If you look back in history, the portrayal of law enforcement in the media was, for a long time, made with an eye towards the idea that even if one officer screwed something up, the profession was still (on the whole) responsible and worthy of the authority vested in them. The default assumption in the broad eye of the public was that officers were competent, honest, and trustworthy for the most part, with some exceptions.
Above all, however, was the general perception that officers, due to their role, were not considered to be “legitimate” targets, or were “hard targets” which it would be foolish to try to go after with violence in mind. To kill an officer was an offense against society and the concept of democracy, and so, for many years, it remained verboten among many in the criminal world. That, as we have seen, has now changed.
To understand why this shift has taken place, let’s first look at the traditional idea of a police officer and what they represent. By donning the shield, an individual becomes a guardian of their society – its people, their property, their freedom, and by extension, the values that that society holds to be important. (The most literal representation of the latter is the concept of law itself, which police are sworn to uphold and enforce.) Most people recognized the need for that role, and so respected the authority which came along with it — to act when needed to maintain the peace and order of a society, there must be a base of respect for that act and its legitimacy, or it is ineffective.
As a result, officers were considered by some to be almost superhuman, a representation of the best of us embodied in a police uniform and signified by a badge, a gun, and the air of authority which oftentimes made both symbols redundant. Fairly or unfairly, the standard was established in the minds of that public that police were therefore to be held to that superhuman status, and thus was born the expectation of perfection in every interaction which has now come to be nearly a universal constant, even though under both badge and uniform lies a human being who can, and does, make mistakes.
Ask most people what their own standard is for whether something is “done right,” and usually the answer “close enough” is what you’ll get – if not actually spoken out loud, then through the scope of their answer. Very few people expect that perfection will be attainable on an everyday basis, since there’s always gray area in any given situation, and they understand that mistakes in some sense are how we learn.
For law enforcement, however, there is a perception that because of the role we have (where we are empowered to remove someone’s freedom, impose fines upon them while enforcing the law, or in a worst-case scenario, be forced to end their life because they’ve given us no other choice due to their actions), we should be held to a zero-error operations environment.
For the most part, many of us choose to try to live as close to that standard as we can, because we recognize the seriousness of the role that we play, and the importance of working hard to attain the “right” outcome or course of actions wherever possible. We are “super humans” in that sense – we work to improve ourselves and become the best possible at our jobs, and through screening have been selected to meet the criterion of having objective thought capacity even at the most stressful of times. Again, in the past, most in the public were aware of that self-motivation and drive, and respected us as a result.
Lately, anytime an officer makes a mistake, but especially a serious one, the tone of the public reaction has shifted, partially because those in the media seem so eager to cover those mistakes heavily. The implied suggestion seems to be that all officers are somehow guilty of the transgressions of the individual who made the mistake, and that each instance represents a systemic problem. On the surface, this is patently ridiculous: no member of the public would ever assume that someone who made a mistake in their own profession represented that entire profession, but for us it’s fair game for some reason (most likely because of the standard of perfection for us that they previously – and erroneously – believed to be universally attainable.)
Somewhat akin to when we as teenagers figure out that our parents aren’t invincible, however, some of the more criminally-minded members of the public have taken this shift as an opportunity to lash out against us, targeting us for attacks. We are no longer untouchable, an unpermitted target, because someone else “in authority,” in this case the voice of the media, has called our authority into question, which removes the outward respect that the badge and uniform convey in their eyes. The preliminary NLEOMF statistics for this last year show the real-world effect this has had: more officers have been shot and killed than in the prior 5 years combined.
In terms of our own operations, we see the effects of this shift daily, where some feel that it’s become harder to enforce the law as it needs to be done because we’ve developed a slight internal hesitation at the idea of being the next officer hung out to be tried in the media. There have even been cases of officers not using deadly force to protect their lives and those of others because they were afraid of the potential repercussions for them and their families.
The public, for their part, feel more free to openly challenge us (the “what are you gonna do about it?” phenomenon, increasingly common even from previously unsuspected directions,) and our administrative and command officers often seem too willing to either go along with every small complaint as an indicator of a larger problem, or to take immediate action to forestall either their own presence in the media (or a public outcry.) No one is immune from the effects of a complaint, even officers with decades of exemplary service.
In the end, the solution to all of this must come through our own efforts to remain consistent, and be confident in doing the work as it needs to be done to protect others. While we are out on the street, however, we must constantly remain vigilant to the “validity” we now have as targets for many who might not previously have had the courage to attack us – even on calls we do frequently, like dealing with a homeless individual, or responding to a simple fight. Ambushes, too, are increasing, so take the time to look at a scene and approach slowly before you commit yourself physically to being present in the middle of it.
We have always been targets, after all, for those who are willing to offend against society – and perhaps this is just a wake-up call to realize how many of those individuals have been lurking, afraid, in the shadows. In a sense, the ability to see who they are may be a benefit: if they don’t hide, we as officers are presented with the opportunity to learn about them in time to protect ourselves from attack, or, in the worst case, the awareness that leads us to watch for them may save us on its own when the attack comes.
Greg Bogosian is certified as a Reserve/Intermittent Police Officer by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and spent twelve years working as an EMT-Basic, including four years as a field EMT and dispatcher for the City of Boston EMS. He was additionally a member of a Federal medical disaster relief team for ten years, with experience responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the pre-deployment of resources for Hurricane Ike. Greg currently has a passion for educating public safety professionals about matters which impact their lives every day, and welcomes feedback and suggestions in the spirit of ensuring that best practices make it out there for all to benefit from.