Saturday, February 28, 2009

The V.A.L.O.R. Project

One of the most overlooked groups of people victimized by violent crime is a population estimated at over 700,000 Americans. This group spans all ages and genders but the one thing they have in common is that they are police officers. Nobody in police work wants to call themselves a victim. After all, it’s part of a police officer’s job to take a kick or punch isn’t it? The V.A.L.O.R. (Violence Against Law Officer Research) Project is designed to discover how police officers are treated when they are a victim of a crime in the line of duty. The first effort of V.A.L.O.R. was an online survey taken by police officers all across the nation invited to participate by the researcher via emails and posts in police online forums.

The survey asked the question: “Who do you believe has the opinion that getting
assaulted (pushed, hit, kicked, spit on, etc) is just part of your job and that you shouldn't expect that these offenders should always be arrested, charged, or prosecuted”? Forty percent of officers said that their prosecuting attorneys felt that police officers should accept assaults as part of the job. Within police ranks, 17% of the officers thought their supervisors felt that way. Only 7% of officers agreed with the statement that offenders shouldn’t always be charged with assault and resisting; twice the number who believed their peers felt that way. This may reveal an aspect of police culture that makes officers perceive a greater sense of self-sacrifice than is necessary for effective policing. Over half of the officers surveyed (55%) reported that they had been assaulted but had not considered themselves a crime victim. Fourteen percent of officers surveyed felt that they were a victim but didn’t pursue victim services because of perceived peer pressure. The vast majority of officers are not getting compensation for injures or other victim advocacy services.

It is no surprise then, that over 80% of police officers have been painfully injured in the line of duty without reporting it or even seeking treatment. If officers believe that their victimization will not be taken seriously there is no incentive to document offenses against them. More than one in ten officers surveyed had silently seriously considered quitting police work because of the dangers of the job. Police officers surveyed had generally low confidence in prosecution of offenses involving resisting arrest or assaults on officers. Over 60% said that those charges are the first to be dropped by prosecutors in cases where multiple charges exist on an offender. Nearly half of officers saw felony cases prosecuted as only misdemeanors and 70% were not consulted on prosecution decisions or sentencing. Nearly 60% said cases were disposed of completely without the officer’s knowledge.

Unlike other crime victims police officers must conduct their own investigations into crimes in which they are victims. Few than one in three cases had an uninvolved officer investigating a crime committed against them. Only 3% of officers surveyed had sought their own compensation from perpetrators by filing civil suit for damages.

The lack of prosecution and victim services afforded to police officers who are victims of crimes perpetrated against them in the line of duty is not an indication of the infrequency of such offenses. Over half of the officers answering the survey report having been injured in an assault to the extent that they had to seek medical care. About one in four had lost time off from work due to injuries from an assault. Six in ten officers have, in the course of their career, been in a position to make the choice to use deadly force and over half had been assaulted with a deadly weapon themselves. One quarter of officers were investigated as a suspect when they were in fact a victim of an offender’s violence. As previously noted, over 80% of officers reported suffering painful injuries that they did not report or seek medical care for.

Police officers carry their risk for victimization off duty as well. Nearly a third reported that personal property had been vandalized because of their police officer status. Almost all officers have been threatened with lawsuits or job loss, and over 80% have been threatened by an offender that the officer would be attacked off duty. Two of ten officers have been assaulted or confronted off duty by offenders with whom they had previous on-duty encounters.

How frequently victimization of police officers occurs is poorly researched. The affects of those crimes is also currently unknown. If police officers seldom get services as crime victims, how does this shape their empathy for other crime victims? If those who should support the police – administrators, political leaders, and prosecutors – seem not to care when officers are injured, threatened, or resisted, how does this influence an officer’s mental health and physical well being? Are police officers less likely to refrain from using excessive force if they believe that crimes against them will go unpunished by the criminal justice system? How does victimization affect recruiting, retention, and performance of officers?

Based on the V.A.L.O.R. Project’s initial research the following recommendations should be pursued:

Police officers who are victims of assault should be offered all of the victim advocacy services that any other citizen would get. Police officers are not excluded from victim services and, in most states, failing to provide such services is a violation of law.

Police officers who are victims of assault or other offenses should have their case investigated by another officer or agency. No other victim of violence is asked to be their own investigator. If an officer is involved in a crash with his or her patrol car, no one would expect them to do the investigation, why is being assaulted so different? Police officers are often accused of misuse of force and may become suspects by accusations of offenders seeking legal or monetary gain from such allegations.

Police officers should have access to legal services to recover damages incurred from line of duty actions with offenders. There should be no legal barriers to police officers to exercise their rights to make a full tort action to recover all legally allowable losses.

Crimes against police officers should be prosecuted vigorously. Police officers should be encouraged to file appropriate charges and not let offenses go unpunished. Offenders should not be given tacit permission to resist and assault those who are appointed to protect and defend us. Citizen support groups, political leaders, and police professional organizations should be at the forefront in supporting prosecution of crimes against police officers.

Citizens must go beyond a general recognition that police work is dangerous. We must all be diligent to protect those who protect us, for we will all be better served as a result.

Remember the Midnight Shift

Just remember me. I may not have my name engraved on a memorial wall or be saluted once a year with misty eyes and trumpets played. I don’t want to compete for glory or take away anything from those whose last heart beat was beneath a badge stilled at their last breath or lovingly adorned before they are laid to rest. Remember me in the glow of the patrol car’s console as I bumped through alleys on a quiet midnight shift, balancing a cup of coffee. Part of me is glad for the quiet respite from the back-to-back demands of dispatch. Part of me wishes something would happen because I’m wired for those adrenaline infusions that keep my soul alive. From some subliminal habit my mind balances a practiced calm against the constant scanning of my senses. A thousand cues are processed as sounds or silence, shades of shadow and reflections of light keep every atom at attention. I am ready to chase, ready to retreat, ready to rescue. To the happily ignorant observer I’m a dulled door shaker just waiting for the donut shop to open. But remember me as the warrior who, while my family and yours slept warmly, shared the darkness with the evil I was quietly hunting.

Just remember me. I may not have a war story of dodging a hail of bullets. Not many of us do. Remember that I was willing; why else would I wrap my torso in Kevlar every day? My life is a walk among weapons. Guns and knives are plenty, but I see the ball point pen, the cell phone, the ashtray, the boot, the mini-van all poised for a kill. Just to go to work requires attaching tools of destruction to my body, itself a weapon and shield. An officer of peace adorned with a half dozen ways to kill, inflict pain, and subdue. This same one who proudly assured those who hired him that he wanted to be a police officer to help people now heavy hearted that victory often means another man in chains. Remember me as a tormented crusader for all that is good, tainted by all that is not.

Just remember me. I may not show you my scars. I may not be among the many of my fellow warriors disabled by distress, but I am touched by their early deaths, their PTSD, their failed families, their addictions, and their bitterness. Remember that I could still smile and be quick with a joke and enjoy a good conversation. But know that I was always fighting pain. I cannot have pure grief for a fallen comrade at a police officer’s funeral without weeping for my own mortality. I cannot shake the reality that death is my constant companion. I cannot enjoy the luxury of looking at my own delightful children without thinking of the dead and broken ones. It is a discipline to sit down and eat a meal soon after binding up the wounds that left skin and blood on the asphalt, to touch a loved one in a loving way after you’ve touched the dead. Remember me as one who carried on with life surrounded by reminders of its brevity.

Just remember me. I may not have as many enemies as I imagined, but it was not because I watched too many cop shows that I always had my eye on the door in the restaurant and I never carried anything in my gun hand. Nobody knew that I was calculating my odds on being able to take on anybody in the room, that I was looking for snipers and pickpockets at the ball game, that I was always a little disappointed that there was not a robbery in progress when I went to the bank to cash a check, and that while I was singing hymns in church I was scouting trajectories to minimize crossfire just in case. Remember that I was 24/7 even when I didn’t want to be.

Just remember. It is what I tell myself. If I don’t celebrate my walk in this life I may, in my current comfort, forget the others still on the front lines of the ongoing battle. I mostly sit at a desk now. I have finally aged into my premature gray hair. My fingers are on business cards and laptop keyboards much more often than on Miranda cards and handcuffs these days. But I must remember the midnights. God forbid that I lay my head on my pillow and forget the men and women watching over the night to own it for me. Shame to me if I drive the highways and fail to remember why they are smooth and safe, or go to the voting booth and fail to appreciate why it is such an easy exercise in this nation. May I never leave a prayer unsaid for a siren sounding in the distance. I must not forget that nearly every block and section of the land tells a story of when a hero was there. They are my brothers and sisters whose hearts have beat beneath a badge. I am proud of them.

I remember.