The reputation of law enforcement in our country is under duress, and we in law enforcement must accept some of the responsibility. I recently attended a training session where the instructor said that we as law enforcement don’t “sell our profession” to the people we serve. I believe differently. I believe we in law enforcement have a better opportunity to “sell ourselves” on a daily basis than almost any other entity in the public or private sectors. Where else is there a more visible profession than law enforcement with our marked cars, lights, sirens, uniforms and 24/7/365 “office hours”?
Clearly, as a profession, we have failed to take advantage of this marketing opportunity based on the evident lack of trust from much of our populace. Anyone who has paid attention to the national news has inevitably seen the conflicted views on local law enforcement and the way national media sources emphasize the perceived turmoil. Admittedly there have been some absolutely miserable decisions made by law enforcement officers and regardless of their reasons for the atrocious decisions, the officers that have committed these crimes should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. This said, there have also been many events where the media, our leaders in government and, ultimately, the public have made assumptions and taken action, be it riotous actions or action of words, long before the facts of the event were discovered or released. Some of these events have proven to be justified police actions; unfortunately determined after the impulsive damage had already been done.
As a member of local law enforcement, I feel it necessary to address another perception about your local law enforcement. Is there an agenda behind the just or unjust degradation of the public trust in local law enforcement? I believe there may be. I believe the underlying goal is to reduce your trust in us to the extent that a nationalized police force sounds preferable. As a member of local law enforcement but, more importantly, as a member of our community, I want to make a few precautionary statements regarding this concept.
First and most importantly, do we want to have our public safety interests represented from a national perspective? Local government is far from perfect; however, you can go to the source with issues in local government. From a law enforcement perspective, this means you can actually speak with the Sheriff or Chief of Police. With national representation you would find this to be nearly impossible.
Secondly, federal law enforcement overwhelmingly does not have to make the everyday and often, split-second decisions that local law enforcement faces. Their public contacts are frequently minimal and in a more controlled setting. Were they exposed to the frequent, oft-uncontrolled and completely unpredictable environment that is local law enforcement the errors would be similar in type and frequency. There is certainly room for improvement in standardization of training and hiring practices for local law enforcement and most states have addressed and continue to address and greatly improve these standards. I anticipate that a nationalized police force would encounter the same issues due to differences in local or regional supervision, training, policies and practices. I’m confident that federal agencies already face these variables.
My last statement -— how much consolidation of power is in our best interest? Our country was founded on the principal of a limited central government that belonged to the people. A nationalized police force would put ultimate law enforcement decisions in a single, inaccessible administrator whose policies could and, likely would, be made unilaterally, without input from “we the people”. Currently there are nearly 18,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies whose administrator makes policies for that agency and who can be contacted and influenced by the people he/she serves. The significant distinction between these two law enforcement options is called separation of power. This separation of power presents more challenge in standardization but, then, law enforcement is not often a one-size-fits-all model. In fact, the expectations of our law enforcement vary significantly by community. Furthermore, with a single decision-maker in charge of standardization, who’s to say that single decision-maker gets it right?
So, back to marketing… Your local law enforcement does have the opportunity to market themselves to you, the citizens of a community. We market ourselves every day, whether we try to or not. Our conduct, professionalism, restraint and care; our driving habits, our discretion, our humility and our effort are the only ways we can earn your trust. They are also the easiest ways to lose your trust. Knowing this, it would seem logical that my instructor was somewhat wrong in his assessment and it would seem that we have a simple guide to follow to sell ourselves as the professional, dedicated servants that the vastly overwhelming majority of your local law enforcement are.
Ben Trotter is serving his second term as Churhill County sheriff.