A Seattle police officer punched a woman in the face after detaining a woman for jay walking. The officer tried to detain the woman but she refused to cooperate by pulling away. As she resisted, the officer grabbed her and struggled as she pulled away. This continued as an angry crowd began to circle the officer.
Soon a second woman entered the scene and pushed the officer to help her resisting friend. The officer immediately reacted by punching the second woman in the face, removing her from the picture while he continued struggling with the first woman. This obviously upset the crowd and also excited a negative reaction toward the officer from the normally pro police — Bill O’Reilly.
Surprisingly, this type of incident is similar to those that provoke most citizen complaints and law suits against law enforcement. For the most part, it isn’t the shootings or other more seemingly serious incidents that draw… the most public scrutiny. It’s also these less serious situations that cause police officers the most stress and problems in their careers. There are some obvious cases of police officers abusing their authority, and these need be dealt with strictly. But unfortunately, there are many cases of officers who have used appropriate force, but have been disciplined or fired because of public pressure.
I’ve studied and trained officers in use of force for over a decade, so I have a soft spot in my heart for good officers who find themselves on the receiving end of negative public scrutiny for doing their job. Being a use of force trainer, I’m often defensive of the police officer’s actions and usually see the problem as insufficient training, instead of bad officer intentions, as the media often portrays.
I left lunch recently after a discussion with Greg Dossey, a colleague and law enforcement use of force expert, with a broader perspective prompting me to do more research and thinking. Part of growing is learning to step back from the narrow view we often have and looking at things from a much bigger perspective. When focusing on these incidents as a police officer, it’s often easy to forget the bigger picture of what civilian law enforcement’s role is within the community and only look at the officer and suspect’s actions.
A Different perspective
When the Founding Fathers created our government, they tried to balance the inherent compromise between tyranny and anarchy. Any government with too much power will drift toward tyranny, while too little government control may lead to anarchy. So the U.S. constitution empowers the government with as little power possible to prevent anarchy, while leaving the people with the freedom we Americans are so proud of.
Freedom is the one thing American’s value more than life itself. Look at our history and what American’s have sacrificed for freedom. Consider the wars we’ve participated in and even the events within our own borders such as the civil rights movement. There is no denying it, Americans value freedom.
Now consider the role of law enforcement. Today’s police officers have evolved into so many roles that it’s hard to keep track what their job really is. They are traffic enforcement, social workers, marriage counselors, and surrogate parents, just to name a few, but what is their real purpose? Their primary role is to protect your freedoms, from people within our borders, who may want to take them away.
Taking your freedom
Police officers protect your physical safety and also personal property. But in order to do that police officers are empowered to also take some of your constitutionally guaranteed freedoms away. Americans are free to do as they wish without interference from anyone, except law enforcement if acting within the law.
So you are free to walk or drive as you desire throughout the United States, and no one can stop you except a police officer in the form of a detention. A legal detention by a police officer momentarily waives some of your constitutional rights. When you are stopped by a police officer for running a red light, the police officer has temporally overridden your constitutional rights. This is serious stuff.
Then when an officer escalates the detention to an arrest, now he is empowered to not only make you stay put, but to take you away; a legal kidnapping, again striping away some of your constitutional rights. And finally, if you resist the arrest, he may physically use force to get you to comply; which may involve punching you in the face or as extreme as taking one’s life depending on how serious the situation is.
No one else in the United States has such power to immediately bypass some of your constitutionally guaranteed rights. With so much power, it is obvious why law enforcement gets so much scrutiny. Law enforcement walks a fine line between preserving freedom and taking it away.
Checks and balances
So how is all of this power kept in check to prevent police officers from running a muck and creating tyranny? Within our country there are some obvious lines that everyone agrees. Very few people would contest a police officer who shoots and kills a mad man on a shooting rampage at an elementary school. But what if that same officer shoots a teenager in the back after stealing bubble gum? That’s also easy, our society would not approve.
But what if an elderly minority woman with a mental handicap runs away from the police with a gun in her hand? What if the officer shoots her in the back? That’s a bit more difficult to assess. Some would say shooting her in the back is excessive, others would say she is a risk because she has the gun. But what if she was running toward a school playground full of children after just shooting several other children? Perhaps if you said a shooting would not be justified in the previous sentence, you may change your mind with these new facts.
In these scenarios, I’m not proposing right or wrong answers, just complicated decisions cops must make in seconds every day. In life there are always extremes on each end of the spectrum. It’s the gray middle ground that makes life difficult, interesting, and the topic of this article.
As cops serve their community, at times they have to use force. In doing so they often walk a fine line, but it’s not a straight line. They straddle the weaving line of what is legal and acceptable to our society and what is not. Don’t misunderstand this by believing cops intentionally cross the line. Although this happens rarely, it’s the very small minority of cops whom intentionally use excessive force. Most cops are well intentioned and do everything they know to be within the law.
The challenge, which is what leads to so much controversy, is that the line between acceptable and unacceptable police force is fuzzy and unclear. Rarely do judges, juries, the media or the public agree.
This lack of consensus is what makes these decisions so difficult for officers to make in split seconds. Officers have to rapidly decipher what is reasonable under the pressure of going to prison for excessive force or possibly losing their life by using insufficient force.
It is this conflict that causes officers so much stress and frustration toward the media and public that often “doesn’t understand” it from their perspective. But on the flip side, since 99% of cops work with the best of intentions, cops often lose sight of the fact that they are the “Government” that the constitution was created to protect the people from.
The message of this article is twofold. First, to the non-law enforcement, the majority of cops are honest, law abiding people just like you, that have a very tough job. They have to make very tough decisions in record setting time and then perform as Olympians within very unclear and always changing rules.
The message for the cops is that there are casualties in this business by way of good cops being disciplined, fired, or criminally prosecuted for perhaps unjust political or poor judicial decisions. I wish this weren’t true, but it is. But if you enter this business or choose to remain, you can’t lose sight of the fact that you are the government and the Constitution was created to protect the people from you.
You will remain under intense and sometimes unjust scrutiny as long as you are a cop. And as hard as it may seem, the always changing rules, the wandering line between right and wrong, and the intense criticism is part of the necessary checks and balances our founding fathers created to maintain the balance between tyranny and anarchy.
Please share your experiences and ideas by posting a comment below.
Editors Note: We have reposted this article that was originally posted by CopsAlive.com financial contributor Chuck Rylant on his personal blog. Chuck raises some very interesting points about some highly inflammatory issues that are just more of the many “hidden dangers” of a career in law enforcement i.e. How do you walk that critical fine line between protecting a society that may resent your presence and avoiding crossing the line and facing administrative or criminal investigation. Chuck is a police officer in California and is also Certified Financial Planner and owns C.J. Rylant Wealth Management. These kinds of issues are at the heart of what CopsAlive stands for: “Helping law enforcement professionals create happy, healthy and successful lives both on the job and beyond”. Thank you Chuck for your service to your community and to our profession!
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