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Reflecting on policing’s past: A retired police officer’s perspective on the challenges and triumphs of LE

Lt. Dan Marcou urges today’s police force to adapt and overcome in what could be the dawn of a new Golden Era of American Policing

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Reflecting back, it now seems to me that I served during what could be described as the Golden Age of American Policing.

Photo/Dan Marcou

Even though I retired in 2006 after 33 years in policing, I truly empathize with today’s police officers. They are facing skyrocketing crime rates, a rampant rise in illegal drug use, open contempt and disrespect from people on the streets, a worrying number of assaults and ambushes on officers nationwide, judges releasing dangerous criminals from jail before reports are even written, and personnel shortages.

In the 1970s and 80s, we faced similar obstacles. However, our generation never had to contend with the frequency of civil unrest or endure the sharp criticisms from anti-police political leaders that your generation has faced.

The Golden Era of Policing?

As they say, “back in my day,” the social turmoil of the 1960s and 70s fueled criminality and anti-police sentiment across the country. In response, police officers patrolling their beats nationwide helped pull the country back from the brink. Looking back, I feel privileged to have worked during what could be considered the Golden Era of American Policing.

Here is how it came to be.

Theory of “Broken Window” Policing

In 1982, J.Q. Wilson wrote an article proposing the theory that criminality is encouraged when a community visibly declines and decays. Wilson suggested that focusing on highly visible minor violations and apparent signs of community deterioration, such as broken windows, could positively impact crime.

This philosophy was informally embraced by many of us nationwide, seeing it as a way to make our communities safer. Officers began to take meaningful action on minor infractions such as traffic violations, shoplifting, public urination, vandalism and fare evasion.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who served from 1994 to 2001, fully embraced this philosophy. As a result, New York’s Finest adopted this enforcement approach.

New York City, which had been in decline throughout the 1980s, was transformed from resembling the backdrop of Charles Bronson’s movie “Death Wish” to becoming one of the safest large cities in the world.

Sir Robert Peel rebooted

During this period of awakening, American police officers were reintroduced to the words of Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing: “The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

These words inspired many officers to develop their connection with their communities, similar to the beat cops of old.

This resurgence of policing, emerging in the late 1980s and early 90s, came to be known as community policing.

It’s important to note that individual officers who adopted this philosophy as a “my beat, my responsibility” mindset found it more beneficial than agencies that turned it into a formal program. These agencies, with good intentions, inadvertently gave community policing a finite lifespan; when the funding ran out, so did the program.

Unlike formal community policing programs, officers who internalized the philosophy increased their enforcement activity rather than reducing it, as was often the case with those formally assigned as community police officers in funded programs.

For officers who truly embraced community-oriented policing, this meant adopting a vigilant, proactive approach to law enforcement that better served their communities, which were grappling with crime.

Proactive policing

A trend spread nationwide where officers shifted from merely reacting to calls to proactively initiating numerous lawful interactions after observing minor traffic infractions. These interactions often evolved into mini-investigations, leading to significant arrests.

The Supreme Court-approved Terry Stop became a valuable tool for suppressing crime during this time. Through these legally sanctioned stops, officers apprehended numerous criminals and prevented a variety of serious crimes.

These strategies started to have a positive impact on public safety.

Inspiring a generation of passionate 5%-ers

The 1994 Calibre Press Book by Charles Remsberg, titled “Tactics for Criminal Patrol,” outlined the techniques and tactics used by proactive officers. Remsberg referred to them as “5%-ers,” an exceptional minority committed to outstanding patrol performance.

The book further inspired officers to strive to become “5%-ers,” who, according to David Hunter, were exceptional cops because they remained excited about every shift.

This passion for policing was embraced by thousands of officers, who elevated their performance nationwide.


Officers became increasingly effective as they learned to collaborate more closely with community partners.

For instance, upon arresting a repeat offender guilty of battery, robbery or rape, officers could bypass relying solely on a judge’s decision. Instead, they simply needed to inform a probation or parole officer about the suspect’s serious offense. The probation officer, upon being notified, would frequently place a hold on the suspect, effectively preventing their release for an indefinite period.

The Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994

The bipartisan Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 significantly encouraged these victim-oriented policing practices.

This legislation allocated funds to police departments, prisons and programs for juvenile offenders. It supported initiatives to protect women from violence, prevent crime and promote the expansion of community policing, including the funding for 100,000 additional police officers.

Additionally, the law established mandatory sentencing guidelines, prioritizing the sentencing of criminals to safeguard communities from individuals engaging in poisoning communities with illicit drugs.

Crime rates plummeted

The synergy of various law enforcement strategies, coupled with support from leadership, prosecution, judiciary and the community, fostered an environment that motivated officers to eagerly pursue criminals, resulting in arrests and convictions at an unprecedented national rate. The mandatory sentencing provisions of the bill significantly increased the number of criminals incarcerated.

With a historic number of dangerous criminals behind bars, crime rates saw a substantial decline.

However, some today, who have not witnessed the suffering of victims brutalized by these offenders as police officers have, argue that the race of the incarcerated was a primary factor, often overlooking the race of the victims.

I take pride in having been a fervent advocate for victims during that period, detaining numerous perpetrators. My colleagues and I tackled criminality with intense energy, passion, commitment, and professionalism, adhering strictly to the law to enhance national safety.

My approach was to target individuals based on their criminal actions rather than their race, revealing that offenders span across all racial backgrounds.

Reflecting back, it now seems to me that I served during what could be described as the Golden Age of American Policing.

A new Golden Era of American Policing?

To all the officers still serving, despite the hardships you’ve endured, I offer this advice: Now is the moment to support your country by adopting some or all of the strategies our generation used, even though we faced challenges that, while similar, may not have been as daunting as yours.

It’s time for you to take charge of your future and guide this country away from the brink. In doing so, you might just establish a new Golden Era of American Policing.

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.