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10 things that fuel negative police image among the public

What are the most common daily activities that officers do to fuel a negative image?

Police officer looking at smart phone

Personal calls on patrol should be minimized. The public views this as unnecessary and they are probably right.


Maintaining the positive image of the police has always been a challenge since the days of the first known police force dating back to the 1800s. With the advent of social media, this challenge is amplified exponentially. At a moment’s notice, the misdeeds of one officer can go viral across the globe without any ability to mitigate or reconcile the damage.

Part of this is just the cost of doing business in the digital age, but what about the part of the problem that can be influenced by altering human behavior? What are the most common daily activities that officers do to fuel a negative image?

Sir Robert Peel said, “Police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.” As fundamental and elementary as this all sounds, I would suggest that some police leaders in this modern era may have lost sight of these basics. More Peel wisdom: “The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.”

Simply stated, it’s not what you say to the public about how good you are at policing. It’s what the public feels about the police based on what they see every day. Whether we want to acknowledge this or not, perception is reality to the public. Here are 10 behaviors that fuel negative police image that you as a police leader can minimize or even eliminate.

1. Driving recklessly and/or unnecessarily speeding in a police vehicle

Since police officers are in the business of writing tickets to the public for speeding and reckless driving, it is no surprise that citizens are incensed when they see a police car speeding by or driving erratically. The justification from the department is that speeding is necessary to get the job done. However, the difference in arrival time by speeding to a call versus driving within or near the speed limit is negligible.

Additionally, excessive speed is one of the leading causes of peace officer injury and death. A little reminder memo on this topic to the troops from the chief executive can go a long way toward both officer safety and a positive image.

2. Talking on a mobile device while driving a police vehicle

Okay, we get the fact that most states have an exemption that allows on-duty police officers to talk on the phone while driving. But how much of this talking and driving is job-related? Personal calls on patrol should be minimized. The public views this as unnecessary and they are probably right.

3. Texting while driving a police vehicle

Similar to talking on the phone and driving, texting is more egregious and dangerous, too. There is no justification for an officer to be texting and driving anytime, period. Here again, not only does it fuel a negative image, but it is dangerous as well.

4. Not wearing seat belts in a police vehicle

Many departments have exemptions that allow on-duty peace officers to avoid wearing seatbelts. For some reason, police officers feel that they are exempt from the law of physics as well. Any police leader who doesn’t understand the importance of seatbelts in the preservation of an officer’s life has his head buried in the sand.

The public expects police officers to obey the seatbelt laws and reject the notion that police officers need to get out of the car in a hurry and therefore should not be wearing seatbelts.

5. Parking the police vehicle in a no parking or handicap zone

Clearly there are times when a police officer needs to park the patrol vehicle in an unauthorized area. However, there is no excuse for the officer who parks the patrol car in the fire lane and goes into the dry cleaners to pick up dry cleaning or into the store to get a soda or a cup of coffee. The public views this as a blatant disrespect for the law.

6. Fueling the perception of special privilege

Many years ago, the late General Norman Schwarzkopf told a story in his book about a general visiting the troops on the battlefield during mealtime. The officers and soldiers invited the general to eat at the front of the line ahead of the troops. The general went and stood in the back of the line and said that he would wait in line just like any other soldier.

This is not only a powerful leadership lesson, but it can be applied fundamentally to the image of the police and the public. Anytime a police officer uses the position of authority to gain an advantage, the public loses some respect.

7. Accepting “police discounts”

All law enforcement agencies have policies in place that forbid the acceptance of gratuities, yet police officers always seem to find the places who are willing to offer them. There is no need to discuss the merits of this issue in depth, but it’s worth mentioning as a factor of negative police imagery.

8. Unsightly personal appearance

Beards, long mustaches, offensive tattoos, morbid obesity and any other element of unprofessional appearance create negative images. There’s a reason the police academy stresses clean appearances and good hygiene. Does the term “command presence” ring any bells?

9. Non-uniform uniforms

The word “uniform” loses meaning when departments allow officers to wear several variations of attire. Since when did baseball caps, BDUs, polo shirts, and drop-down leg-strapped holsters become acceptable uniforms?

Certainly, there are times when such attire is appropriate depending upon the operation. But wearing these unsightly so-called uniforms creates a negative image to the community. It is difficult enough to try and explain why officers must sometimes revert to military-style garments, but everyday use is just fodder for police critics.

10. Treating individuals disrespectfully no matter the situation

It’s tough to be a police officer and take verbal and physical abuse regularly. But go back and read the job description. It says cops must rise above the abuse and “maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn or ridicule.” Again, a key factor in projecting a positive image.


The positive image of the police in the United States is more critical now more than any other time in recent history. Police leaders must take a step back and evaluate these negative factors and others to determine if the officers themselves are an integral part of the negative police image problem. Anyone can recognize when a department may have lost its way.

But it takes great courage to reel it back in and address all of the negative aspects that detract from the mission. It’s time to grab the rudder and steer the image ship back on course. If you get lost, look at the roadmap that has served the profession for almost two centuries. He may not have had a mobile phone or a computer, but Sir Peel did have the right ideas. It’s time to get back to some basics.

Paul Cappitelli is an honorably retired law enforcement professional with over 45 years of experience. From 2007-2012, Paul served as Executive Director for the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). Prior to his POST appointment, he retired at the rank of Captain from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department in California, following 29 years of service. Paul is a past and present member of several professional groups and associations. He holds an undergraduate degree in business management and a master’s degree in public administration. He is currently a public safety consultant and police/corrections practices expert. Visit Contact Paul Cappitelli.