A man whispers to the waiter and nods toward the gray haired man wearing the weather beaten embroidered Vietnam Veteran cap. The veteran nears the end of his meal and finds that he owes nothing. Someone paid his bill. As he leaves, he hears “thank you for your service” and feels a mix of emotions. This is the same person who left the roiling streets of protestors in America to be dropped into the jungle of a terrible conflict, ordered to take a hill then give it back.
The same person came home and walked through the airport in uniform and hears mutters of “baby killer” as mothers pull their children close. The next two decades are filled with television shows and movies about crazed Vietnam veterans. Finally, the mood of America warms. We now celebrate the soldier. Most conclude that a politician’s unpopular war should not condemn the soldiers who served and sacrificed.
Poking the Wrong Bear
Today’s police officer is the Vietnam soldier of 1967. Today it is the police officer on patrol who is suffering the brunt of the frenzy of anti-police sentiment. This is not only wrong but unproductive. While ethics requires every individual to conform to ideals of behavior, the reality is that the line officer has only small influence over the organization for which he or she works.
The most vocal police critics are poking the wrong bear. Local political leadership (not the feds and not legislation – I mean real leadership) is the starting point for examination of the need for reform in American policing. While the Nuremburg defense (I was just following orders) only goes so far, the rules of conduct, accountability, and training lie in the hands of leaders both elected and appointed. Harassment against, violence toward, and provocation of uniformed officers is a lashing out at a visible symbol of perceived problems, not the source of them.
Sifting the Issues
The single most important issue obscuring truth in the Ferguson debate is the unfiltered conglomeration of emotion and myth over the Michael Brown shooting. The decision by Officer Wilson to use deadly force, at the moment he made that decision, is entirely unrelated to any pre-existing police culture in Ferguson. Anyone who, for the sake of emotion or agenda, denies the multiple investigative finding of the facts that conclude, universally, that Brown was leaving the scene of a strong arm robbery, invaded Wilson’s patrol vehicle and struggled for the officer’s gun after violently punching the officer, has lost credibility to speak for real reform. This was not a racist white officer who shot down an innocent black teen at high noon for jaywalking. Clinging to the false Twitter narrative of that day is a person with an agenda of denial and anger, a non-thinker; one who would rather continue to sing the mythical song of hands up don’t shoot than question why voters perpetuated their city’s exploitative administration.
The issue is not one of police personality. Labeling police officers as power hungry, psychopathic, low intelligence, and other manner of bigoted classification is no better than any other prejudice. I was on a talk radio panel discussion that included a black attorney who prefaced his remarks with “I know a lot of good police officers…” If I had said I know a lot of good black people or a lot of good lawyers, I would have been crucified for the implied slander of the majority of either of those groups. These tired, ad hominem attacks are counterproductive to change. Disdain for police officers is the laziest of all protests. People of good will need to be quick to censure this approach in any debate about policing.
Support Change by Demanding the Best for the Troops
What then is the issue? In Ferguson, the clearly emerging issue is one of the corrupting influence of money. Money drove police priorities. Money drove abuses of the city’s court. Money provided the camouflage smokescreen behind which police conduct was overlooked while police “productivity” was celebrated. Cash was the currency of success through the eyes of the leadership rather than integrity, compassion, fairness, or even public safety.
Fictional Sgt. Friday from the television show Dragnet said the trouble with police work is that you have to recruit from the human race. As I have led dozens, trained hundreds, and written for tens of thousands of police officers I remain proud and privileged to be surrounded by these heroes. Like soldiers, the men and women who sign up to serve in the incredibly challenging world of law enforcement will respond with their best when led by leaders with integrity. We need leaders who are true defenders of the Constitution, advocates for the weak, and enemies of the predatory criminals whose ruthlessness the average person doesn’t comprehend. Policing is a high and noble calling. As with any fine thing, it is fragile and subject to stain unless properly cared for.