“police power – n. The inherent power of a government to exercise reasonable control over persons and property within its jurisdiction in the interest of the general security, health, safety, morals and welfare except where legally prohibited.” –Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 2004 edition
For those who still find some time to watch network television, they might remember a serial program called “Blue Bloods,” which opened one season a few years ago with a scene of the New York City police academy graduation ceremony in Madison Square Garden. It was quite stirring as the class, in their new blue suits, marched into the strains of Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York…” Well, I thought, this certainly is a way to get the adrenalin flowing in those young men and women who are soon to be on the streets. I wondered just who these young people were, and what did they might have brought to the work which is often difficult and sometimes dangerous. After the six months of training have they acquired the belief that the police are “different” than the civilians they are to serve or are they imbued with a sense of mission for and inclusion in their community? Do they have a sense of professionalism in their work which transcends the ordinary and allows them to truly protect and serve?
There is no question that those who would perform police work come from every sector of the general population. Police departments must fully represent their community by race, gender and ability. Beyond that, I take issue with the most common general requirements to “join the force.” To enter the field, in just about every city police department, including all major cities and counties, one needs but be 21 years old, have a high school education (or a GED certificate for some) and a clean driving record – and, if accepted and successfully complete the six or seven months training course, will be given a badge, a gun and the opportunity for a serious civil service job with all its benefits. The same initial requirements are the same for a janitor’s job at City Hall – except for the training, of course. I find that requirements for police work to be weak and cause for concern.
If police work is to be a true profession, there are some elements currently missing from the requirements for applicants. To begin with, I propose a nationally standardized and certified, free two-year, “pre-police” course of study available in all our community colleges.
The course should cover these subjects: civics, federal and local government structure, general policies and laws, U.S. and world ethnic histories, social psychology, crowd psychology, writing and other communication skills. A high passing grade is a must. This would offer those departments hiring a leg up when reviewing applicants prior to any academy training. . Further, this might help ensure that no person under the age of 25 be sworn in as a peace officer because a higher degree of maturity is necessary to properly assess certain situations. .
Sworn peace officers are no different than lawyers, doctors, barbers, morticians and many other trades in that they should be entered into a central registry for as long as they are active. No doubt police unions and “benevolent societies” will oppose this idea. Nevertheless, we must have some way of tracking individual police for the public’s good. Oversight today is quite nebulous and ineffective as police unions’ lobbying often overcomes the politician’s will to properly supervise the department. The officer can also use his registration history, which should also include commendations, awards, etc., as part of his resume should he wish to transfer to another department in another jurisdiction. To make it even more a true profession, continuing education units (CEUs) should be required from all uniformed police and any civilian in the operations of the department. I suggest that to maintain professional status 25 hours of CEUs be required every two years. Major departments now encourage further study for those wishing to advance, and some offer grants and time for those studies. These conditions encourage attention to the work and a more solid officer.
Use of force is a continuing problem in all departments. The question so often asked is “why do police shoot people?” The answer is “because they can,” meaning, the last resort has too often become the first resort in dire situations. Some history from my own background regarding this troublesome element allows me to offer some ideas. In 1951, after graduating from the Provost Marshall General’s School, the Air Force sent me to England, where I was posted to the military police unit which patrolled London in an attempt to prevent the GIs there from destroying whatever the German bombs had missed. Initially, I was paired with a Metropolitan police constable and for six months we walked our beat in town. Neither of us had any form of weapon. Keep in mind that the British police were highly respected and much of the job consisted of counseling, confronting citizens with firmness when arresting and using a minimum of strong-arm tactics. Bobbies learned how to use their voice to bring citizens in line. Additionally, I had continued in my defense martial arts and felt secure without a weapon
It is my contention that most police/citizen encounters are not violent confrontations. Most often it is the action of the officer, as he wants to control a situation,who will require a person to submit to being handcuffed or otherwise restrained even when the situation does not require such conditions — but possibly with good reason. In the United States, with the insane proliferation of guns, police are assuming the worst and often use extreme measures for self-protection. It seems that most police shootings are the outcome of conditions which escalate beyond any other means of control. Requiring a suspect to get down on the ground is demeaning, and struggles ensue when the officer sees the suspect not following orders. Physical confrontations can go either way, and the officer’s actions can exacerbate conditions just as much as the suspect’s reluctance to obey. Why do cops shoot people? Because they can – and usually more out of concern for self-preservation than duty, although bad judgment can enter when things get dicey. Pursue or shoot? It would be a good day when only a few street officers had to carry a weapon.
Another element of my concern for policing in general is the physical health and ability of the officers. Any day a person can find firefighters out for a jog as part of the physical fitness regimen. Except for a division in Orange County, I have never seen police officers “out for a jog.” Do they have organized physical fitness programs, or do they rely on individual desires to be fit? Their jobs are no less demanding than a firefighter’s. No more fat cops.
After the Boston police strike in 1919, collective bargaining unions and “fraternal societies” slowly became the norm and police went from being low-level city employees to much more self-assured civil servants. In time, the unions became a shield that prevented public inspection, and “bad cops” could find refuge. These unions still are a political force and make generous cash contributions to politicians in return for further protection and loss of scrutiny. Many police commissions are a joke.
My proposal is to make policing much more of a profession, to require applicants to bring better resumes to the hiring desk, be more a part of the community and eventually restore the respect which they need to properly and safely do their job. While attempting to alter the police culture through behavioral methods must go forward, such mitigation is usually long term, costly and only partially effective. During that process however, it is imperative to remind officials that “we, the people” are the police experts who know what we want and need from law enforcement. Government administrators are the mechanics who make it happen. .
“Remember your address and phone number, too – and if you are in trouble and don’t know what to do, look for the man in blue.” — Basic instruction given to children in simpler days.