May is a time when law enforcement agencies across the country meet and honor their fallen heroes. This year it has special meaning to me, as a friend of mine was murdered in the line of duty in February. While he will be formally honored at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial next year, his and his family’s sacrifice has led me to understand that this month should also be about honoring the men and women who, every day, put on a uniform and answer the call for service. Officers do not do what they do for posthumous recognition – they do it because they believe in the value of an ordered society, one in which evil can be contained and their daily actions can make a difference.
The actions of law enforcement officers feed the national media reports on a daily basis, due too often to an officer’s actions that result in catastrophic outcomes for the lives of others. Wrongful conduct of officers is intolerable given the role and responsibility they have in our society. However, we also need to recognize the balance we demand of our law enforcement officers given their tasking – we often demand perfection where none is possible.
Officers Operate in an Unforgiving Environment
Every day, officers across the country are tasked with addressing and mitigating key issues of our society, including immigration, racial disparity, mental illness, gun violence, homelessness, and a cadre of horrific criminal behaviors — child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence, to name a few. Merely a philosophical or ideological debate for many, officers confront these issues on a daily basis in a real and human way – through the fear in a sexual assault victim’s eyes, the pain in a parent’s face when told of the death of a child by gun violence, or in the confusion of a person dealing with a mental health crisis. As the most visible — and sometimes only — access point to government services for many, officers represent the good and the bad of our government.
Officers tread through the murky waters of civil society; they answer calls for help, come to the aid of victims, arrest “bad guys” and attempt to deliver the best possible outcomes in an environment that is not accepting of error and, too often, too willing to assume the worst. Some situations do not have a best possible outcome. Sometimes, police officers are not capable of delivering the best outcome – as they, too, are human. Sometimes, they yell back when calm should prevail. Sometimes, they are overly distant – an ineffective coping mechanism – when a victim needs support. Sometimes, they are not persuasive enough to stop a person from taking the next critical step – be it from harming themselves or someone else.
Try to See the Person within the Uniform
Like you, police officers are neighbors, classmates, parents of a child’s friend and fellow members of the community. Officers are the sons and daughters of immigrants. They have family members who deal with mental health issues and substance abuse. They have children at risk. And they face their own fears and mortality. Like you, some chose their career from a passion, while others came into their profession on a more circuitous path.
Unlike you, they are duty bound to run towards the threat when others seek shelter. The failure of officers to intervene during the shooting of students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida was inexcusable. We demand that our officers respond in a way to save lives – even at the potential loss of their own. Most officers accept this as their role and responsibility. My friend did – as do so many other officers who will never see the good they accomplish daily reported in the media or known to anyone other than the person they helped.
We expect officers to be fair, just and fearless. It is this expectation that drives some of our societal ambivalence toward officers. We inherently expect them to represent justice – and when they cannot, because of their own actions or because they are part of a complex web of challenging social and criminal issues – we have increasingly and rightly voiced our intolerance.
However, this month, I ask that you consider the humanness of law enforcement officers — they are individuals and they are mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. They are also your lifeline and partner to safety and security. The next time you see an officer wave at your child, engage with someone on the street or even stop you for a traffic violation – please try and see the man or woman in uniform as a human being.
A thank you might be nice – but most officers do not expect that. This month, I think they should.