3 challenges for police officers in a post-Ferguson world

It has never been easy to be a cop — and it’s getting even harder to be one now — so watch out for each other and be smart about the risks you’re taking

A May 2015 Wall Street Journal article discussed violent crime statistics in the post-Ferguson era and declared that we are seeing a new “national crime wave.” Whereas the first half of 2014 continued the 20-year national trend of decreasing violent and property crimes, the first half of 2015 saw a dramatic rise in criminal activity and violence, especially in major urban centers where shootings, homicides and other violent crimes are spiking.

Some mainstream media chooses to blame this dramatic increase entirely on cops who have chosen to disengage and police less aggressively, but there are other contributing factors. It would be too simplistic to blame these incidents — such as the 180 percent increase in Milwaukee homicides or the 500 percent increase in East Harlem shootings — on retreating cops while ignoring the economic, cultural, educational, and political factors that influence these trends. 

Consider These Three Challenges
We must acknowledge, however, that the police do play a role in the reversing trend. In the current political climate, the trust between police officers and civil leaders has been damaged, and the bond between the police and the public has eroded, which has an inevitable effect on police behavior. 

If you’ve found yourself doing the math and have determined that the personal and professional risks of aggressive policing are unacceptable in the current political climate, you’re probably not alone. If you’ve determined that you will use your allowable discretion to limit your exposure to potentially volatile situations, you’re probably in good company with cops across the nation who feel they no longer have the support of their civic leaders or the public, and in some cases, are being targeted by them.

I’m not going to make a judgement on these personal decisions — they are yours to make. I will simply acknowledge that this is the crossroads we have come to in America, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if some cops are no longer willing to stick their neck out when the crowd is standing by with guillotines at the ready. However, I am going to challenge you to do the following:

1. Don’t sacrifice good tactics for “good optics.”
With all the media attention and public scrutiny, it might be tempting to change tactics and soften your approach to some volatile situations to avoid becoming the next target of the cop-bashers. There’s nothing wrong with using a soft approach when it’s appropriate, but if the situation demands a more aggressive response, then don’t shy away from it. 

Ironically, an early and aggressive response can improve a suspect’s safety, in addition to an officer’s safety, by preventing the situation from developing or escalating to the point that greater levels of force are required to regain control. 

The media might celebrate an officer’s “restraint” in the face of obvious danger, but you should not be subjecting yourself and your partners to unnecessary risk just to avoid looking bad on film.

2. Don’t fall prey to “deadly hesitation.”
Avoiding unnecessary confrontations is one thing, but don’t get so caught up in avoiding all use of force that you hesitate to use it when necessary. When an attacker puts your safety or the safety of a fellow officer or citizen in jeopardy, you cannot hesitate. 

If you delay your response too long — or respond with an insufficient level of force because you’re afraid of “excessive force” accusations — then you may endanger innocent lives. If a threat puts you in danger, you must respond swiftly, decisively and aggressively. 

Stop the threat, win the fight, and worry about the aftermath later.

3. Remember your oath.
You swore an oath to serve and protect the public, and nothing about that has changed since Ferguson. Never forget that the vast majority of citizens still respect and support you, and are counting on you to help keep them safe. 

It’s one thing to let your enthusiasm for aggressive police work wane in the face of unjust criticism and treatment, but it’s your duty and your obligation as a cop to protect the innocent, even if it comes at great personal risk. You don’t have to recklessly throw yourself into harm’s way or take foolish risks, but you must be ready to do your duty and must never shirk it. Not everyone can be a cop or assume a cop’s burden — that’s what makes you and this profession so special.

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