With all that’s happening in law enforcement, we went looking for some answers from a Christian perspective. An author, Michael P. Kelly is a retired police sergeant from the Huntington Beach Police Department in southern California, with more than 30 years of law enforcement experience. Additionally, he has taught academy classes.
Two years before retirement, Mike was diagnosed with cancer. Thanks to the Lord’s blessings and a team of good doctors, he survived the ordeal. Mike has done volunteer ministry work for his local Catholic parish and has also conducted public speaking presentations about his spiritual life as a police officer and cancer survivor.
Do you believe that the officers are being given the right tools for their job?
In general, yes. But, the requirements and budgets vary from agency to agency and from community to community. Some extremely useful equipment available today is high-tech and expensive. Not every department can afford to outfit their personnel with the “latest and greatest.” Often, multiple agencies will invest in cooperative programs in order to acquire and maintain high-dollar items. Ultimately, you have to apply the right tool for the job you’re trying to accomplish. What is necessary in a small rural town with a passive population may not be the same as that in an urban setting with a turbulent high crime rate…although that gap seems to be narrowing.
There was a time when manufacturers discovered the desire of police administrators to minimize the direct contact between their officers and those resisting arrest in the hopes of reducing use-of-force complaints and liability. All kinds of gadgets were designed, tested and implemented on a trial basis to facilitate the arrest of a combative suspect while minimizing the chances of injury…to the suspect and the officer. It was a challenge to find something that could be deployed without substantial preliminary and ongoing in-service training. Training is costly. Some were successful, others were not. From that period, we have seen the evolution of things like pepper sprays and TASER guns. But, ultimately, whatever tool or method is used, officers have to lay hands on people and that’s where we still have trouble.
Unfortunately, with the advent of some of these tools, there has been a deviation away from the focus on hand-to-hand tactics designed to physically manipulate a person into a state of control without injury. As a result, it appears a valuable skill set for officers has been degraded. The problem is evident in some of those of video recordings we discussed earlier and may be responsible for some of the controversy. Those of us who have been around long enough to recall when hand-to-hand training was emphasized can quickly identify those deficiencies that have resulted in otherwise unnecessary scorn. It is my hope that police administrators have seen it too and will take corrective action.
Although the majority of police work has nothing to do with the application of force, there has been a lot of talk about the “militarization” of civilian law enforcement with weapons and equipment procured from military surplus, etc. But, frankly, I think it’s been overplayed by the media and activists with an axe to grind. Of course, we should expect and demand professionalism from police officials. These weapon systems are not toys and should be properly deployed when the circumstances warrant. Again, it’s a matter of choosing the right tool for the job.
Let me tell you, when you’re confronting a criminal element that increasingly terrorizes your community with high-capacity, high-caliber, sophisticated automatic or semi-automatic firearms, you better arm your officers with weaponry that will ensure success or you’ll be going to a lot of funerals for victims. I’ve heard news commentators say, “Well, it looks bad…too intimidating.” First off, I don’t think it’s a secret what officers do and why these weapons have become necessary. If nothing else, the entertainment and media industries have been serving us a steady diet of evidence supporting the need for such things. Secondly, if agencies are seen deploying special weapons at a scene, there’s a good chance they may know something that is not readily apparent to bystanders and reporters. So, perhaps, it would be time to take heed. By the way, intimidation can be a good thing, especially when it eliminates the need for force.
Has the media’s reports on the use of force increased the dangers of being a police officer?
Merely reporting on use-of-force incidents is not a problem for law enforcement as long as it is done objectively and without bias. Here, we have to rely on the professionalism of the news media and for them to act responsibly. Unfortunately, many in the media have discarded objective standards for purely political reasons and to advance profitability in a very competitive market. There is very little accountability for unscrupulous news reporters and network executives promoting anti-police agendas with thinly veiled propaganda. The problem is so systemic in the media industry that inflammatory one-sided reporting has become commonplace. That unjustifiably injures law enforcement in general and can jeopardize officer safety…no doubt. It also is a gross disservice to the public and society as a whole, because it defeats the purpose of a free press to properly inform and educate the public.
As has been clearly demonstrated in recent months, the perpetuation of a “false narrative” results in a slanted perspective and denies reality. When that is purposely done to demonize those we depend upon to maintain order, chaos ensues and public safety is lost. I spent several years acting as a public information officer for media relations. I met many professional reporters who proudly upheld objective standards. I also met a few losers who were obviously trying to put their careers on the fast track and make a name for themselves by exploiting a story to generate controversy that didn’t exist. If it was brought to the attention of those running the networks and papers, sometimes corrective measures were taken and those responsible were no longer heard from. Other times, not.
What would you consider to be valid criticisms against law enforcement and what do you think a police department can do to increase the public’s confidence and trust?
Unfortunately, there are times when law enforcement becomes it’s own worse enemy. Despite all the forms of communication available to us today, people often form false impressions of what police work is really all about, because departments fail to take advantage of opportunities to educate the public and debunk the false narratives endorsed by their critics. Things have become so political that many administrators are wary of publicity that could backfire on their careers, so they fall back and become timid, especially on “hot topic” issues like the use of force. When I worked in media relations, I had a boss who advised me to be cautious, because “every interview you do is a career-ending opportunity.” There’s also a tendency to build false expectations when trying to appease politicians and special interests with an over exuberant “can-do” attitude. When you take on more for your agency than you can actually deliver, you’re sure to disappoint people and bring on criticism.
But the negative impact of real misconduct by officers cannot be overstated. There are few jobs that involve such immense responsibilities and when officers fail, the consequences are dire. All it takes is one misstep, one act of misconduct, one “bad apple” to overturn years of hard work, credibility, and honorable public service.
Unfortunately, they happen because law enforcement agencies hire from the human race. As careful as they might be, as selective as they are, as committed as they are to superior standards of conduct, chiefs and sheriffs pin badges on imperfect people. When the hiring pool gets shallow, when there is a shortage of qualified candidates, the chances of hiring someone who will fail to uphold the public’s trust increases. As a result, there are incidents involving violations of law or policy that must be investigated and discipline imposed. If the misconduct constitutes a criminal act, it must be referred to the proper authorities for prosecution. This is the only way to maintain community faith and respect.
In answer to the second part of your question, departments must be committed to objective professionalism; resist political expediency; maintain high standards in recruitment; provide top quality training for their personnel “from date of hire until they retire”; insist on ethical behavior and efficiency from the top down; maintain discipline; and take every opportunity to showcase the department’s virtues.
But, as with any relationship, a department must assertively maintain open and honest two-way communication with the public in order to be responsive to their needs and keep them informed of the challenges continually faced by every officer.
Next on ThM: A Life in Law Enforcement: An Interview with Michael P. Kelly – Part 3