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Standing in the sewer: Going above and beyond

Empathetic police work is doing a job that values justice and doesn’t make excuses for criminal behavior but doesn’t forget that we’re all human and deserving of clemency when appropriate

By Tom Wetzel
PoliceOne Special Contributor

As Police Week 2013 draws to a close, I’m reminded of the relationships between our officers and our citizens. I recall the time I was driving my cruiser down the road and noticed one of our officers standing in a sewer. All I could see of him was his head and his chest area as he was handing something to another officer who was assisting him.  

Curious what they were up to, I turned around to see. I quickly learned that they were rescuing little goslings thatwere trapped in the sewer. Once reunited with their mother — who at first went after the officer in the sewer — the birds were safely on their way, as were the officers.

For these two officers, it was just another day of “protecting and serving” — up to and even including our little feathered friends. Years earlier, the same officer in the sewer had entered a room during a SWAT call to help rescue a woman held hostage by a gunman. 

The Empathetic Model of Policing
During National Police Week, Americans will watch their police officers remember fallen peers in memorial services held throughout the country. Even as they do this, we should look for ways to develop a deeper relationship between the ‘server’ and the ‘served’ — in our shared objective of making our neighborhoods safer places to live, which in turn can help reduce our officers, exposure to harm. 

From a police perspective, departments and officers can embrace an empathetic model of policing. This can have a huge impact on strengthening that critical relationship. An empathetic police model of service is essentially an enhancement of community policing in general and starts at the hiring process, is developed in the training function and continues throughout an officer’s career through a culture of professionalism and trust.  

Caring about those we serve to make going “above and beyond” the norm is what the empathetic police model is all about.  

Just this week we had an excellent example of this model demonstrated in Arizona when Sergeant Natalie Simonick saw the work ethic of 18-year-old Christian Felix and gave the young man a new bike to commute to work, and also arranged for people at the Phoenix police station to teach him to ride it.

Empathic policing is the officer who drives down a street looking for bad guys but also contemplates how certain crime-prevention tactics could make the local playground a safe place for kids to be. 

It’s a model of policing in which an officer might arrest a juvenile for a crime, and then later follow up with the parents to see how things are going for the kid. The officer will do this because he actually cares and realizes that keeping at-risk children on the straight and narrow will pay dividends later for the entire neighborhood. 

The officer also knows that this tactic — diverting the kid’s life toward a crime-free path — should (or at least could” help make all officers’ jobs a little safer in the future.  

It is a style of policing that I noticed in a peer who had bought some ‘Hot Wheels’ cars to have on hand for little boys who may have to deal with him or other officers even though they did nothing wrong. 

This model of policing is not akin to policies, mandates, and standardizations but instead flows from the Golden Rule and our nation’s Judeo-Christian ethic that all men and women are created in the image and likeness of God.  

It allows officers to arrest prostitutes while not acting haughty when speaking to them. It involves catching a burglar and later wondering how his own life would have turned out if he walked in the shoes of one who had a fatherless childhood mired in suffering, neglect, and abuse.  

Empathetic police work is doing a job that values justice and doesn’t make excuses for criminal behavior but doesn’t forget that we’re all human and deserving of clemency when appropriate. 

This model of police work is not designed to make officers soft or drop their guard when dealing with people. Police work is a dangerous business and officers have to remain alert and firm. 

It is not a replacement for sound tactics and control measures designed to protect officers. Done well, an empathetic model of policing can build a lifetime of trust which is a vital component for successful police work.

For those who are “served,” supporting your police officers can take many forms. Citizens can ask that their elected officials ensure police transparency by purchasing cruiser cameras. They can stress that they want more open communication channels with police leadership so that complaints or problems can be addressed swiftly.  

The old adage of “you get what you pay for” is applicable when trying to attract individuals who will risk their lives to protect you. Citizens supporting good pay and benefits (to include attractive retirement plans) for those who serve helps can actively help in the recruitment of bright and brave candidates. 

Citizens can choose to understand that police officers are human beings — prone to the same mistakes and temptations as everyone else — so when officers do err, our citizens know it is not some ingrained prejudice that caused it, but may be just messing up under stress. 

Citizens can choose to remember that when the media puts a lot of focus on a particularly bad officer or department, that there are about 800,000 police officers in the country. Knowing this, they will understand that focusing on one cop’s mistake is not representative of good law enforcement personnel.

By finding more ways to work together, our public servants in blue and those they serve can begin to make real, long-term relationships of trust and confidence. In turn, that can make our country a model of safety for the entire world.

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