In March 2006, I graduated from the Dallas Police academy and was sent to the Southeast patrol station. It was known to be one of the most violent parts of the city. To my mother’s dismay, it was my number one choice! I’m crazy, I know.
Twenty-four long months later, I got off of field training and was out on my own. Even back in 2005, we were short on manpower – some things never change – so most weeks I would sign up for “call answering overtime”. At the time, I had Wednesday and Thursday off, so this meant I would come in on either of those days, sometimes both, and work an 8 hour shift doing nothing but going from 911 call to 911 call. I loved it. I couldn’t believe they paid me to do this job! Spoken like a true rookie.
All new things are fun at first, right? Most new jobs and experiences are fun and have that element of excitement and new challenges you are met with each day. But over time, the excitement fades, the newness wears off, and you start to ask yourself, “Do I really love this job?” Like many young police officers, I was consumed with the job, but in a good way. Ultimately, I had a purpose. I was doing something honorable, something bigger than me and it felt good. It got me up in the morning! Policing really is a calling, especially for the “good” police officers. It’s not just a job, it’s a career, that offers a sense of duty and honor.
At first, you don’t mind working weekends, holidays, birthdays, snow days, hot days, rainy days, any day, because that is what you signed up for as a police officer. You knew that going in, so don’t whine about it and be a cry baby. Ah, how soon that changes. However, as the saying goes, “All that glitters is not gold!” right? I suppose so. You see, policing is an interesting profession because it’s ever changing and ever evolving. Who knew that we would get to a point where foot chases would become restricted by policy? Yes, you read that right, foot chases where the “bad guy” runs and the officer chases them on FOOT are now restricted by policy in Dallas and I imagine in many other cities around the country. Baffling. What I mean by “restricted” is there are now more rules or “red tape” for officers detailing if and when officers can chase someone on foot. Almost hard to believe considering the dangers are really only limited to those involved. I don’t think a suspect or police officer is going to run so fast that they run into someone else and kill them, the common concern regarding car chases. This is where the “history” part of this article comes into play. If you were reading this hoping to learn about Robert Peel and the true history and creation of policing, I’m sorry, that’s not my style.
So back to my little story here, the truth is, “things change” or “evolve” which means police officers and policies have to change too. Anyone familiar with police officers, knows police officers hate change. They are set in their ways of “how we do things”. It makes sense, considering they are trained a certain way, they feel that it works, keeps them safe, therefore they don’t want to change. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Policy change can be especially tough on police officers that tend to be more “proactive”. When new policies come out restricting foot chases, car chases, whether you can knock on a door looking for a wanted person, police officers tend to feel like they are being “handcuffed” by policy. “Prevented” from doing their jobs if you will. When I say “proactive” I am talking about officers who enjoy going out into the community and actively seeking out the criminal element. Proactive officers go out wanting to find people with guns and take them off the street, or arrest the person wanted in the latest string of armed robberies. Proactive policing in my opinion is the truest form of crime fighting. I’m sorry to say folks but answering a residential burglary call is NOT crime fighting. That falls under the “serve” part of “protect and serve”. Service is a very important aspect of policing, there is no debate on that.
As soon as I say this, I know I have to elaborate as to not ostracize any police officers. So here it goes, just because you enjoy working car accidents, writing tickets, or answering certain calls for service that interest you, does not mean that you are a lazy police officer. To the non-police officers reading this, there are many “kinds” of police officers and all of them are important to the success of every police department and the overall safety of the communities they serve. Because police officers are human, naturally different aspects of policing appeal to different officers. Some officers dread car accident calls due to the amount of paperwork associated with such a call. After the chaotic scene and helping anyone injured, the officer will spend hours drawing diagrams, dealing with insurance companies, MATH, accident scene reconstruction, taking photographs, just to name a few things that come with working a large accident scene. Did you see the word math? Yeah, no thanks. Thankfully, some police officers love doing math and reconstructing accidents scenes and they are the ones who typically end up working in those capacities for their respective police departments. Everyone has a role, they all have a purpose, and all are unique and important in their own way.
Whew, now that I have that out of the way, onward we go. Ultimately, the needs, demands, and desires, of society change over time. With that, police departments and their policies will too. We will use car chases for an example. I’m sure most of you remember a time when turning on the television and seeing a live police chase being covered was a fairly common occurrence. When is the last time you saw that? Depending on where you live, I would venture to guess it isn’t all that common anymore. Why? Because society and policies have changed. “Back in the day”, police chases were common, the dangers associated with them and their consequences were viewed as “part of the police doing their job”. Over time, I assume as more innocent civilians and officers were killed in police chases, things began to evolve and police departments started to restrict such policies, looking for safer ways of getting the job done. These unfortunate facts, coupled with calls from communities to do things a different way, were a huge catalyst that caused more restrictive car chase policies and policies in general.
So the first question that bears asking is, where do Police Chiefs draw the proverbial line in regards to what they allow their officers to do, how, and when? Policies vary widely from agency to agency. In Texas, where I am most familiar with law enforcement, I know that DPS Troopers are allowed to shoot out the tires of a car to immobilize it during a car chase. Yeah, that’s not a typo, give it a Google, you’ll see. I found a story about that happening as recently as July 2017. Odds are there have been more since, but it just didn’t make the news. If you did that while working for the Dallas Police Department for example, you may as well head straight to the quartermaster and turn your stuff in because your days as a Dallas Police Officer are probably over.
Societal pressure causes policy makers (usually Police Chiefs) to make policy changes under the guise that they are for the “betterment and safety of everyone”. Before I became a Dallas Police Officer, legend has it, that it was not uncommon to have more than one car chase happening at the same time on a busy night. Soon after becoming a police officer, policy changes were implanted basically making car chases obsolete. Unless they committed a violent felony in your presence or they were fleeing the scene of a violent felony, you let them go if they ran. Some will say this is a good thing, it is safer for everyone involved and they would be right. I have family members and friends too. I certainly don’t want to see some ding dong crash into them and hurt them while running from the police, I don’t care what that person did. That should go without saying, no one wants that to happen. The question still remains, at what point do we let the criminals “win”? Where is the tipping point of saying, “we will get them another day” versus “we must not let the criminal element think they run the show”?
Ultimately, everyone wants two things to happen when it comes to making our communities safe. They want police to get the “bad guy” and no one get hurt in the process. Sounds amazing in theory, but it’s impossible to expect that to be the norm. Adding fuel to the fire, is the quickness of society to assign blame on the police. Anytime something “goes wrong” even if it was due to the poor decisions of the suspect. I can’t stress enough how much I understand the tragedy of ANYONE getting hurt when the police are out there trying to do their job. Let’s not forget, the human being wearing that badge has to deal with the results of the incident too. They have to sleep at night knowing a car chase he or she initiated, ended in the death of another human being, innocent bystander or not.
Another tragedy is it is becoming apparent that police aren’t in the business of catching bad guys anymore. They are now armed risk mitigation experts with the HOPE of catching a “bad guy”. I understand that the inherent idea of “protecting and serving” also means not putting the members of society in any unnecessary risk. I really do understand that, like I said, I have family and friends too. But to suggest that police officers, police chiefs, or even policies on paper, can mitigate and prevent any and ALL tragic incidents from happening, while still trying to maintain a lawful and safe society is simply impossible. Policing a lot of times isn’t pretty. The foot chases, fights with people high on drugs, and shootings that you see on the news, are certainly not an ideal outcome. Nor are they easy to watch or even easy to accept as the outcome. However, that is the true harsh reality of what happens when police officers confront the most violent 1-2% of society on a daily basis. When will we place the blame on the person who chose to fight the police? Or failed to comply with lawful orders to “get on the ground” or “show me your hands”? These questions and issues are legitimate and I feel are leading to a very timid and reactive police force across the country.
Not being able to chase someone who refused to stop in a car, or now, on foot, is demoralizing. It’s almost counter-intuitive for police officers. You are a police officer, they are running from you – presumably for good reason – you should go catch them! Policy says you can’t, so you turn off your lights, slam your hand on the steering wheel, throw the microphone down and feel completely defeated and yell, “Handcuffed again!!! Have a good one sir” as you watch the car drive away.
“Swallow your pride, be the bigger person, it is safer to let them go” non-police will likely say. What if that person just killed their entire family, is wanted for multiple horrific crimes in another state, or any other number of reasons someone would run from the police? It’s a huge “what if” – trust me I’m not oblivious to the risks associated with high-speed chases – but where is the line between “law and order” and “risk management”? How about the situation where you come around the corner at an apartment complex and a person sees you, drops a gun and drugs and runs and you can’t chase after them thanks to a new “foot chase policy”. How demoralizing.
I also don’t want to hear the suggestion that a policy is for “my safety” as a police officer. I knew the risks when I chose this profession and I appreciate the sentiment, but quite honestly, if I want to chase after someone on foot who may be dangerous, that’s my choice. I’ll accept the consequences. Can you imagine if you were a victim of a crime and you point out the suspect to the responding officer and the officer says, “I’m sorry sir, I can’t chase after him, my policy doesn’t allow me to pursue someone on foot when I’m alone, it’s too dangerous.” I’m sure that would go over great.
Times have changed. Ultimately, we all know why – liability, money, societal pressure – I think it’s important to realize that police officers jobs are continually getting more difficult. With advances in technology and the advent of social media, their jobs actually are getting harder each and every day. They are expected to be perfect, yet productive, while the tools on their tool belt are slowly being removed or restricted with each passing year. Can you imagine someone coming into your job and saying, “Alright, new rule, you must continue to do your job, maintain your current level of productivity, but you will tie one arm behind your back when you come into the office, good luck!” You’d go nuts! How is that fair? Well, police officers are facing this more and more every day.
Adding to the pressure for perfection, body cameras and cellphone videos now allow for instant scrutiny and the criticism from the public and news media seems to grow increasingly louder, as the “silent majority” sits idly by. This article isn’t being written to suggest police officers should be allowed to “do as they please” or “get the job done, without regard to safety or accountability.” I am simply focusing on how things are changing through the eyes of a modern day police officer. I will discuss balancing proactive policing and accountability as these articles progress, I promise.
If you want evidence showing the effects of societal pressure for police to be reactive and not proactive, do some research regarding the Baltimore Police Department since the Freddie Gray incident. In today’s USA Today newspaper, there is an article where their Interim Police Chief flat out says his police force has become much more reactive in nature, which has resulted in a tremendous spike in violent crime.
So the billion dollar questions are: “Where is the line for police officers in regards to what we allow them to do in order to keep our communities safe?” “How proactive do we want our police officers to be, knowing that with proactive policing comes risk, but also highly increases the chance our community is safer?” “Will we objectively place the blame where it belongs when things go bad?” “Are we as a society okay with a completely REACTIVE police force that just shows up when called and handles the crimes AFTER they’ve been committed?”
Interesting questions to ponder. And that is what I’ll let you do. Until next time.
Thank you for reading and walking in their shoes for a little while.
Thank a first responder today and be safe.
-The Officer Next Door