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March 16, 2011
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Terrence P. Dwyer, Esq. Police Liability and Litigation
with Terrence P. Dwyer, Esq.

Accountability and officer safety: Who's got our backs?

Despite an alarming trend of homicide committed against our nation’s officers, politicians have cited police officers salaries, benefits, and retirement packages in a campaign of misinformation against public sector employees

Accountability for officer safety begins at the top. The very top. This means not only police administrators but the politicians who at election time are chummy with law enforcement unions as they grab for their endorsements. How many of our elected officials have achieved their positions on the shoulders of the men and women in law enforcement that have supported them? Yet, where are these same politicians in times when law enforcement may need them the most? Training budgets are cut, layoffs are threatened or actually put in place, officers operate with outdated equipment, and shifts are short on manpower.

Meanwhile, day in and day out, the same professional response is expected of law enforcement by the public and the politicians. To the credit of police officers in this country, the expected professionalism is provided. All that is asked in return is support in a time of crisis, not the cut-and-run politics the profession has witnessed the past few years.

Vilifying Our American Heroes
The numbers from 2009 to the present indicate an alarming trend of homicide committed against our nation’s officers. During this same time period, politicians have launched a campaign of misinformation against public sector employees — chief among them police officers, prison employees and other emergency service personnel — citing high salaries, benefit and retirement packages. Suddenly the economic fault line that first began opening in 2008 is being laid at the feet of public employees. At a time when police officers are being indiscriminately murdered on our nation’s streets, politicians and talking heads lay economic blame on their very employment.

Last time I checked, police officers, correctional officers, firefighters, sanitation workers, highway workers, nurses, teachers, and other hard-working public employees were not responsible for the cataclysmic fall of the Dow Jones Industrial Average or for devalued municipal bonds. Presently, the economic fault line is opening wider into a social fault line and police officers are left to deal the mess. Tempers are short these days, civility is losing ground, and government is reviled. Solutions to our collective problems will be a long time coming, and in the meanwhile, police officers will be on patrol. The challenge will be keeping them safe.

Those on the job — and those of us who were once on the job and are now retired — know the pain and loss when an officer falls. We have stood at the funerals, comforted the families, and watched out for each other. We know and have known the risk, it is part of the profession but it has never been an acceptable risk. It is never acceptable when an officer falls; there is no permissible statistical attrition for line of duty death. Police officers are not cannon fodder for their municipal coffers. The events in Tucson which resulted in the death of a federal judge and the critical wounding of Representative Giffords brought to the doorstep of Capitol Hill the type of violence police officers witness every day.

The response was quick with legislators looking to arm themselves and seeking legislation to prevent future tragedy. Similar reaction and concern must emanate from Capitol Hill on down to local state legislatures to make sure our nation’s officers have the tools they need. Laying the blame for Wall Street financial crimes and failures at the feet of public employees is misguided hyperbole, and police officers have been victim to its harmful effects. The anger in this country directed at government is taking its immediate toll on our police.

With Freedom Comes Responsibility
There is a breakdown in social decorum which police officers witness daily. Officers are challenged like never before — a recent news story showed a fight at a basketball game that erupted when a father took exception at a school officer asking his daughter to move aside from a doorway. A melee ensued with the mother joining in the fight. It was quite an example for our youth who already believe they can do and say whatever they please without consequence.

There was a time when high school curriculums required a civics course in which young adults would learn what it meant to be a good citizen. These are lessons that have long been forgotten by some. Schools are now patrol sectors and violence in the classroom is an alarming trend. Schools are losing their resource officers at a critical time and teachers, like police officers, are being treated as an expensive public luxury and steadily paraded in the news media as bankrupting municipal budgets. Public employee contracts have been bargained for in arm’s-length transactions between the municipal employer and the employee bargaining group. Ability to pay is a factor in any collective bargaining award. So why are police being depicted as pigs at the public trough?

Pride, Integrity, and Guts
During the 1960’s, anti-establishment types took to derogatorily calling police officers “Pigs.” To them, police symbolized the government — their anger at government was naturally extended to anger at the police. The symbolism is veiled but used in a similar derogatory fashion now by some politicians and media pundits who excoriate public employees and routinely cite police officer salaries by making a public showing of the prior year’s top overtime earners. Anger at government is now deflected by those in government onto the police and other public employees. However, we should turn the looking glass inward for a moment and check out the salaries and benefits of our elected officials. Will any of them surrender those wages and benefits?

When cops of an earlier generation were called “Pigs” those cops reminded the public that P-I-G stood for Pride, Integrity, and Guts. That may sound a little corny now, but then again, maybe it is just what the public needs to hear and be reminded of today. Maybe the politicians and the public need to be constantly reminded of the good and heroic work our nation’s officers do.

The Justice Department recently announced it would study the cause of the increase in police officer homicides. This is a good step but one that should not be overburdened with months of analysis and a nice glossy report at the end. Action is needed more than words. The Police Executive Research Forum recently released its report on the economic downturn and its effect on policing. National Association of Police Organization President Thomas J. Nees summed it up when he said politics was behind the budget cutting. Nees pointed to cuts in training as a particular problem, “The patrol officers, the people out there answering the 911 calls – if you don’t train them, you’re asking for trouble.” This is one category the Justice Department will look into when addressing the surge in deadly violence against police officers.

Working Without Backup
When we talk of backup for an officer there is a common understanding of one officer or a number of officers responding to call to assist another officer. But backup for our officers can come in other forms, and right now, that backup is desperately needed. Support from elected officials, support from police administrators, and support from the public would go a long way toward keeping officers safe. Our collective attitudes of support, fostering of community and civility need to be a new contagion for good. We owe it to those we ask to protect us.

Again, the words of Tom Nees are poignant. “...when officers lay their heads on their pillows at the end of the day, these men and women who are out there willing to risk their lives for people they don’t know — they deserve some respect.”

Unfortunately, there are those in public office who are doing little to foster that respect for our nation’s officers.

Take for instance the example of Ohio Governor John Kasich who after being ticketed by a Columbus police officer publicly called him an “idiot.” This affront comes in a year for Ohio which began with a deputy losing her life to suspect gunfire and another officer being wounded responding to the same incident. Not to mention the death of a former Columbus officer who succumbed to gunshot wounds on January 20th which he sustained 31 years earlier. Despite the apology made to the officer by Governor Kasich is this the kind of example we can expect from our political leaders?

It does not end there. Georgia Congressman Paul Broun at a town hall meeting was asked by a constituent, “Who’s going to shoot Obama?” Political like or dislike for the President is not a matter of opinion at this point. Rather than speak to the inappropriateness of the question he used it to launch into a criticism of present policy. Is the memory of Congresswoman’s Giffords’ shooting that fleeting for him? Finally there is the incident in which Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was speaking with a Buffalo blogger (believing the blogger to be billionaire Paul Koch, who is linked to the not-for-profit Americans for Prosperity).

The call was recorded by the blogger. Walker discusses placing “troublemakers” within the crowd of protesting public union employees. Madison Chief of Police Wray is reported to be troubled by the implication that a government leader would knowingly place his officers in jeopardy and wants further insight into this taped call.

I am always lecturing about training issues and the importance of up-to-date training for liability mitigation. But now, more important than any potential lawsuit, is the life of a police officer. Training, funding, commitment to officer safety (in deed and in funding, not just words), is what is required. The veiled hate speech which some government leaders are aiming at law enforcement and other public employees needs to end.


About the author

Terrence P. Dwyer retired in 2007 from the New York State Police after a 22-year career. He is now an Associate Professor in the Justice and Law Administration Department at Western Connecticut State University and an attorney in private practice representing law enforcement officers in discipline cases, critical incidents, and employment matters.

Contact Terry Dwyer





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