Bad Cops: It’s Time They Improve or Leave: A Veteran Police Chief Speaks to Today’s Police
Once a person is called to be a police officer it is a life-changing event that has few parallels. Within this venture is the potential for doing an enormous amount of good or, on the other hand, permit evil to triumph. Policing is that way because it about decisions to use power; non-negotiable force, and the authority to take away another person’s freedom – put them in a cage or even take their life.
As a retired officer, I anguish over the flood of police misconduct reports and videos within various media outlets today. Edmund Burke once wrote a warning to our fledgling nation, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This most certainly applies to those who enforce our laws and guard our communities. If we, as a profession of police do nothing now, evil before us will grow and triumph.
It’s time for those who are in policing today to raise the bar, set a new high standard, to articulate to their community who they are, what they stand for, and the qualities they strive to practice. (See Mike Scott’s and my discussion of these twelve qualities HERE.)
It’s also time for police who cannot or will not practice these qualities to find another job. They are the bad cops and they consist of no more than five percent of today’s police. They are causing the present crisis. They are the ones who sneer at high standards, department policies, and even the law – they are ruining the reputation of our nation’s police and the good cops, the 95 percenters, need to do something about it.
Unfortunately, good cops have tended to tolerate and work around the bad cops. It’s been this way too long and it can no longer continue. If good cops don’t stand up to the bad ones, our nation and all we stand for is in trouble. The vision of having a professional, well-trained police who guard and protect our great nation, and are committed to and model its principles and values, will never be realized.
I served with pride in the police for over thirty years. Whether you are retired as I am, or in active service, we both know the feeling of pride that comes with wearing a badge. We also know and have felt the embarrassment and shame when it has been tarnished. The pride we hold for our work will no longer survive the highly-visible and dangerous misadventures of a few. With today’s visual technologies, the bad acts of a few do, in fact, impact all. Good cops can no longer protect these bad actors and contain them as we all did in the past. In today’s highly visible and accountable work climate, the bad actions of a few have dramatically ripped away the trust and support of our nation’s police.
You know who the bad cops are just as I did. We’ve all gone on calls with them. We’ve intervened when they caused problems, tried to hold them back when they were overly aggressive, told them to back-off after they barged in on our calls, or punched a suspect we had in custody. We watched them berate, disrespect, and abuse people, then lie about what they did. Yet we were silent. We believed it’s the job of our supervisors to say something and correct them. Worse yet, we thought that was simply the way policing was done in our city. We assured ourselves that we weren’t like them, we were, after all, the good cops. But were we?
Good cops today can no longer stand back, no longer say nothing. If policing is to survive as an honorable profession in our society it has to be the job of everyone who wears a badge to make it so, not just the supervisors. And that means dealing with the bad cops in our ranks.
It’s time to raise the bar . When you see bad practices you need to call it out even it’s senior or supervisory officers; even take corrective action. This will not be easy, but it must be done.
We all know the negative aspects of our historical work culture; [see footnote below] the silence, never giving up another cop, “doctoring” reports. But that old culture cannot continue; it must be replaced by a new culture; a culture consisting of men and women who are honest, respectful and emotionally stable; this must become the new culture, the new norm. But it won’t happen until the good cops define themselves, their values, and stand up against this evil.
Standing up will sound something like this:
“Friend, this is the way we are going to start doing policing around here – lawful and ethical practices with honest reports; we’re professionals. We will treat everyone, and I mean everyone, with dignity and respect. We will not break the law in order to enforce it even if means some bad guys get away. We will act like guardians — not warriors; our job is to help people. When we have to use physical force we will do it in a controlled and legal manner according to the way we have been trained. Force is a trust that has been given to us by the community we serve. If you behave any other way, I will call you on it. And if your conduct does not improve, I will report you. If you see me act in any other way, I expect the same. Got it? Any questions? Now let’s get to work and do some good! There’s a new day ahead of us as we work to rebuild the trust we have lost.”
When we applied for the job of police officer we saw it as an important and necessary social function. We said we wanted to do good and help people and we meant it. So what happened between signing up and now? What happened to that Golden Rule: treating others as we would wish to be treated?
The drift toward bad policing is a slippery slope. It starts with cutting corners, fudging reports, treating others disrespectfully. Soon we’ve slipped so far down we can’t get back up the slope. We can’t remember those qualities; those core values we once so strongly believed in. When we follow the bad practices of others and say nothing, we become one of the bad cops.
Much of today’s problems, and the crisis in which you find yourself, is the result of failing work systems and doggedly following the old culture; how we were trained and rewarded and what we thought our leaders expected of us. The various systems in which police work must be continually reviewed and improved upon — always. The job of a professional police officer is to identify those failing systems and help his or her leaders improve them.
And when that improvement happens, everyone benefits: working police officers gain the trust, support, and admiration of the community; community members gain safer and more peaceful neighborhoods and the opportunity to know and work with the police assigned to their neighborhoods.
That new day can begin today.
Footnote: From my book, Arrested Development:
“Years ago as a young police officer, I remember finding myself being profoundly enmeshed in the life of being a cop. I soon realized that my identity, social life, and even family life revolved around me being a cop. I worked every day with police and socialized with them when I was off-duty. My preferred company was other police. I also realized I was closer to the man I was paired with at work—my partner—than I was to the woman to whom I was married. I shared more of my thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams with him than I did with her. Each day at work, I trusted my partner with my life. And then I realized that if he did something wrong, I would no more give him up than I would my own mother.
“This is the power of a subculture. At the same time, I also felt that being a police officer was a very special, critical, and necessary function within our society. Yet, I had become a fully-fledged member of what sociologists call subculture; a distinct group of people who have patterns of behavior and beliefs that set them apart from society as a whole…”
What follows in this book is a transformation story: how I changed and those whom I had the privilege of leading did, too.