-set may wind up receiving a perp’s projectile.
Trust in the form of reliance, conversely, is of extreme importance to the functioning of any police agency. Cops, being individualists, sometimes need unquestioning reliance from their fellow officers. When an officer’s back is exposed during a lethal force or other dangerous situation, this officer needs to know that his/her partner – backup – can be counted on to defend him/her to the death. Being the kind of officer who has mastered the “blue wall of silence ” is not any indication of how that officer will respond under conditions of extreme stress. The only sure method of determining trust by reliance is the oldest application of trial by fire. Then again, an officer who is known for unquestioning honesty, would be the type of officer who couldn’t honestly, not take risks to cover your backside.
POLICE OFFICERS ARE IN THE BUSINESS OF
BRAVERY, HONESTY AND INTEGRITY.
THIS IS THEIR STOCK-IN-TRADE, FORTE’,
SIGNATURE, PERSONA, IDENTIFICATION
AND WHAT DIFFERENTIATES THEM
FROM OTHER PROFESSIONS.
When one police officer violates this trust, this code of morality, all are tarnished. Adherence to or practice of any form of “blue wall of silence ” is counter to the code of honesty that is part of each officer’s sworn duty – an existence for being. The trust each LEO has in fellow officers must be based on the proposition that truth, not cover-up or silence, will save their career. For a police officer or anyone with sworn obligations, justice trumps injustice. Each law enforcement officer stands as society’s temporary mortal caretaker.
It took the Columbine tragedy (6) to raise the question as to the function and strategy for first responders. Up to that point, but with the best of intentions, many police trainers, in an attempt to save officer’s lives, had been teaching a mind-set that equates to protect yourself first – don’t take chances – suicide in not in your job description. In response to the publicity of this tragedy, one police chief wrote: “Most officers have families, just like everyone else. Their main goal is to get home safely at the end of each shift, and I agree with that philosophy 100 percent” (7). Police officers are not “just like everyone else” they are the only ones with a sworn duty to protect “everyone else“. “[T]o get home safely” might be a great concept for sanitation workers or lawyers, but contrary to what this top cop espoused: the “main goal” is to ensure that those the police officers are swore to protect “get home safely”. There is no mandate that any officer should be expected to sacrifice their life, but it does mean there are certain essential risks that come with the badge and take precedent over the desire “to get home safely“. To put it on a more personal level: suppose you’re caught in a firefight; what “main goal” would you expect of your backup?
Today, after much reflection, we are back to the original objective of law enforcement – training to confront the situation. Finally, it’s a complex world and maybe we should be restricting our training to the basics. Expecting LEOs to be social workers, medics and OD saviors might be putting too much stress on those charged with enforcing the law with lethal force.
The terroristic assaults of 9-11-2001 evidenced true acts of heroism: two naval officers “…turned against the flow of people fleeing to safety and headed toward what appeared to be the point of greatest destruction” (8). At risk to their own personal safety and though severely injured, these officers were responsible for saving lives. This is what America is all about – duty and honor in the face of death. It is also about the responsibility of the citizens to place physical ability over physical size when it comes to carrying out law enforcement functions.
Those with a sworn duty to protect must never stray from the standard to shield the public first and accept the reality that placing oneself in harm’s way and sticking to the truth regardless of the consequences is part of the job. United States citizens are unique insofar as they intrinsically believe they are secure in their persons and places because America’s Finest will not ignore their heroic duties and always act in the most ethical of ways. All LEOs, whether federal, state, local, military, airport, railroad, _____, share one commonality: A profession that represents the highest level of ethics.
Chuck Klein is former police officer, licensed Private Investigator (ret.), active member of International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) and author of: INSTINCT COMBAT SHOOTING, Defensive Handgunning for Police; LINES OF DEFENSE, Police Ideology and the Constitution and other books, columns and articles. Additional information and e-mail contact is available on his web site: www.ChuckKleinAuthor.com
(1) The Impossible dream (The Quest). Lyrics excerpt from the Broadway show and film: The Man of La Mancha, 1965, Joe Darion https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Impossible_Dream_(The_Quest)
(2) The Prestige of Criminal and Conventional Occupations: A Subculture Model Of Criminal Activity, American Sociological Review, Vol. 57, No. 6 (Dec., 1992), pp. 752-770 http://faculty.washington.edu/matsueda/Papers/Prestige.pdf
(3) The movie version had slightly different wording that included the character’s name, Frank Miller. Not to offend persons of that name, the wording was changed for the recorded version, made popular by singer Frankie Lane. This revised wording is the version quoted here. https://genius.com/Frankie-laine-high-noon-lyrics
(4) Rodney King was the victim of a brutal beating, caught on video camera, in March of 1991. The four LAPD officers charged in state court were acquitted by a jury. This led to the riots in the spring of 1992. Two of the officers involved were later convicted in Federal Court of violating King’s civil rights and were sentenced to prison. https://www.cnn.com/2013/09/18/us/los-angeles-riots-fast-facts/index.html
(5) An unwritten rule in police circles is that a fellow officer will not rat-out, tell or report illegal and/or wrong acts committed by a fellow officer. https://www.thefreedictionary.com/Blue+Code+of+Silence
(6) There were many investigations (available via a Google search) into the tragic mass shootings by two students at Columbine High School in Columbine, CO on 20 Apr 1999. The first responding LEOs did not enter the building, even while hearing the sound of gun fire from within the school. Just like everyone tuned to network television that day, I saw and heard The Jefferson County Sheriff, in no uncertain words, admit he did not order his men in because he “didn’t want them to get hurt.”
(7) From a personal email to the author in response to my published questioning of the actions of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s comments following the Columbine tragedy. Identifying the Chief who wrote the email would serve no purpose.
(8) Smithsonian Magazine, September 2002 issue.