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The Shield Is Not Enough: Respect From the Public

I’m sure you’ve noticed it, if you’ve been on the job for any length of time.


By Greg Bogosian

This article is provided by Blauer Manufacturing and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of PoliceOne.

I’m sure you’ve noticed it, if you’ve been on the job for any length of time.  In the past, people often reacted to the simple fact of your presence respectfully, especially if they were not the ones involved in whatever brought you to a scene.  Over the last 5 to 10 years, however, that attitude has been shifting, and it’s now become much more “permissible” in the eyes of many who we encounter to defy our authority openly and actively.

Today, many of us are forced to arrive at a scene with the assumption that our shield alone no longer conveys any immutable authority in the minds of the public (be they bystanders or involved parties).  The respect once afforded to our office has, in many cases, given way to animosity, fear, anger, or a belief that law enforcement is “out to get people” - which has resulted in an increase in the number of officers being attacked or killed.  So, how did this become “acceptable” in the minds of the public, and what do we do about it?

We Don’t Need No Stinking Badges
It’s no secret that the key to scene control, even in the olden days, has always been command presence – including presentation of a calm but authoritative demeanor which brooks open communication, but not disobedience to lawfully presented orders or actions.  Most of the “good cops” we all know exhibit that, plus the intelligence to deal with the reality of a given scenario rather than what something “might” be.  

In those olden days, that was often enough for most day-to-day operations, where ultimately there was a core of respect amongst the general public which that command presence spoke to.  Now, however, we’re seeing a disconnect with that core, and many of us are finding that even the most basic authority actions and speech are met with the opposite reaction: instead of believing that we are doing the right thing because we’re officers, the belief is now that we’re doing the wrong thing because we are, and people react based upon that first.

All of this, of course, is compounded by media scrutiny, which follows a predictable pattern: the media gets a hold of a story they believe has a high “virality” potential for them (read: controversy, even if they’re the ones who manufacture it), they push it out in a way designed to get them the most attention, the politicians get pressure from a reactive public and feel they need to respond, and we have yet another policy foisted upon us as a result of a single event.  

Now, there are certain cases which merit this – nobody among us wants to tolerate a bad cop, and we all suffer when they do what they do – but for the most part these days, it seems like every media case results in a change, because the default assumption is now that one case reflects a trend.  That wouldn’t fly in any scientific journal, and yet we regularly see systemic change based upon it in our agencies.  In the end, the result is that we become afraid to do anything (even our jobs), because we are paralyzed by reactive policies which prohibit us from doing anything which might offend someone.  In Sweden, for example, the police are now no longer allowed to describe criminals anymore in case they sound racist.

We’re Offensive Because There Are Offenders
Criminals, of course, face no such restrictions, which places them at an advantage over us in this modern world of political correctness and “safe spaces” for sensitive individuals (read: everyone, it seems.)  It seems unreasonable on its face to expect that those we appoint to protect our safety might not be able to do so because the manner in which it needs to be done is distasteful to someone who they’re protecting.  And yet here we are.  

The truth is that a policy based upon fear encourages the criminal, because if they understand the constraints we operate under, they can sometimes dodge them.  In the worst-case example, those who seek to use lethal force against us are now more brazen, because at some level they may understand that some of us may hesitate to shoot them in less-than-100%-clear circumstances. (If you think that hesitation isn’t real, read this article about an Alabama detective who was pistol-whipped and didn’t want to shoot back because of headlines he’d read lately.)  It used to be that there was an understanding that pulling-out-a-gun plus cop-on-scene-in-front-of-you meant that you = dead, but that’s no longer a given in the minds of many violent offenders.  As a result, we see more and more cases of officers being killed.  

To counter the offender, you must be willing to be offensive – which is not to say that you should go around swearing at the public (please don’t, and if you do, I didn’t suggest that when your Sgt. asks where you got the idea), but rather that you need to be able to meet the offender at their level and go one level above when needed.  Since your shield will no longer afford you automatic authority, you must rely upon your actual authority as conveyed through your behavior – which includes not being afraid to do your job when you know that what you are doing is the right thing.  Believe it or not, that’s what people actually want when they call you, even if their own fear of you might make them suspicious of your actions.

If you’re uncertain about what your job means exactly, that’s okay, because many calls live in the grey area – but make it a point to know as much as you can, and to rehearse in your own mind ahead of time what you would do when you are presented with different types of scenarios.  Part of authority is understanding our role in the law, and exercising it judiciously and with compassion where needed - but the greater part of it (and what’s actually represented by the badge you wear) is the ability to bring a body of knowledge and experience to a situation and ensure that the rights we all enjoy as Americans are not being impinged upon by another person’s actions.  In the end, our command presence comes down to the ability to apply that knowledge, and you should not ever be afraid to exercise it as a guardian of truth and justice.

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