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Drift: Shifting our law enforcement norms

Drift may be defined as what occurs when there is a shifting of norms — or standards — over a period of time, causing new norms — or standards — to form

I was in a police department recently to provide applicants for police sergeant a briefing on an upcoming sergeant’s test. While the candidates were entering the room a young officer approached the assistant chief of police — who was in full uniform — and said, “How’s it going Terry?” They shook hands, and talked for a couple of minutes. The Chief and I have known each other for many years, and he could tell that I was a little taken aback.  When I asked why he allowed officers to address him by his first name he told me it was a “different era” and that police officers today are very different from than those I served with.

I hear variations along this same theme all the time. Complaints from veteran officers that younger officers “have no sense of pride in being police officers” or “don’t have dedication to the job” or “don’t have a good work ethic” or who “constantly question” why they have to do something the way the sergeant wants it done.

Although I have no way of knowing if any of this is true nationally, I’ve seen enough of this type of behavior here in New England to cause me to give a great deal of thought about whether our profession has moved away from its center.  It makes me think a lot about the concept of drift.

Trailing Indicators of Drift
Drift may be defined as what occurs when there is a shifting of norms — or standards — over a period of time, causing new norms — or standards — to form. Drift is often so subtle that its cumulative effects change the core foundations of the original concept(s) on which something is founded.

Here are some indicators of “drift.”  Many police departments no longer require officers to wear their uniform hats — a baseball cap seems fine today. I chased a suspect who bailed out of a stolen car, fought with him and placed him in handcuffs. My Sergeant arrived on the scene and rather than commending me for what I thought was a good bust, he asked me where my hat was. I told him it was in my cruiser and he said, “Go get it and put it on your head. I’ll watch your prisoner until you get back.” Silly when you look at this story from today’s standards, but back then it was important to the Sergeant so it was important to me. When we went to baseball hats instead of police caps nothing “bad” seemed to happen. It established a new norm.

So, we drifted.

Police officers that I encounter don’t salute superior officers anymore except on “special occasions.”  So, we now address our Sergeants by their first name and I guess with a baseball cap a hand salute has lost its meaning. We drifted.

I attended a roll call briefing the other day and everyone was sitting down in chairs. No one got up and stood at attention when the Sergeant and Lieutenant entered the room — roll call was conducted in a very lax atmosphere. Officers were on their cell phones when their Sergeant was speaking. I guess the day of having people in ranks, “Dress right dress, ready front, attention to roll call,” have drifted away. I asked when inspections for uniforms, firearms, handcuffs, etc. were conducted, and the response I got was “every so often.” We drifted.

I went into the Detective division in a major metropolitan police department the other day to see if I could get some fingerprint powder to use for one of my investigative classes. Everyone was dressed in cargo pants and polo shirts with a little badge type emblem sewn on them. I asked if any detectives were around and was told that everyone there was a Detective. I guess the days of a homicide detective wearing a shirt, tie, and at least a sports jacket have gone the way of wearing real police hats, saluting, and having a structured roll call. We drifted.

Cops today wear black sneakers instead of dress shoes. There were no immediate consequences for not wearing police hats, not saluting, and not using military formations. There were no immediate consequences for not conducting inspections at roll call, or for detectives not appropriately dressing for the position. So, I guess, sneakers are fine. We drifted.  

We drifted when the courts threw out height and weight requirements and residency. Although I understand the courts position that neither requirement can be proven to be “job related” we spend a lot of time involved in policing a community in which we do not live and call it “community policing.” I guess the days of police officers being born and raised in the city, going to school there, and walking a beat in the area they live is long gone. We drifted.

With the 20-year retirements with no age limit, we all saw our veteran officers take the money and leave. I’m not judging here — I was one of them! Policing is a craft that can’t be learned from a book. Before the 20-year pensions there was a transfer of tradition, honor, integrity, and craft that occurred between veteran officers and younger ones that isn’t occurring today. The guy who broke me in when I made detective was 72 years old. He was doing homicides when I was in grade school and I learned more from him in a month than I ever learned since. I remember being a patrol captain on the evening shift hoping nothing would happen on the street. I had sergeants with less than five years on the job and patrol officers with even less time. It’s not that the officers wouldn’t step in harms was or try their best. They just didn’t have the experience, so they would arrest anything that moved.

My police pension is very good, but... we drifted...  Now we seem to be drifting away from the 20-year-and-out pensions towards the 401K.

We now allow lateral transfer from one department to another. Cities and towns hire people who want to be police officers. After a few years they leave for another city of town that may pay more, have more upward mobility, specialized assignments, or whatever. Officers with more than 20 years are banking their pensions and beginning over in a new department if they’ll take them. We drifted.

We now allow officers to bid their shift by seniority, touting the health benefits of working a steady shift rather than rotating month-to-month. This may mean our experienced officers and supervisors are working steady days or midnights and our inexperienced officer and supervisors are not working from 1800 to 0200, when most heavy crime occurs. We drifted.

In order not to have to bother with civil service testing, we now make up ranks and appoint our favored sons and daughters to positions without competitive testing. In many departments, detective is an “appointment, as is deputy chief, agent, and Assistant Chief of Police. There seem to be a lot of people with scrambled eggs on their hats — if we still wore them — who didn’t earn the rank. We drifted.

I asked an officer the other day what the emblem was he was wearing on his uniform. He said it was for being a member of the “crisis intervention team.” I asked if the pin was approved by the department and was told that they could wear anything they wanted on the uniform and long as it didn’t have a racist, political, or religious connotation. We drifted.

I noticed an officer who had many rows of medals on his uniform and asked him what they were for. “Unit citation, perfect attendance, firearms qualification, accident safety, milestones for drunken driving arrests, letters of commendation.” We drifted.

I attended the funeral for a retired police officer the other day. He had only left the job five years earlier. When I asked where all of his brother and sister officers were I was told they only show up for an officer killed in the line of duty. We drifted.

All of these examples happened over a period of years. That’s the way the concept of drift works. Who is responsible? We are. We let it happen. Is it all negative? I don’t know. I’m sure many officers don’t believe any of this is a big deal. I do know that today’s officer will still step into harm’s way if needed. Maybe I’m very much behind the times and getting too long in the tooth. What do think? Does any of it matter? I would be interested to know whether or not PoliceOne Members believe we have drifted away from the cornerstones on which we were founded — courage, honor, integrity, our oath of office, and viewing policing as a way of life, as opposed to just a job.

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