It is indisputable that the profession of law enforcement has been under intensive attack since May 25, 2020 — when horrifying video footage revealed a Minneapolis Police officer kneeling on the neck of a handcuffed George Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds, as he agonizingly pleaded for his life and called out for his mother. Those unbelievable images shocked the consciousness of our nation, including those in law enforcement. They ignited anger, rage and, for some, hatred toward law enforcement across our communities. That fury seemed to significantly subside on September 12, 2020, the evening when unadulterated evil attempted to murder two of our family members assigned to Transit Services Bureau in Compton. The brutal images of their attack, and subsequent heroism, changed the tide of the national conversation regarding police brutality and law enforcement. After the reality of that night went viral (16.5 million views on Twitter), calling for dead cops no longer seemed so “in.” Sadly, history has shown us that it usually takes something on this level to remind the public how dangerous our jobs are and cause them to ask the question, “Why would anyone want to be a cop?”
But the damage to law enforcement had already been done. Special-interest activist groups hijacked the raw anger of communities and funneled it into a cause, #DefundThePolice. These “defund” groups rallied successfully, and their efforts in Los Angeles County led to the passage of Measure J, which equates to the defunding of “at least 10%” ($360 million to $900 million) of the net county cost (NCC) items for public safety departments (of which LASD has the majority). Even though the voters may not have fully understood that the measure meant defunding LASD, its proponents definitely did. Add this to the bewildering statements made by our newly elected district attorney regarding what he will and will not file charges on, and there is plenty to talk about that affects our personnel.
So now what? It is understandable that morale may be negatively affected by the passage of Measure J and the collective events of 2020, but those feelings are significantly amplified when a leader is heard making statements opposed or counterproductive to our mission. There is a classic line in the movie Saving Private Ryan: “Gripes go up, not down.” Supervisors do not complain with the troops or in front of the troops. Those who do have no business in leadership positions.
It is more important than ever to remind ourselves that only a small portion of the community actually holds negative feelings toward law enforcement. Because we routinely spend most of our time interacting with this negative element, it has the ability to artificially give the appearance that a much larger percentage of the community is anti-law-enforcement. As Dr. Kevin Gilmartin discusses in Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement (2002), this can easily lead to feelings of cynicism and allow for the rationalization of statements and actions that are contrary to our core values and the basic mission of law enforcement.
Policing is a very noble profession. Chants to the contrary by protestors and uninformed bumper stickers on vehicles of the anti-police crowd do not alter that fact. Most of us do this job because we have answered a calling of service to our community. We must not allow ourselves to lose sight of our personal moral compass and the core values of our organization. As leaders, we must model the behavior we expect to see in others.
Many Department members are upset with the uncertainty defunding brings and how it may affect them. It would be disingenuous for us not to acknowledge there may be conversations occurring that espouse a lack of self-initiated or proactive activity. Based on the current anti-police rhetoric that many in law enforcement are currently being exposed to, it is understandable to fear the aftermath of a split-second decision and may seem rational to choose inactivity as an option. But that is not what being a peace officer is all about. We run toward danger when others are running away. Avoidance is not the answer; training, education, experience and a positive attitude are.
If you hear one of our personnel making statements to the effect of “I’m just going to park under a tree and answer my calls; I’m not making any stops,” instead of looking the other way or giving tacit approval, talk with them. Engage in a conversation and have them justify their statement. Then redirect them back to the reasons they chose this profession in the first place. I promise you, when they showed up for their first day at the Academy, a statement like that would never have entered their mind. In almost all cases, fear is at the core of these statements. Diagnose the source of their fear using root-cause analysis and then prescribe a remedy. These remedies are based in training, education, experience and attitude.
Over the last 170 years, our great organization has seen a lot of changes. Change is nothing new. Police reform has been going on since long before Sir Robert Peel released the Nine Principles of Policing in 1829. The Seventh Peelian Principle states, “To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public, and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”
The law enforcement profession is in a constant state of revision, based on the contemporaneous wants and needs of society. Law enforcement adapts to the community; the community does not adapt to law enforcement. We need to continually recenter ourselves on one fact: Being a member of law enforcement means serving others. It is up to us to solve the problems that stand in the way of facilitating that service. Engage with your personnel and have discussions with them regarding these emerging issues. This is how change occurs and we evolve together as an organization to best serve our community. Ultimately, reassure them we will all get through this together.