When I was first applying and interviewing for police departments in my quest for a law enforcement career, during an interview, I was asked a question that I was not prepared for. “What Does the Badge Symbolize To You?” My mind raced through all the possible answers about authority and power, but I came up short of the right answer. I was counseled by a kindly Police Captain who seemed to know that I would have no good answer. I would later learn that few do.
He went to explain that the badge is a symbol of the public trust. Something intangible, yet so real, and so few of us seem to know it. The badge symbolizes the trust placed in us by the public to do the right thing even if we don’t win them all. No-one will argue that when a cop goes bad this trust is lost. It seems that bad policy is the real culprit here.
So, what exactly is the right thing? It’s difficult to articulate but it starts with the concept of “Justice”. Justice is subjective and each officer’s sense of justice can be different. There exists a continuum of law enforcement philosophy and practice that runs from hard-line “Letter - Of - The Law” to the more tolerant “Spirit - Of -The Law” at the extremes. Each has its place and serves a legitimate purpose. Where out of control crime or anarchy calls for a letter of the law approach of strict enforcement, new legislation may call for a time of education, compliance, and flexibility in a more spirit of the law approach.
In today’s world the theme of Public Trust in the police and justice in the relationship between the people and their government is under attack. The Media is on the top of the blame list for sensationalizing, embellishment, and sometimes outright fabrication on a mission to discredit all of law enforcement with isolated incidents which are most usually taken out of context.
The next blame front is the advent of social media and all of its ability to give a voice to people who will abuse it because of its anonymity. Those who choose to denigrate law enforcement are loud and usually dead wrong. But, they're having a negative effect. It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon with the rest of the keyboard magpies and attack those who do a job that they cannot. This is a form of cowardice. If law enforcement were as bad as they make it seem this country would look more like Baghdad meets Columbia.
Next I blame the Justice Department of President Obama for their less than luke warm support of law enforcement. This, along with the public perception that they sympathize with thugs and don’t seem to know the facts, has demoralized Law Enforcement everywhere in the USA. Yet, we still bleed and die EVERYDAY. This depraved indifference has not gone unnoticed and provides fuel to the haters.
The Feds pursuit of bad criminal justice policy over the needs of their best people (Law Enforcement) have brought us to the new Vietnam. Citizens hate the policy and blame the wrong messenger. We have learned to separate the horrible war that was Vietnam from the brave warriors and have gone from hating them to appreciating what they as American Citizens had to go through. And today we honor the service and sacrifice that we hated thirty years ago.
The final blame front lies with the Law Enforcement/Criminal Justice Establishment of today. Far too many Law Enforcement Administrators have lost sight of their real place in the community. Community based policing is slowly being replaced with the militarization of our Police and Sheriff departments. The public psyche has been damaged with the often unnecessary appearance of camo clad tactical teams, armored vehicles, and cops who cover their faces. Police departments have abandoned the art of interpersonal relations. We’re lucky that cops, as a whole, are still compassionate individuals.
As a profession we are losing sight of our role as the last line of defense in protecting the rights of citizens from a government that increasingly uses the “Security over Freedom” argument to pass and enforce increasingly strict and punitive laws.
The failed “War on Drugs” now glows like the dying ember of a failed social and criminal justice policy as our prisons burst at the seams with low level drug offenders who will be stigmatized and trapped in perpetual failure at GREAT expense to the taxpayers because of BAD policy.
We, as a profession, have fallen victim to the "low hanging fruit" mentality of law enforcement. We have created an underclass of low-level offenders and stuffed them into our correctional facilities while those who do the greatest damage walk free. We can do better.
Turning the tide of negative sentiment towards law enforcement will require complete restoration of the Public Trust. It is not necessary to acquiesce to criminals to accomplish this. What is necessary is that we stand firm on the basic principles of freedom. Protect the lives, property and rights of the weak and vulnerable. Serve the interests of a democratic society and not the interests of a corporate/political machine. Return to a more community based policing philosophy and revere the militaristic tactics for the most egregious of situations. Adopt a more spirit-of-the-law approach to minor offenses and reserve the letter-of-the law approach for the most serious, violent, and predatory types of violators. And finally, we must rethink our approach to the problem of illegal drugs. Now, four decades into the "War on Drugs" we have failed to solve the problem at any level. It's time for a new approach to this.
The insidious slide into the "Us and Them" mentality of cops and citizens was too easy. Throughout my career in law enforcement I was a citizen until I put on my uniform, but I never lost my connection to my community. I believe that our citizens and our communities want a better relationship with their police.
The rights and well-being of each citizen is more important than any corporate policy or political agenda that overlooks these things. We acknowledge that there are people of all stripes who cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of others, or who will exploit human weakness and frailty. They are why we exist.
The Badge is a symbol, above all, of Public Trust. Each individual who wears the badge is a citizen who is entrusted with the awesome power of the Government and the Authority to use it wisely.