In the history of our nation, those who serve the public have held a special position of trust by the citizens. There have been many times that the trust has been earned and validated, and a few tragic times when the trust has been violated and public opinion has lashed out against those who serve. Consider:
- Our World War II veterans are today called ‘The Greatest Generation’ for their service and sacrifice. It was well-earned. The potential for survival was very low–not just from combat with the enemy, but from dysentery, yellow fever, and a host of other diseases that attacked those who were not native to the area; medical knowledge and availability were inadequate to the task; and those that came home undoubtedly suffered immeasurably from what we would now call PTSD, although we had no name for it at the time.
- Contrast this with our Vietnam veterans. When they returned home, they were treated with the ultimate disrespect of being called ‘baby-killers’ and worse; they were characterized as drug-users; often called monsters who were disloyal to the US; and although by this time we knew to some degree what PTSD was, by and large we made little to no effort to treat those who had lost their mental equilibrium in the jungle.
The point of these two examples is that the honor of public service, including that of providing the ultimate sacrifice, can be tarnished by pubic perception of that service. In one case, the service was considered not just honorable, but heroic; in the other, the service was tarnished in part by the presence of recorded and broadcast media, which was documenting every flaw in the operation from start to finish, occasionally exposing atrocities; failure of leadership; and in the end, questioning the legitimacy of the entire effort. The military took generations to recover from the tarnish that was Vietnam–and that was truly a disservice and even a travesty to those who served.
We have a category of public servant in this same spotlight today: our police force. Where the media was impactful in sculpting public perception in Vietnam, the issue is tenfold or a hundredfold today: every citizen has a camera phone with instant posting ability to the web, and many police departments, in an effort to protect their officers, have the officers wearing body cams to record events in real time–often with unexpected and damning results.
THIS IS NOT A CRITIQUE OF THE MEDIA. The role of the media is essential in assuring that our free and unprecedentedly successful society continues to grow and thrive based on the truth. Where media is suppressed, societies die. We may believe in ‘American exceptionalism’ but the truth of the matter is that our society could still die at any time if we make a few bad choices–and disabling the media’s charter and ability to tell our citizens the truth would be one of those indicators.
The police force, as on overall body of public servants, is not doing well right now in the court of public opinion. Beginning with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and including the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, the revealing of videos showing the shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, and most recently, the death of Freddie Gray of Baltimore while in police custody–all of which validated in whole or in part by media–have thrown an unprecedented spotlight on the activities and ethics of an honorable branch of public servant that we couldn’t live without.
It’s a challenge that must be faced and managed properly. The notion that our police force could one day be treated as Vietnam veterans once were would be unconscionable. The notion that our police force could forget the tenant of honorable public service and circle the wagons to protect itself would be even worse.
So what do we do as public servants that lead, manage, and enact the critical public protection function of policing? There are a number of things to consider that may have put us on the wrong track or leading to that wrong track, that can be corrected. Here’s a partial list:
- Recognize and affirm that the public you serve is ALL the public–whether they are a different race, a different religion, follow a different ethic and moral code, and whether they respect you and your authority or don’t–they’re all the same and must be treated as citizens that you serve–even as you may be serving them by arresting them or applying necessary force to prevent them from harming others. It’s not personal. It’s what you do and why you do it.
- Understand that the stage upon which you conduct your honorable service is a public stage. The lights are VERY bright and there are no unlighted corners in which to hide. The audience that you perceive to be present may number in single digits, but can expand to the entire nation with the click of a button. So act accordingly. As the old saying goes: Never do anything that would shame your grandmother. It’s good advice.
- An oath often used in the military and elsewhere can be paraphrased as: ‘I will not behave immorally or unethically or tolerate those who do’–yet we are driven to protect those whom we consider friends and colleagues when they screw up. We can’t do that–what applies to us applies to our colleagues, and what our colleagues do that is immoral and unethical destroys us as it destroys them IF WE DO NOTHING ABOUT IT. Prevention is best–establish the culture of morality and ethics, then live by it–but in cases where a colleague violates YOUR standards, be unrelenting in your condemnation–because they are destroying you and everything you’ve worked for, even as they are destroying themselves.
- Go public. BE public. Protestors are not your enemy–they are your conscience. Engage them in discussion. Learn from them. Teach them. Learn more from them. Teach them more. The media is not your enemy. They are the channel to the wider world that you can use to communicate your message of honorable public service. So do that–but DO understand that they have an incredibly effective BS detector–so don’t under ANY circumstances, BS them. It won’t turn out well.
These and other guidelines may help you save our police force from becoming the Vietnam military. We can’t afford as a society to have that happen again. So prevent it. It’s within your power to do so.