What is the Matter with the Police in America? Part One
This post is a bit of a departure for what I normally write about. I have had enough people ask me for my views about what is going on in the United States that I wanted to share a few thoughts. Of course, these are complicated issues and there no easy answers.
One of the things that a career in law enforcement taught me, though, was the importance of looking at a set of facts and not being driven by emotion. It seems like so much of what is going on in the US right now and so much of the rhetoric that we hear is fueled by emotion with little consideration for the facts. What people feel is important but not at the expense of the facts surrounding an incident. The facts should always determine the outcome, not people’s emotions.
Almost weekly now, there is a new story of police abuse, a new video purporting to show the police beating someone up, or a new video showing the police shooting someone who is unarmed. Has something changed in American law enforcement? Are the police “out of control” like many would have us to believe? Are we being controlled by our emotions or are we letting the facts come to the surface so we can judge correctly?
I was a police officer for almost 30 years. I retired in 2011 but I still watch what is going on. Here are my thoughts on what is taking place in our society and in police departments across America. These are not in any particular order. These are just the musings of a retired street cop.
1. Hiring standards have been lowered. The sad fact is that fewer and fewer of the brightest and best young men and women are getting into law enforcement. And who can blame them? With the concerted attacks on law enforcement by the media and groups like Black Lives Matter, who would want to enter the field of law enforcement?
Many police departments are actually hiring people with criminal records. A few years ago, two large metro-Atlanta police departments made the news and came under severe criticism because they hired people with criminal convictions for police officer jobs. The Lieutenant who was in charge of the hiring process at one of the agencies was asked, “Why are you hiring criminals to work as police officers?” His answer was pretty simple. He said, “These are the people who are applying. I wish we were getting some sharp young college graduates applying but we are not. We carefully filter through the applications that we do get and in some cases, we hire people with criminal records.”
In other cases, lawsuits have forced local governments to hire or promote unqualified people. I have personally seen situations where hiring standards have been lowered so that more minorities could be hired. In other cases, I have seen promotional test scores lowered until a certain number of minorities were passed.
Early in my career, this would have never happened. Whenever our department was hiring,the hardest part of the process was sorting through all of the good applicants. We always had many more quality applicants than we had positions available.
Should police departments hire minorities? Absolutely! Local police departments should always mirror their communities. At the same time, we should never lower the standards to hire for such an important position just based on race or sex. Local governments should always be looking for the most qualified people.
2. Why are fewer good young people becoming police officers? First of all, there has never been such a concerted attack against law and order in America. Almost weekly, we hear about a police officer or officers being killed in the line of duty. No one should be surprised that police officers are on edge. With the level of violence against the police increasing, we also should not be surprised when the police are quick to use force to protect themselves. It is a vicious cause and effect relationship.
Another reason that police departments are getting fewer quality applicants is the pay. While the average officer is going to make around $56,000 a year, many are going to make far less depending on where they work. My department went without any pay raises at all for five years. Of course, the cost of living, and the cost we had to pay for our insurance went up every year.
The county commissioners could not understand the turnover within the police and fire departments.They just could not seem to grasp the fact, or worse, they did not seem to care that people wanted to be paid fairly and given a periodic pay raise. Of course, these same commissioners found over $50,000,000 to build a minor league baseball stadium.
The problem with not giving periodic pay raises or competitive pay packages is that it creates turnover. Turnover means you have fewer and fewer experienced police officers working the street. Lack of experience creates the potential for more mistakes on the job.
Thankfully, there are still men and women, all across America that look upon Law Enforcement as a calling. They come from a variety of racial backgrounds. When they go to work everyday, their goal is to protect and serve to the best of their ability. These men and women are the Thin Blue Line that protects America from lawlessness.
To be continued…
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