State your case: Is a ‘blue flu’ the right way for officers to make their voices heard?

Following a month of protests, firings, criminal charges and a chief’s resignation, there were reports of a high number of Atlanta police 'call outs'


This “State your case” looks at whether officers should engage in “blue flu” actions.

Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.

The issue: While police morale is down nationwide, Atlanta police officers have been particularly hard hit by a series of critical incidents since protests began following the death of George Floyd. “It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” said Dave Wilkinson, president and CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation. “Commanders will tell you the same thing. (Officers) just don’t feel valued.” After criminal charges were announced for the two officers accused in the death of Rayshard Brooks there were reports of a higher number than usual of Atlanta LEOs calling out for work. Such "blue flu" protests are not new, but is it the right approach for officers to take to express their grievances?

Watch the video below of Atlanta Police Department Interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant discussing officers' actions and morale issues and then check out our columnist’s viewpoints.

Joel Shults: I’ve often said that police officers have tremendous control over other people’s lives but little over their own. Every cop knows they face death and injury. Every cop knows they will be ostracized, criticized, demonized and victimized, but those known risks have never kept most from doing what they do. Until now.

Today it’s different. Suddenly officers are not allowed any room for making their own judgment because every decision is retroactively critiqued as wrong by politicians, weak leaders, activists and hate groups. The cost is simply getting too high. When doing the right thing is no longer valued, the social contract that says the citizenry will follow the law and accept the consequences of the harm they cause is broken and the police are released from that contract.

The psychologists and life coaches say that we teach people how to treat us, that we must create boundaries to preserve our life and sanity. Now is the time to reel in the thin blue line that buffers liberty from chaos. A transient disruption that creates a realignment of social values is to be expected. A rebellion against fundamental concepts of social order is not.

The soldier who goes off to war expects to return to a place of peace when their job is done, not to spend decades bearing the cost of the battle on their own. It is time to seriously consider laying the badge aside, not from fear, not from frustration, but to allow a nation to learn once again how to value the essential role of good citizenship. As the old song preaches, you’ll never miss the water ‘til the well runs dry.

Jim Dudley: Take the high road and do the work you were sworn to do, to “serve and protect.”

There are large segments of our community who need safety and protection. They may be fearful of the anarchy witnessed on daily news reports and social media. Think of children, the elderly and those oppressed in situations where they may be prisoners in their own homes. Imagine a resident living inside or on the perimeter of an "autonomous zone" as they are in Seattle. There will still be child abuse, elder abuse, sex crimes, assaults and robberies of vulnerable people.

Think of shop owners already victimized by the economic impact of COVID-19, coupled with destruction from some of the protests and riots. Their voices may be stifled for fear of reprisals.

Self-preservation and protecting your colleagues should be a high priority now but also think of those victims who will be collateral damage in this attack on the profession.

Joel Shults: How many times have police officers responded to abusive relationships and find the victim unwilling to move out, leave their abusers, set boundaries, or get legal protection? They continue in the abusive relationship hoping if they change the abuser will change.

Now, police are victims of increasing abuse by the very system they intended to support and trust. The use of punitive prosecution, summary dismissal, abandonment of support, the threat of the loss of qualified immunity and imposition of personal financial disaster go beyond reason.

Jurisdictions who are essentially abusive partners with law enforcement must pay the price of losing that relationship. The collateral consequences will be real, but they lay on the shoulders of those who chose to subvert and abandon the social contract, not on the guardians of that contract.

Jim Dudley: Officers have unique powers of depriving freedoms of arrest and force options up to the use of lethal force. Law officers need to be focused on the job at hand. You are problem solvers who need to be intuitive and adaptable to ever-changing situations.

That said: Officers with self-doubt, with fear, unable to sleep and in varied states of depression should absolutely NOT go to work.

I am interested to see the mental health or physical disability retirements that will occur from March 1 through the end of this year. I am sure they will be higher than many previous years (except for phenomena such as war-era retirement waves).

Officers who continue to work under physical or mental compromised states are a liability and should seek professional help before they decide to “tough it out.” Otherwise, street-ready, fit-for-duty officers should hold their heads high, be careful and continue to do the work of the noble profession of policing.

Joel Shults: The ultimate reform of policing in America can only happen when the value of the thin blue line is affirmed. If leaders will fight for the affirmation, any needed reforms will happen. Without that affirmation, the battle is already lost and our men and women in blue should feel free to celebrate their service and forge a new life. There should be no disrespect for those who remain for some glimmer of hope, or for those who assess the risk to themselves and their families as too great to bear.

Jim Dudley: The legislators and self-appointed police reformers may dictate policing to follow the fire department approach of staying in the house until dispatched. Until then, “as long as one of us goes out, we all go out.” There have been too many law officers hurt or killed during this time, let’s not contribute to the numbers. 

NEXT: State your case: Should police officers participate in protests?


About the authors

James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a Master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and co-hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor's in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on several advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.

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