What Does the Public Expect from Police?

How Law Enforcement Can Understand and Deliver What Their Communities Need

Police Leading Community
When Police work with their communities, they can lead change. Caiaimage/Martin Barraud/Getty Images

Freddie Gray. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Walter Scott. These are but a few of the many names made famous through the tragic use of force by police. And yes, regardless of where one may stand on the merits of each individual case, we can rightly call each and every instance of law enforcement-related deaths tragic.

They’re tragic because no child grows up expecting – and certainly not wanting – to lose his life at the hands of the police.

And they’re tragic because no truly dedicated police officer – no matter how stringent, strict, or rigid – goes to work on any given day hoping to take someone’s life.

Does the Public Support the Police?

If Youtube, social media and news outlets are to be believed, the members of the public in the United States are losing trust and confidence in law enforcement across the country. Though it may be of little solace, this is not the first time faith in the police forces have waned, and it likely won’t be the last.

The late 1960s and ‘70s saw a very vocal outcry against seemingly heavy-handed tactics by police, only to see that respect return through much of the 1980s. It fell away again after Rodney King’s beating in Los Angeles in the early ‘90s. Once again, though, that respect and faith returned, and immediately after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks law enforcement at all levels received near-unprecedented support.

For all the talk about public distrust of police, a 2011-2014 Gallup poll revealed that overall, 56 percent of the American public still hold police in high regard, receiving the third-highest indication of confidence in an institution behind the U.S. military and small business. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that something of a disconnect exists between police and their communities in some regards.

What Does the Public Expect from Police Officers?

So what, then, can our profession – and the criminal justice industry – learn from the rise, fall, and rise again of support for policing in our communities?

From anger over recent police shootings and past transgressions by officers, we can know that our public expects us to use the minimum force necessary to bring an event to a peaceful conclusion and that, in the event that a police officer must use force, especially deadly force, it should be clearly and unambiguously necessary to do so.

Policing is a Dangerous Job

Police, of course, understand that nearly every encounter with civilians is fluid, dynamic, and potentially wrought with danger. Though it’s quite true that the vast majority of people a police officer may encounter in any given day on the job will pose no threat and offer nothing but compliance, that officer can never know when or if they’re dealing with that one individual who is determined to do her harm.

No Matter How Well-Intentioned, Police Can Be Their Own Worst Enemy

The public and the pundits, too, know this, at least in the abstract. However, whereas once a police officer’s word was almost all that was needed to determine his use of force was justified, the proliferation of video recording – beginning with Rodney King and only growing from there – police must come to terms with the fact that the picture presented in those videos has not always matched the final report.

And while it would be foolish and irresponsible to suggest coverups were once functions of the standard operating procedures of the day, it’s also easy to see why and how some elements of the public may have formed that view.

Why Police and the Public Aren’t Always on the Same Page

All of this talk, then, begs the question: where is the disconnect? Officers understand the incredible responsibility they have to protect and serve, and the overwhelming majority of them are wonderful people who have chosen the profession of law enforcement because they wanted to do the right thing for the right reasons.

The issue may be found in how so many police recruits are trained combined with the unfortunate but near-inevitable fact that once-idealistic and enthusiastic officers can become so jaded and disaffected after years of interacting so intimately with crime and human tragedy.

Because police officers are very likely to encounter dangerous individuals as a necessary part of the job, they are appropriately taught from day one – and this is reinforced their entire careers – that their number one goal is to make it home at the end of their shifts.

This sort of training and culture correctly imparts the importance of officer safety to new police, but it leaves out a critical component, and that is the hierarchy of responsibility officers bare for the safety of everyone.

When responding to or investigating any situation, responders are concerned with the safety of the victims, witnesses, and innocent bystanders first, their own safety second, and finally the subject, suspect or violator third. But they must be concerned with the suspect's safety nonetheless.

The Real Goal of Law Enforcement

Every officer should be focused on getting home safely at the end of her shift. But as Sir Robert Peel first expressed in his principles of policing, the real goal of law enforcement is to obtain voluntary compliance with the law.

Officers can apply this concept in their day-to-day interactions by making it their goal to make sure everyone in the police encounter gets home (or jail, mental health facility or other appropriate venue as necessary) at the end of the interaction.

How then, can officers accomplish this goal and ensure their safety? First off, understand that there is no 100 percent solution. No matter what, there are - and will continue to be - people who will force officers to use force, up to and including deadly force, regardless of what the officer does. In those cases, for the sake of the public and the police, officers must not hesitate to act to counter any threat as quickly and efficiently as possible.

However, too many officers forget their training and find themselves in positions where force quickly becomes their only option. This can be said of many, if not all, of the recent cases of so-called police violence that has been the source of such outrage.

No matter what police academy an officer attends, she will most certainly be taught basic principles of officer safety, specifically for the purposes of keeping herself in a position of physical and psychological advantage to immediately defeat even so much as a thought of defiance through the use of distance, cover, command presence and professional behavior. The idea here is not to avoid force, but, as much as possible, eliminate the need for it to begin with.

Time For Police to Get Back to the Basics

The simple fact is that the public is demanding a change in how police do business. The good news is, this doesn’t necessitate a major change in culture or even training. Rather, it means a change in emphasis.

Officers and departments alike already emphasize tactics over tempers.That, coupled with an emphasis on officers reverting to their original training as opposed to the learned habits and behaviors they’ve acquired, can demonstrate the true dedication of the police to public. This, in turn, can help usher in a new era of public support for law enforcement.

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