By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)
Last month I wrote a column addressing personal perspectives while working on the street as a law enforcement officer. I addressed two particular issues and posed two questions to the readers regarding them.
The first issue was based on a conversation I had with a young Montana Officer at a recent Street Survival Seminar. The conversation ended with this comment: “We only have five guys in my agency, we all live in town, and we all went to the same high school. No one on my beat will try to kill me. I know them all and they like me.”
My first question posed to policeone.com readers was:
What do you think I said, or should have said, to this young officer?
The second question posed was based on a survey that I presented to more than 2,000 law enforcement officers over a ten year period. The survey asked a series of questions that dealt mostly with intra-department communication and the relationship between line-level officers and the administrators for whom they work. While there are 14 separate questions on the survey, the one I referenced in the article was this one:
What is the most important thing to your immediate supervisor reference your day-to-day activity and behavior?
I advised that one answer was chosen by approximately 65% of the respondent officers. I asked readers: what do you think that answer was?
Before I share a few of the comments, guesses, and sometimes emotional responses, I wish to first thank all who wrote me directly or made comments on the PoliceOne.com website. The emails I received ranged from funny and sarcastic to serious and alarming. Some were short and to the point while others were pages long. All in all I learned that many P1 readers take their respective jobs and this profession to heart and believe that an individual’s attitude is an important aspect of performing as a professional and winning on the street.
First, my response to the young officer and the #1 answer to the survey question.
I asked the young officer if he was aware that well over 75% of people murdered in the United States are killed by someone they know, and often even love. His initial response was something along the lines of: “that’s a big city statistic.” So I challenged him to go to the Officer Down Memorial Page (www.odmp.org) and look up the statistics and read the personal stories of the officers killed. I advised that he would find that the clear majority of murdered officers were not from “big cities”. In all honesty, I don’t think statistics or reality made a very big impression on him. His belief system was obviously deeply ingrained in his psyche of denial.
The answer selected by approximately 65% of the 2000 + respondent officers to the survey question – (What is the most important thing to your immediate supervisor reference your day-to-day activity and behavior?) – unfortunately was some variation of: “Cause no problems and stay out of trouble.”
In my management classes I bring this question and the collective answer up regularly. I ask the supervisors in attendance this follow-up question; What is the best way for your officers to stay out of trouble? Their collective response is immediate: Don’t do anything.
More about that mindset and how it factors into officer safety in a later article, but for now let me share the views and comments of some law enforcement practitioners. I apologize for only referencing a few of the responses I received, but the limitations of space for an article is a reality of publishing.
Sgt. William Switzer of the Peoria Heights Illinois Police Dept. said he would have related this story to the young man;
“I started my career in my home town Sheriff's Dept (a small rural community) where I did know everyone and everyone knew me. I quickly learned that once I began wearing a badge people I had known all my life began to treat me different. These people now looked at me as the enemy, as the guy that would put an end to their fun. The biggest wake up call I had early in my career was when I tried to arrest someone I had known all my life. I approached him as "I've known you for years, this will be all right!" It didn't matter that we had played football together in high school, or knew each other all our lives. What did matter is that he did not want to go to jail, and was willing to do what ever it took not to. What made this incident bad was that he used our past friend ship to lull me into a false sense of "Every thing is fine!" When my guard was down that is when he changed, and things got bad. My relaxed approach almost got me hurt, and made a simple arrest complicated. Lesson learned! After that, it didn't matter; my approach to people familiar to me was the same as those who were strangers. Never let your guard down!”
Marie Miller of the Moscow Police Dept. in Idaho wrote:
#1. My guess would be you asked him a question. Something along the lines of; “So people never kill those they like or even love?”
#2. We lost an officer last May 19th, he was gunned down as he responded to a man shooting into the Sheriffs Department. If you had asked me this (survey) question a year ago, I would have said they (supervisors) wanted zero citizen complaints. Now I know the most important thing to them is for us all to go home safe.
Marie added in a follow-up email:
“We are coming up on the one year anniversary so it is pretty fresh in our minds. Our fallen brother was Lee Newbill. I will be taking his widow to the airport for her flight to Washington DC for the medal ceremony in just a few weeks.
It is a real shame that it takes losing someone to focus people on what is really important. The whole atmosphere in the dept. is much different now than a year ago. Officer Safety is at the top of everyone’s list of what is important. We had a shots fired call and when officers descended on the apartment where college students were blowing up dry ice bombs, they all had approached unseen and carrying rifles. The only thing that was said in briefing was that all the officers did a great job of deploying.
It would be nice of other departments could have that mindset without losing an officer. Also, in answer to the officer who said everyone liked him. Everyone liked Lee, he was probably the most liked officer in our dept. Everyone knew him and liked him and we are a small town too, and now he is dead. Feel free to pass that on to officers in your seminars.
And yet another officer reminded me of these tragic incidents:
“I hope that you brought up Chief Randy Lacy who was shot and killed by ‘someone that he knew’ that he had arrested for DUI. This is the headline from the June 13, 2007 story here on Policeone.com:
Ky. police chief fatally shot by man in back of patrol car
In Norcross, Georgia, Cpl. Mark Gibbs was shot in the head by a "friend" when Gibbs went to evict him from a hotel room where the man had been a manager and living on the property. Cpl. Gibbs survived but was medically retired due to his injuries.
And finally, Sgt. Paul Mal, a retired veteran of 30 years offered this short but succinct advisement:
“The day you think no one will kill you is the day you die. The only person you can trust 100% is yourself. Always be ready for the unexpected........”
Many readers thought the young officer should simply get out of law enforcement. Others thought he needed some form of “reeducation.” Others blamed his attitude on either his supervisors or the culture of his small organization. But the proverbial ‘bottom line’ is this: this young man’s attitude and perspective is his. He owns it. He needs to decide what it should be and how to fashion it in order for him to succeed in his chosen profession.
Although I was surprised by the responses to the original survey question, I was even more surprised at the emails from the PoliceOne.com readers. More than 80% of those who wrote me (many of whom were supervisors) correctly guessed that 65% of officers believe that the most important thing to their supervisors is the need for them to avoid causing problems while on the street. It’s worth noting that the second most popularly emailed guess was also the second most common answer to the survey question: productivity, stats, something done that can be measured.
Less than 10% of those who responded to the initial survey cited Officer Safety as the biggest concern of their immediate supervisors. Whether this is merely a perception or an accurate reflection of what supervisors are really thinking is almost beside the point. The fact is, taking to the streets with the mindset, “I have to stay out of trouble,” can get an officer into a world of trouble.
All of this in an indirect way reinforces the lessons emphasized in the Street Survival Seminar. Officers need to approach every tour of duty with a balanced perspective but they need to remember that safety is paramount. Watching for verbal and non-verbal indicators of pre-attack and addressing potentially dangerous subjects with a command and tactically sound professional tone can both demonstrate respect for others while maintaining control of most any situation.
As the young Montana officer demonstrated, his philosophy is his own – the take-away from our discussion that I want to underscore here is that a person’s philosophy can have an enormous, and at times adverse, impact on their personal safety.