Trending Topics

A letter to the American public: Breaking down policing myths

Our society cannot expect any reasonable person to put their life on the line without significant guarantees in terms of their compensation, benefits, personal liability and physical well-being


A cop is equal parts warrior, paralegal, medic, behavioral health specialist, detective and social worker.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

“Police business,” he said almost gently, “is a hell of a problem. It’s a good deal like politics. It asks for the highest type of men, and there’s nothing in it to attract the highest type of men. So, we have to work with what we get – and we get things like this.”

Raymond Chandler wrote this in the Philip Marlowe detective novel “The Lady in the Lake” published in 1943. This perception has continued throughout the years, with crooked cops depicted in the films “Brooklyn’s Finest,” “Bad Lieutenant” and “Training Day.

With the events of the past couple of years, images of cops as “heroes in blue” have vanished, and hard looks and indifference have replaced the spontaneous handshakes and “thanks for your service!” declarations of the past. But what is reality, and what is a false stereotype?

I would like to dispel 10 commonly held myths and provide some perspectives you can share when you talk about these issues with your friends, family, neighbors, elected representatives and anyone else who will listen. These are facts not always covered by the media but are critical for an understanding of today’s policing landscape.

Myth #1: Any high school graduate can be a cop.

Actually, many agencies require college credits or military service. The selection process is daunting – a written exam, physical exam, physical ability testing, psychological screening, drug testing, polygraph, oral board and a probing background check, which many candidates will fail.

Recruits face up to 6 months (or more) of training in the academy in criminal law, arrest control, de-escalation techniques, firearms, driving, first aid, mental health and other subjects. A cop is equal parts warrior, paralegal, medic, behavioral health specialist, detective and social worker, so their training must reflect this. Assuming you graduate (not all do), you ride for several weeks with a Field Training Officer (FTO) before becoming qualified to patrol solo, and there is a probationary period from 6 months to 2 years before you become a permanent employee. Slip up, and you may be looking for a different line of work.

After completing FTO training and probation, there are many hours of mandatory annual training. Cops are perpetual students, and their training is never complete. It is tough to get to be a cop and even harder to stay one.

Myth #2: Cops have workplace safety protections just like the rest of us.

As the police watch out for us, who is looking out for them? As public sector workers, they are not covered by Federal OSHA standards in 24 states (including my home state of Colorado) and Washington, DC. In the remaining 26 states, inspections are infrequent, and there are few specific health and safety standards that apply to law enforcement work. Construction, refinery and factory workers have more protections under OSHA than any cop does.

Federally-regulated jobs such as long-haul trucking, railroad, commercial aviation and maritime have well-defined work hours by law, but surprisingly, there are no similar work hour limitations for law enforcement. The risk to the public of an armed, fatigued police officer driving a patrol car at high speed while making complex life or death decisions cannot be ignored. Considering that police work is one of the most dangerous occupations in terms of fatal and non-fatal injuries, we need to be doing more to protect our cops…a lot more!

Myth #3: We just need to offer more money and bonuses, then we can get more people to work in law enforcement.

There are law enforcement staffing crises in many major cities including Seattle, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Atlanta and Chicago, and the time from initial recruitment to having a fully-qualified officer on patrol can be 1-2 years (after required college hours). Considering the current shortfalls, that is much too long to wait for the cops that we desperately need right now.

Call out the National Guard? Well, they have neither the skill set, nor the authority and sustainability to fill these gaps, and do we want community policing or martial law?

Those who have left police work have significant experience that departments sorely need, so plans to recruit more officers must also include them. What will it take to bring them back into the fold and entice others to enter? Significantly better pay, benefits and working conditions as a start – with more appreciation and less derision. There are many other less dangerous and better-paying occupations out there, and with anti-police sentiment rampant, and a record number of officers shot and killed in 2021, we have to ask ourselves “why would anyone want to be a cop these days?”

Myth #4: With all of the infrastructure and recovery money being handed out by Congress, that should help law enforcement, right?

Neither the recently passed $1.2T “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act” (H.R.3684) nor the $1.75T “Build Back Better Act” (H.R.5376) (still under consideration), have language about improved pay, benefits, training, or working conditions for law enforcement, which is at least as important as bike lanes, stormwater management and invasive plant elimination, which have all been identified as areas for funding.

Body-worn cameras, data storage systems, less-than-lethal weapon systems and the enhanced training that goes along with these things all cost money, and many agencies cannot afford them, including those in Colorado and other states.

Myth #5: The police should be held accountable for their actions and should be able to be sued.

“Qualified immunity refers to a series of legal precedents that protect government officials — including police officers — accused of violating constitutional rights. To win a civil suit against a police officer, complainants must show that the officer violated ‘clearly established law,’ most often by pointing to factually similar previous cases. Otherwise, officers are protected from liability.”

Colorado and New York City have already eliminated qualified immunity, and the failed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 (H.R.1280) would have eliminated it completely.

President Biden has indicated that he will act unilaterally through executive action on police reform, so qualified immunity will be back on the table again. Cops must be appropriately shielded from civil liability, without the fear of unfounded and frivolous lawsuits, if they are expected to respond to the dangerous situations they encounter daily. Protection of individual qualified immunity must be made federal law, not just judicial doctrine open to interpretation by cities and states.

Myth #6: Police work is glamorous and exciting like “Blue Bloods” “Hawaii Five-0” “Bosch” and “Law and Order: SVU” There will always be people wanting to do it.

As we reel from record numbers of law enforcement line of duty deaths from COVID-19, vehicle accidents and gunfire, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that fatal and nonfatal work injuries to police officers occur at about 4 times the national average for all workers. Police encounters with suspects and emotionally disturbed persons can be “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving,” with officers, suspects and bystanders being injured or killed, as in the tragic Burlington Coat Factory shooting.

Make a mistake, and you could face a civil lawsuit or criminal charges, and you could lose your job, house, family and freedom. It is no surprise that cops are retiring and quitting in droves, while departments scramble to replace them. All this for a job that pays about $34.00/hour with a pension, if you are lucky enough to collect it because police officers have a significantly shorter lifespan than the general population.

Considering all of this, do we really expect that people will rush to make this a career choice in current times?

Myth #7: Social workers, community service officers, mental health specialists and unarmed traffic agents can replace police officers.

Just like in the medical field, where we have nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists and physical therapists, each team member has a role, but ultimately the physician leads the team, writes the orders and takes responsibility for the outcomes. Ancillary staff, as mentioned above, have their role as part of the law enforcement team, but they do not have the training or tools to deal with the unpredictable nature of citizen contacts and traffic stops that can turn from friendly to deadly in mere seconds. The skill sets they bring are highly valued, but they will never be able to replace sworn officers.

Myth #8: Police unions are powerful and always get their way.

What role do unions play? They represent officers when contracts are bargained but have no recourse when negotiations stall, as it is illegal for cops to strike, and calling out with the “blue flu” can get you fired. Chicago Police went for 4 years without a contract while officers worked mandatory overtime and frequently had days off canceled, and NYPD rank-and-file police officers went for 7 years without a contract. This just doesn’t happen in the private sector.

Unless unions, benevolent associations and the like get more power at the bargaining table, there won’t be anyone left to come to the table.

Myth #9: Minor traffic offenses should be ignored, and the police should be fighting real crime.

A new law in Virginia bans police from pulling over drivers solely for some car safety violations, and certain types of traffic stops have also been banned in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Seattle. Don’t forget that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, was stopped by Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Charlie Hanger for a missing license plate, and Ted Bundy as well as several other serial killers were caught as a result of traffic stops for minor offenses. Any street cop can tell you about all the felons, drugs, weapons and impaired drivers they got off the street due to probable cause and reasonable suspicion traffic stops.

This trend, coupled with blanket “no-pursuit policies” has emboldened criminals who see no consequences in running from the police.

Myth #10: When I dial 911, there will always be someone sent out to help me – that’s what I pay taxes for.

Not necessarily. As police staffing dwindles and crime rates go up, something has to give. Police in Austin, Texas no longer respond to “non-emergencies” including verbal disturbances, theft and prostitution, which are no longer an active threat to people or property. We know how “verbal disturbances” can escalate into full-blown domestic violence calls, and who’s to say that a “prostitution” call is not a case of human trafficking? Similar things have happened in Asheville, North Carolina, Tucson, Arizona and Portland, Oregon. Unless something is done to stem the tide of those leaving law enforcement, I would predict more agencies will have to do the same thing and limit the crimes they are able to respond to.

Despite all of these challenges, some of the finest men and women in America are still suiting up every day with honor and compassion to patrol our streets and take care of business in our jails and correctional facilities, 24/7, but for how much longer? It has always been inspiring to me to see them at work, on the range and in the academy, but it is hard to watch the changes that their chosen occupation is going through right now.

Again, from Raymond Chandler: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, and who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” If that is the type of cop we want, we must support our brothers and sisters in law enforcement and demand the immediate changes necessary to help them, through appropriate state and federal legislative actions.

NEXT: A letter to the American public: How police foundations facilitate positive police-community engagement

John M. Williams, Sr., MD, MPH, is a physician with a Master’s of Public Health degree, board-certified in both occupational medicine and ophthalmology. He is also a retired Navy medical officer, combat veteran and former Marine Corps Medical Battalion Commander. For the past 12 years, he has been a reserve deputy sheriff in southern Colorado and has also served as an academy instructor.