This is Part 1 in a three-part series discussing my experience as a police officer, what I view as the underlying issue plaguing police agencies, and some ideas on how to solve the problems of policing in America today. Part 1 dives into the underlying issue as I see it, Part 2 speaks to the experiences and events that have helped to shape my perspective, and Part 3 will explore some of the solutions to the identified issues.
Like most of the world, I’m trying to wrap my head around what this country is going through right now in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. The collective spectrum of emotions on display — anger, fear, exhilaration, hope, depression, excitement, joy…the list is endless — is unlike anything anyone from my generation (Gen X), or those that followed, have experienced in our lifetimes. The fact that I’ve experienced degrees of all of these, starting with the pandemic, and accelerating with the murder of George Floyd, is certainly not unique.
What is unique is my perspective since I was once a police officer for the City of Costa Mesa in Orange County, CA, so what I’m about to relate comes from having “been there done that.”
Like anyone else, I can only evaluate things through the lens of my own experiences and by allowing myself to be open to the perspectives and experiences of others who have differing viewpoints. My unique view is that of a white, former cop who, fortunately, and unfortunately, got to see how good cops operate and how corrupt cops are enabled, and can even flourish.
I also want to make two definitive statements: 1) being a cop is a tough, often thankless, job, and 2) law enforcement has significant problems that need to be fixed ASAFP. To the latter point, part of that is precisely what many think it to be: some deep-seated, institutionalized, long-held, racist views towards minorities. The underlying issue and, I’ll argue, the root cause behind more of these incidents than anything else is probably not what most believe. While racism is one of the many, and easily the most repugnant, symptoms of this problem, in my experience, the core problem underlying almost everything else we see surrounding police malfeasance comes down to one thing: tribalism.
Before I dive in, I’ll preface this by saying what I’m about to write is based on my own experience, observations, study, conversations, and understanding. Some of the generalizations I’m about to make may or may not apply to a specific department, precinct, or police unit, but, based on my knowledge and experience (a handy phrase they teach us to use in police reports) these generalizations hold.
You’ve heard of the 80/20 rule, where 20% of a given population provides most of the benefits afforded to 100% of the group. This rule also largely encapsulates the majority of the police population but with a slight tweak: it’s more like 80/10/10.
In this case, 80% of the cops on the street are there to do a job, aren’t necessarily wired to be leaders in any meaningful way, and are generally good people. While there’s a spectrum inside that 80% that ranges from the lazy to the hard worker, this population is primarily made up of role players who are looking to be led to various degrees and, if I’m honest, I fell into the 80% pool during most of my time as a cop.
For this essay, we’re not going to spend a ton of time on the 80%. Instead, we’re going to focus on the two, 10% segments, as those populations most often decide whether an incident goes well or turns into something despicable and tragic.
This first 10% population are the true leaders and the men and women who make the tough decisions on the fly and put the health and safety of others ahead of themselves. These officers have typically, although not always, been around a while, teach other officers how to perform to the best of their abilities, and are shining examples of what a police officer should be. We’ve seen dozens of examples of these leaders the past couple of weeks as cops facing righteous anger have embraced protesters, locked arms with them, and knelt before them to ask forgiveness. These people lead from the front and, when they make a mistake, they own it, accept the consequences, and become better for it.
“…the difference between you and the person you have sitting on the curb in front of you is just a couple of life-choices.”
In my own experience, I can point to several examples of — in my case — men who not only taught me how to be a good cop but who helped shape the man that I am today. Even better for me, two of these men happened to be my training officers during my field training period and, had I not been fortunate enough to have been trained by them, my life may have turned out very differently.
While I can point to several examples of places where their guidance helped shape me as a police officer, there were some particular words of wisdom, more so than others, forming who I am as a person. This training officer who I’ll address by his initials, JM, repeatedly taught me this one, straightforward but incredibly profound truth: “Treat everyone with dignity and respect if you hope to get it in return because the difference between you and the person you have sitting on the curb in front of you is just a couple of life-choices. You don’t have to respect what they’ve done, but you’d better damn well treat them like an equal because, if things had gone a little differently for you, it could have just as easily have been you sitting there on that curb.”
Without going into my own back story, these words resonated with me on an almost spiritual level. Had fortune not been on my side, it’s possible, if not likely, that I would’ve been staring up at the badge and not down at the suspect so, JM’s words struck a deep chord and I’ve tried to live that advice ever since.
We all wish that 100% of the cops on the street were just like the “good” 10% but, that’s not reality, and it never will be. These people are honed through experience, and it takes time to make them what they are. We can, and should, work towards expanding this number, but that comes later. For now, let’s look at the other 10%.
In some departments this may be less, in others, more but here’s the reality: in any department, there are a handful of individuals who have no business wearing a uniform much less wielding any kind of authority over the freedom and imprisonment, health and safety, and life and death of anyone else much less people for whom they may have some level of disdain.
The sad part about quite a few of this other 10% is that they are frequently held in high regard because they’re the “go-getters,” out there mixing it up on the street, tallying high numbers of arrests, logging more activity than their fellow officers, and generally staying in the spotlight. These people tend to push the limits and receive more complaints than the average officers in their department, but their actions are not only tolerated but also celebrate because they’re “getting the job done!” These individuals are also frequently well-liked amongst their peers, seen as leaders, and others follow when they act.
I will not dignify George Floyd’s murders by naming them, but, in my opinion, this dynamic is what we saw play out with the four officers from the Minneapolis PD. The primary individual who committed the murder had been on the force for a long time, had rank and was someone who also had quite a few complaints. The other three officers were much more junior (two of whom were just out of the academy), and likely fell in line because a guy they looked up to and respected was leading, so they fell in line, followed his lead, and, ultimately, became accessories to murder.
I know very little about these other three former officers but, I would guess they were generally well-liked, probably didn’t have a lot of positive or negative on their record, and blended in…part of the 80%. To say they got “caught up in the moment” would be to minimize their duty and responsibility to the people they were supposed to be protecting (in this case, they should have been protecting George Floyd from a fellow officer) but, if we’re going to try to solve the problem, we need to look deeper and try to understand how this happened.
The how, in my opinion, comes back to tribalism. Looking at each other and seeing no one else step up, these other three officers froze. I suspect one, or all them, knew what was happening was wrong but standing behind “The Thin Blue Line” where you’re both explicitly, and implicitly, trained that it’s “us vs. them,” where you learn to “back your fellow officer’s play,” and where you see both subtle and overt infractions swept aside taught them to demure.
Their actions were despicable, but they also weren’t accidental but — in my view — a twisted, unintended consequence of a profession that, for reasons both real and imagined, holds itself apart from society at large.
It didn’t and doesn’t have to be this way. I genuinely believe that the vast majority of law enforcement officers want to do the right thing and, for the most part, do. But, when it’s time to step up in the face of adverse situations involving “their own,” cognitive dissonance takes over, and it is the rare individual who can overcome countless hours of explicit and implicit training (especially in the heat of the moment), cry “ENOUGH!” and act to halt the action. Rarer still is the officer who steps in and stops the adverse action (something I’m convinced happens more than any of us will ever know) but who is also willing to stand up and report their fellow officer(s), risking likely scorn and ostracization from their peers.
Remember, we’re talking about intense tribalism here, and the most powerful, non-violent tool used by tribes throughout our species’ history has been ostracism, so don’t discount its power on the human psyche. Knowing this, is it any wonder that with the current culture in place, it’s incredibly challenging to overcome this mindset and risk everything?
What we’re discussing here is a massive problem, and it’s not going to go away overnight, but it can be fixed. The fixes won’t be easy, and, for many of the “law and order” types, they won’t be popular, but the time for worrying about what’s going to be populator amongst the police agencies is long past. We need change, we need it now, and we need to put in the hard, painful work to get there.
I wish I could say this is all theory and that I only worked with people like the training officers who taught me valuable lessons about how to treat my fellow man, but that would be a far cry from my reality. I not only witnessed criminal behavior getting covered up, laughed about, and ignored, but I also became an unwilling participant in an incident, and it was that that incident that broke me of my desire to remain a police officer. In the second part of this essay, I’ll share my personal story and experiences because I believe it’s time to shed light on the culture that we’re trying to reform, and the only way that’s going to happen is if we embrace radical transparency.
People close to me know the stories I’m going to share, but putting them out there to the world for all to see is going to be uncomfortable, and possibly risky, but the time to stay quiet is long past and long overdue. We must be willing to speak for the good of our country, our black neighbors, our other minority communities, and, yes, our police, and we must embrace the current sentiment to make necessary, long overdue paradigm-shifting changes.