Law Enforcement – Not All Things Are What They Appear to Be

  • Police become the default button for criticism, anger, and outrage.
  • The truth is, very few people come in contact with police officers.
  • As a consequence, their preconceived notions about law enforcement are often not accurate or complete but instead based on false information.

Law enforcement has historically been held to a high standard of conformity with the laws and customs of the land. Yet, the age-old, quasi-military organizational structure of all police agencies makes it difficult to deliberately incorporate people from outside of their circle into their hierarchy. At the same time, this inclusivity is becoming the expectation of our present era. These circumstances give rise to distrust and misunderstanding, which can evolve into fear and even hate. The challenge for law enforcement then becomes helping people adjust their present mindset to one of an enthusiastic welcome and genuine appreciation.

A Story

I attended undergraduate school at a large state university. During my freshman year, I enrolled in an introductory science class, which was held in an auditorium. The place was packed, probably well over a couple of hundred students.  At the beginning of the hour, a man appeared on stage wearing jeans, shirt not tucked in, and sandals. He looked like he had just got back from a Grateful Dead concert complete with hair down to his shoulders, beer belly, and a full beard. He looked out into the auditorium, welcomed everyone to his class, and introduced himself as Dr. Alfano. He then pulled out a piece of paper and started rolling it up.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a rubber band, which he held up so everyone could see. Then he wrapped the rubber band around the rolled-up piece of paper and placed it on the table, which was standing in front of him.

Next, he reached into his jean pocket and pulled out a pencil. Then he vigorously rubbed the pencil in his long hair for several minutes, quite the sight! Dr. Alfano then placed the pencil above the paper and moved his hand forward. The paper likewise moved forward. He repeated the exercise three times, and each resulted in the same result.

Do we ever take into consideration stressors encountered by police officers daily? Like taking a call for service with no backup or dealing with individuals who are “comfortably numb” and uncooperative with commands, or witnessing horrific personal crimes and routine exposures to death. These stressors take their toll. I’ve seen many young police officers turn old quickly.

He then asked each of us to take out a piece of paper, write our social security number on the top of the page and respond to the following question: “Why did the paper move?”  He then collected our papers and dismissed the class.

When the class reconvened two days later, a well-dressed man appeared on stage wearing a three-piece suit.  He was clean-shaven and had a well-groomed haircut.  He reintroduced himself as Dr. Alfano and said he wanted to share the results of the quiz we had taken two days before. He told us that no one got the answer correct. It seems the correct answer was not static electricity, but instead, the paper moved because he “blew on it.” He then told us, “Not all things are what they appear to be.”  Dr. Alfano then began his lecture.

The value of this exercise was that it taught me to refrain from accepting things as “true” without proof. This experience taught me that it is wiser to defer making a judgment until you are confident of the accuracy and completeness of the information conveyed. “Seeing” may be believing. Still, a person can make huge mistakes if they don’t take “seeing” as an opportunity for exploring and learning and getting actual facts, including, where possible, data. Things may not always be as they appear, and we need to consider what we see with an analytical and critical mind. My favorite motto in this regard is, “In God we trust all others must use data.”

Applying the Logic

If you applied this logic to your mindset, what would be its effect on how you receive and think about the news you listen to or see on digital media? Would you be seeing through a new lens? Would this mean that you would no longer buy into what is being said until you make some further inquiries? Would you expect and demand actual data? Imagine a world where we make an effort to determine the accuracy and completeness of what is said before formulating our opinions.

Digital media is a powerful force in our world. It is estimated that over 420 million people around the world are addicted to digital media. Look around you, are people making eye contact, or are their heads down viewing digital media?

So let’s consider this notion of judging individuals based on their specific performance, as evidenced by facts and data. Digital media goes out of its way to shine a negative light on police because it is newsworthy. Police can do 1,000 things right, and when one officer does one thing wrong, today’s digital media blankets all law enforcement with this adverse event. Digital media exacerbates the significance of the action to the point that it is considered the norm, not the exception. Police will contend that it is not what it looks like on digital media.

Police are often portrayed as employing racial or ethnic profiling, operating on instinct rather than evidence, and engaging in brutality. Perhaps as a consequence, many people have a negative or unfavorable opinion about police officers. But is this a fair and reasonable opinion based on facts in the form of data?

What do you know about police officers and their performance other than what is conveyed by the media? Do you try to validate what is reported in the media? If you do, how do you go about your inquiry? The truth is, very few people actually come in direct contact with police officers. Most of the police interaction we have with law enforcement is through traffic-related incidents where police are interacting with us on a punitive level. You’re “in trouble,” and they’re disciplining you. So you’re on guard, and they’re on guard, and it makes for a tense interaction. But is it fair to portray this interaction as unfavorable if the Officer is actually doing what we want them to do by protecting the more significant “we” by enforcing the laws that our duly elected representatives have passed?

Many police officers will tell you they joined the department to serve and protect the community. The prominent corner office, the big car, the big house were not their goals. What people don’t realize is that public safety is not always the number one priority. Elected officials often reprioritize police activities. Instead of public safety, these reprioritized activities are often driven by the goal of generating sizeable operating revenue for the local government.

I remember as a State Trooper being proud of my monthly activity totals. Along with my traffic citations, I had made several criminal arrests. While walking down the hall of the barrack, I saw my supervisor and told him of my criminal arrest achievements. My supervisor said, “Trooper, that’s great that you made those criminal arrests, but how many traffic citations did you write? You know it’s the traffic citations that pay your salary.”

Today many law enforcement agencies are placed in the same position. Instead of serving and protecting, they are busy enforcing municipal code violations, parking violations, and other civil infractions. Effectively, police are reduced to being revenue generators. Who catches the heat for this additional form of taxation? It’s not the Politicians who ordered it; it’s the police officer that was directed to do it.

Aside from the limited interaction we have with police officers and what is conveyed to us through digital media, do we understand the actual job performance demands made on a police officer?

  • Do we consider when a police officer leaves from home to work, their companion tells them, “Have a good day and be safe.” When the police officer leaves the roll call shortly after arriving at work, the supervisor tells them, “Be on high alert and be careful out there.”
  • Do we ever take into consideration stressors encountered by police officers daily? Like taking a call for service with no backup or dealing with individuals who are “comfortably numb” and uncooperative with commands, or witnessing horrific personal crimes and routine exposures to death. These stressors take their toll. I’ve seen many young police officers turn old quickly.
  • Do we consider those police officers have to make immediate decisions of criminality based upon their interpretation of ambiguous behaviors? When a call goes out involving a weapon, often there are little bits of information they heard over the radio and what they viewed on the computer. From that, they have to assess and secure the crime scene and detain people so they can investigate further.
  • Do we consider that most police officers have never studied psychology, but they are required to apply it every day? Police learn a lot about people when they’re with the public all day. They learn that the abnormal becomes routine and that not all squirrels live in the woods. Police academy instructors should advise the candidates, “Ladies and gentlemen, you just bought yourself a ringside seat to the greatest circus in town.”
  • Do we consider that a bad day for most people in the workplace might be a long commute or being required to work overtime, or missing a deadline while a bad day for a police officer might be that they never get to go home again? Do you consider that they might get shot for no other reason than they are cops?
Many police officers will tell you they joined the department to serve and protect the community. The prominent corner office, the big car, the big house were not their goals.

Police are sometimes blamed for the divide in America. It is poverty and lack of opportunity that has led to the high crime rates in America. Is law enforcement responsible for creating these conditions? Did law enforcement cause a rise in homelessness? Is law enforcement the cause of neglected neighborhoods, the prevalence of drugs and addicts and dealers? Is law enforcement responsible for the increasing use of guns in violent crimes? What do you know about how their performances in addressing these phenomena are evaluated?

If we take a glance back in time, it wasn’t the police who developed “Tough on Crimes Policies,” nor were they the impetus behind the “War on Drugs.” Nor are they responsible for the fact that America is the most punitive society in the world, with the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The 1994 Crime Bill did that by accelerating mass incarceration to keep us “all safe.” I don’t know many police officers who feel that people should only be defined by the worst things they have done. But what do you personally know about all of this?

All of this is the responsibility of Politicians and their “Politics of Fear and Anger.” It is not Politicians who suffer the scorn for carrying out these directives. Politicians will continue to talk backward and forward about the subject but will never be held accountable unless people hold them responsible by demanding actual facts and data.

Final Thoughts

I think people would be a lot better off, and our society in a much better place, if every time someone voiced an unfounded opinion, we would ask, ”What are you basing that on?” or “How do you know that?” or “Why do you think that way?” or “What is your first-hand experience of this?” For example:

  • “Police operate on instinct rather than evidence.” What are you basing that on?
  • “Police have a lower threshold of suspicion for people of color.” How do you know that?
  • “Police operate on instinct rather than evidence.” Why do you think that way?
  • “Police are quick to use force.” What is your first-hand experience of this?

If we did that and we also adhered to the logic that, “Not all things are what they appear to be,” we would all be a lot better off. Perhaps the police wouldn’t continue to be the default button for criticism, anger, and outrage. Maybe police officers would be recognized for the invaluable role they serve as a “buffer” between the community and the criminal world. Maybe communities and police can collectively work towards reducing the actual causes of crime.

Presently, individual members of the community feel unfairly targeted by the police, and police feel unfairly maligned by the community for doing their jobs. I sincerely hope that we can change our mindset so both parties can reserve judgment until they get to know more about the facts and data. My hope is as we learn more facts, we start to see things in a different light. Perhaps then, we can reach a point where there are enthusiastic welcomes and genuine appreciations from both the police and the community they serve.

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Ronald Harris Parker

Dr. Ronald Harris Parker is an Industrial Psychologist, author, and speaker. He was a former State Trooper, tenured college professor of management, and held executive management positions in multiple corporations where he directed Operations, Human Resources, and Best Practices. He holds his doctorate from the University of Southern California, his masters from the American University, and his undergraduate degree from Kent State University.

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