Editor’s Note: This is part III of a three-part series on Law Enforcement in America. You can read part I here and part II here.

“A Policeman is a composite of what all men are, mingling of a saint and sinner, dust and deity.”

“Less than one-half of one percent of policemen and/or policewomen misfit that uniform. I said less than one-half of one percent of law officers misfit that uniform, and that is a better average than you will find among clergymen.”

-Paul Harvey; Police Week 1992

As you’ve seen if you made it this far, I have a deep respect for police officers because I know first-hand how difficult their job can really be. But I don’t want you all to think that I believe policemen are perfect or that our criminal justice system works flawlessly. Quite frankly, I believe the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” is complete garbage. If that’s the case, then why do we “perp-walk” people in front of the cameras and give their information to the five o’clock news to report upon their arrest? There’s also the idea of cash-only bond and the effect it has on low-income families.

Our criminal justice system is flawed — and it is flawed in both directions. Career criminals who are the dregs of society are routinely let out of prison early or they have their case dropped due to some technicality, courtesy of some sly attorney, only to immediately recommit the same crime once they are out.

Likewise, some police officers forget they are humans first and officers second and they act in ways that are incongruent with strengthening our society. Silly things like enforcing nonsensical ticket quotas and repeatedly giving the same hard-working people tickets for things like an expired license plate — which makes it impossible for the citizen to ever pay the fines and thus never be able to afford to register his vehicle. That said, I’m not referring to the citizen who routinely refuses to register his vehicle just because he doesn’t want to, even though he has plenty of money to easily do that. Nor am I referring to the guy who once said to me, “Hill, I’ve been driving unlicensed vehicles for 30 years before you came and I’ll be driving them for 30 years after you leave” — he failed in that goal by the way. Screw those guys. They get tickets for days. 

Behind the Badge: Being a Police Officer in America

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We also have to stop “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” so to speak. Anytime a police officer does something wrong, it is because he or she alone did something wrong. It wasn’t every officer in America who acted along with that officer.

We don’t hold teachers to the same standard we hold officers and they are with our most valuable commodities — our children. When you hear of a teacher molesting a 13-year-old student you don’t hear people say, “Those teachers are a bunch of pedophiles and should be defunded or gotten rid of.” People say things like, “what a sicko” or “that’s disgusting” or something similar. When it’s a teacher, we always place blame on the individual. When it is a police officer, we place blame on every officer in America and we light cities on fire. Why is that?

I have no doubt that there are a few cases of actual police brutality in the country. Yet, police using force to effect an arrest is not automatically police brutality. As I discussed earlier, some people say, “why did you have to shoot him?” However, if you choose to strike with a baton instead of shoot, someone will say, “did you see how that officer hit him with a baton? That’s police brutality.” If you decide to use what we call “hard empty hand techniques” like punches or elbow strikes people will say, “that’s too far.”

I had an old, now long-retired sergeant tell our squad one day that “using force never looks good to the public. Do what you need to do to effect the arrest, detail it in your report, and try not to think about the public outcry while you are in the traumatic event.” Through his 40 plus years of police work, he understood the reality of using force. It’s a necessary evil. I don’t know any officers who wake up for their shift that day and say, “Man, I hope somebody punches me so I can punch him back.” Or, “I sure hope someone is on PCP today so I can leave work needing an entirely new uniform and some medical attention from fighting for my life on the pavement.” It just doesn’t happen how the media would like you to believe.

I think many citizens would be shocked to find out how difficult it is to get someone’s hands two inches apart behind their back to apply handcuffs. If you don’t believe me, get a willing friend and try to get their hands behind their back without any violence. Let them fight, let them run, or let them just tense up and you’ll quickly see that it’s not easy. Couple that with the fact that you routinely are attempting to arrest people who are either intoxicated on various drugs or just pumped-up on adrenaline and ready to fight. You also routinely have to arrest people who are armed either with a common weapon (like a gun or knife) or a more improvised weapon (like an axe or a crowbar). Sometimes (okay, usually) the people who are armed don’t want to cooperate with your commands or with the arrest. That is a big problem when you and the suspect are standing face-to-face. It sucks, to be honest. And as much as you try not to, you are always thinking as much about the consequence of protecting yourself as you are about the suspect’s next move. That is a terrible — and dangerous — OODA loop.

Actual police brutality is when police officers have someone, who is compliant, securely in custody and they decide to “punish” the suspect for his/her previous actions against them. This is police brutality and shouldn’t be tolerated by any department in the nation. Constantly calling everything “police brutality” is like the story of the kid that cried wolf. Always saying police officers are “racist” or are otherwise biased in some way takes credibility away from someone who tries to accurately make that report. People need to stop watering down our legal system with these consistent, but nonsensical outcries of police brutality and racism.

The Dark Side

Like many military members who have been deployed overseas, police officers routinely see death and other serious injuries (sometimes even involving their friends). These experiences can create a number of problems. Police officers are forced to either suppress those thoughts of depression or PTSD or risk being removed from their position. These experiences can lead to increased consumption of alcohol and even drugs and cause marital problems. Many police officers get divorced because their spouse just can’t handle the fact that the officer is no longer the same person they married. Sometimes they are more distant. Sometimes they are depressed. Sometimes they become so jaded through their experiences that they can’t seem to snap out of their funk even when they’re off duty spending time with their family. Other times, the alcohol abuse becomes too much for the spouse to handle and the marriage dissolves. 

An article I read on Law Enforcement Today described how divorce rates in America hover around 50 percent, but police officer divorce rates are around 60-70 percent. The article goes on to say that only about 25 percent of officers will be married to the same spouse at both the beginning and end of their careers. Even worse, it adds that while the average rate of domestic violence within a household is about 10 percent, the average rate in a police household is around 40 percent. What!?! How can this be?

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Many of our nation’s fiercest warriors have at best difficult — at worst dreadful — personal lives. Much like our veterans, society would do well to give police officers the mental and emotional support they sometimes need without fear of automatic job loss or judgment. Ideas of cutting police department staffing or police budgets will only increase stress on the individual officers who remain and won’t allow the ones who need help to get it. What we should be doing is setting aside money for departments to use for mental health training and counseling when needed. Some officers are fortunate and have thick skins and things don’t seem to bother them much. Others have a difficult time dealing with the constant death and chaos they encounter. Officers who need help must have the ability to get it. 

An article I read on the Help for Our Heroes website states the following statistics:

  • 25 percent of all police officers have an issue with drugs or alcohol.
  • 20-30 percent of police officers have substance abuse disorders. For the general population, the rate is at 10 percent.
  • Between seven percent and 19 percent of police officers have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  • Police officers die from suicide at a higher rate than they do from homicide. The rate of death by suicide is 2.3 times that of homicide.

We can’t begin to solve any of these issues by cutting funding or hiring less-desirable candidates. We need to treat this issue the way the military is finally beginning to treat veterans with PTSD. It went undiagnosed and untreated for too long, and too many veterans died because of it. Now, the military has gotten better at treating veterans, but police officers are still largely ignored. If the public wants quality officers, then departments need more training and resources, not less. It’s as simple as that.

The final thing I’ll mention is that many police officers nowadays are such only by title. People who wouldn’t have had a chance of making it in the military are becoming officers. People who couldn’t make a sports team are now your teammates or partners. People that can’t string two sentences together to make a logical point are sometimes your bosses. I was lucky in that I worked for a solid department and I had some good bosses overall, but I’ve seen some real morons too.

Let me tell you one last little secret. Good policemen hate the useless policemen as much or more than you do. They make us look and sound bad and we just don’t like them. If there is an officer who seems like a tool when you interact with them, then likely everyone in that department already knows it as well and agrees. The reality is that police work has the same hiring pitfalls as accounting, teaching, or sales. You will usually have some duds in the bunch. Again, though, cutting police funding won’t help departments get better people in their pool of potential candidates. The quality will suffer greatly because no one who is sane would take a police job for $12 an hour, and YOU DO NOT WANT the ones who would. 

In all, I’d have to say police work is time-consuming but is also incredibly rewarding. It can be deadly, but at times makes you feel full of life. Police work is exhausting, but it provides adrenaline rushes like no other. Police work is tedious, but it teaches you how to be thorough. It is nerve-wracking, but it also provides clarity. Police work is frustrating but also fulfilling. Police work is tough, but it is also worth it. It is a job, but it is more. It is a calling; like being a teacher, a doctor, a race car driver, or a pastor. Police work is in your blood and once the adrenaline from that first hot call hits your bloodstream it’s over. You’re hooked. And it is a hard drug to kick. I kicked that habit last year, but one day, maybe soon, I may dabble again.

This is part III of a three-part series on Law Enforcement in America. You can read part I here. Read part II here.