But I am serious. I remember the first time I put on a blue uniform and pinned on my badge. I was 22 years old. A newly discharged Marine with a wife and child in tow and in need of a job. I stumbled into police work. I was a university student and needed a night job. And when I took that job I felt what I was doing was very important; even a sacred duty. I felt responsibility weighing on my shoulders to help and protect others and actualize our nation’s values of justice, fairness, and equality. It made me happy — it made me joyful when it happened. And it continued to stay with me for over 30 years.
The first police department on which I served was in a wealthy suburb of Minneapolis (Edina, Minn.) It was a good place to start because I had an educated chief who instilled in me the importance of being well-trained, fair, honest and courteous to everyone (no exceptions!). He permitted me to work the night shift while I pursued a college degree. Also, I worked in the company of some fellow officers who held the same values I did. All but one or two of us had served in the military. It was 1960 and America was about to change. And I decided I wanted to be part of that change.
Even when I joined the Minneapolis Police Department a few years later I felt I was still able to practice the values I thought were important. Luckily, I was able to band together, from the recruit academy on, with a like-minded group of “college cops.” We reinforced and supported one another and did all that we could to resist the negative aspects of the subculture in which we were immersed. We learned how to deal with mean and negative cops, cops who drank on duty, lied in their reports, and stole whatever they could get their hands on.
We had two black officers on the police department. One of whom came through the academy with us. I remember having to confront outside instructors about making racial epithets. They failed to notice our fellow officer sitting in the back of the room, a light-skinned black man. No women worked on patrol. A few were hired to work only as youth detectives. All that would change within the decade. I identified with the changes and improvements recommended by the 1967 President’s commission on policing. I wanted to help make those recommendations a reality in our ranks.
I’ve heard young cops today tell me that policing is a lot tougher than it was in my day. Some have told me that I just don’t understand. Well, maybe that’s so. The “war on drugs” and increased militarization of our nation’s police since 9/11 have not helped police become what I had hoped they could be. But focusing on drug enforcement and firepower has not brought police and the communities they serve in many of our nation’s cities closer together. In fact, I will suggest that this has caused police to be seen as a part from, rather than a part of, those whom they serve.
Not to tell stories, but when I started policing there were no personal radios, body armor, or service weapons that fired over six shots. When we got out of our patrol cars to handle a call, or were assigned to a foot beat, we had no communications with our dispatcher — or with other officers. Racial tension was high in the city I policed for over seven years. We had a growing minority population, but still continued the practice for many years of maintaining, for the most part, an all-white police department. We had shootings, looting, and buildings torched. And we were waging an unpopular war in Southeast Asia. Cops were battered, shot and killed.
But what I learned going through all that was to keep my eye on what was important – the big picture of policing. And the big picture is that we are protectors of our nation’s Constitution and Bill of Rights. We are also, in effect, community workers in blue. And what is important is that we don’t get caught up in the negative and find ourselves unable to keep things positive. Policing is a great job with the potential of doing an enormous amount of good.
After all, policing, done right, is a noble cause; the glue that keeps this society together. When police fail to do the right thing we all suffer. We suffer because in order for this nation to prosper, justice must be done. And the most effective place to do it is not in the future (in court), but now, on the street. It is done by good cops making good decisions about who gets stopped and frisked, who is treated with care and compassion, who goes to jail, and how much force is used to do it. These are the important decisions that send out a strong message about our government and how it really works, especially for those who find themselves in our “underclass.”
Doing the job of a police officer requires those who do it to be highly responsible, moral, honest, controlled, color-blind, and respectful. And when policing is done well it is a joyful experience.
Sure, there are nasty people out there who need to be arrested and put in jail, but for the most part, the overwhelming majority of people police encounter (even in high-crime areas) are NOT like that. The majority of people whom police encounter in their daily work are appreciative, even thankful, of the job they do.
And, for me, that’s what makes policing joyful. Police generally are able to set things right, calm the peace, assure the populace they are safe and enjoy a great amount of respect from the community when they function as they are trained. Today’s cops need to keep that in mind.
[If you are interested, I outline more of this journey in my new book, Arrested Development.]