Reform and Unrest Hidden Opportunities
BY CLIFF COUCH | FBINA # 274
To say that the law enforcement profession is facing unprecedented challenges would be an understatement. I was recently told by a classmate from the FBI National Academy that his agency in Oregon has dealt with on-going protests for over 100 days straight. My newsfeed every morning is filled with stories of riots, protests, and various other forms of unrest. My own community has been (thankfully) free of the violence that’s swept across larger cities, but there have been very painful, difficult conversations. The public discourse ripped off the scab of old wounds and experiences for cops and community members alike. I often hear officers remark that they’d choose a different career if they could start over. Some days, I agree with them.
Unrest and outrage have swept across the nation like a tidal wave, damaging lives and relationships in the process. I recently discovered that my college-aged step-daughter had a particularly harsh argument with my wife over my profession. Given the badge I wear, she has automatically assumed I’m culpable for mistreating people of color. This part of the dialogue is, for me, the most frustrating. Like many of my fellow officers, I’ve long gone out of my way to do just the opposite. I suspect that many cops were among those most angered by what they saw on the video of George Floyd’s death. Most of my career has spanned an era of increased emphasis on mending the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they’re sworn to serve and protect. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve spent many sleepless nights pondering the challenges of righting old wrongs and winning back the trust of my community. Much of my adult life has been spent in the pursuit of building professional law enforcement agencies, long before anyone waved a sign saying that I needed to do so. What many protesters are calling “reform”, I simply call good policing.
What makes the situation even more frustrating is that I’ve had to fight for many of those “reforms”. My administrative career has been spent in small towns. As a new chief, my desire for professionalism was usually greeted with enthusiasm by the administrators and council members I worked for. But that enthusiasm usually dampened after a few years, when these same bureaucrats and politicians came to realize that having truly effective law enforcement agencies requires great dedication on the part of a city. It means recognizing the incredibly high-stakes role that policing plays in local government. It takes going beyond simple words of support and putting your budget where your mouth is. Building a professional law enforcement agency requires dedication and sacrifice. Most of the time, that sacrifice comes in the form of making policing a priority in the city budget. Advocating for these things is not usually popular, and it’s not a great way of guaranteeing one’s job security or a pleasant experience at the office. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve suffered personally as I’ve refused to settle for mediocrity and pushed for legitimate improvement in the agencies I’ve led.
That’s why the accusations from angry, reform-minded citizens are especially frustrating. It’s because they are, in some ways, preaching to the proverbial choir. But perhaps that’s where the hidden opportunity in this frustrating situation lies.
There are many different viewpoints represented in the spectrum of unrest. Some of those involved simply hate the police. They detest the idea of law enforcement in general. Many of them are calling for the outright abolition of the profession, while others are demanding that cities blindly punish their law enforcement agencies by stripping their budgets. There is probably little we can do to reason with people that hold these points of view. But there are also those who are genuinely interested in reform. Some of these “reforms” are ill-advised; the product of armchair quarterbacking that may be dangerous and unrealistic. Many, however, are legitimate goals and standards that police professionals should share.
One such opportunity may lie in the issue of training. We can all agree that policing is a high stakes profession whose officers need adequate time to train. In most agencies, officers aren’t afforded that time. Cities often budget for just enough positions to fill a shift schedule and answer calls for service. They don’t budget for enough officers to allow for built in training time. Training is considered a by-the-way thing, and officers are often required to come in on their days off to complete it. Many times, agencies do just enough training to satisfy the minimum requirements set by the state. Generally speaking, most police departments and most of the citizens who genuinely want “reform” should be able to agree that a city needs to properly fund its police department so that they have adequate time to train.
Another opportunity may lie in the issue of redirecting certain types of calls away from law enforcement agencies. While the concept of cutting police positions and sending them to social service agencies is fraught with issues, the underlying premise deserves consideration. I cannot count the times I’ve heard officers say “this isn’t my job” while dealing with a mental health situation, ongoing family dispute, or any number of other non-law-enforcement related calls for service. Police departments are often used as a catch-all for situations that the government hasn’t made an adequate plan for. While we should point out the error in blindly taking needed funds from police departments and sending them to other agencies, the underlying concept is one that we should be able to get behind. At the very least, it’s an incredible opportunity to discuss government’s very bad habit of making law enforcement the dumping ground for issues they don’t want to deal with.
Amidst all the yelling and finger pointing are many issues that we should all be able to agree on. Therein lies the hidden opportunity in this very difficult situation. For years, many professional law enforcement administrators have been working to implement some of the very “reforms” that are now being called for by our critics. The very thing that seems directed against us could provide the momentum we need to overcome the gridlock, apathy, and other political roadblocks that so often hinder the development of effective law enforcement agencies. It is incumbent upon those of us in positions of leadership to identify these common goals and work together with these community groups toward achieving them.
There are many elements right now dedicated to unrealistic goals that will ultimately harm the communities we’ve sworn to protect. These need to be opposed. But there are also many seeking the same legitimate change that professional law enforcement officers have been seeking for years. We need the discernment to recognize these people as allies and the wisdom to work with them toward common goals. There is nothing more inspiring than the idea of those who would be enemies finding themselves standing shoulder to shoulder and fighting for the greater good.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Chief of Police,
Cliff is the police chief of a small town in East Tennessee, graduate of the FBI National Academy, and holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Florida State University. You can follow him on Twitter at @CliftonDCouch or on his blog, www.LifeofaLawman.com.
BACK TO MAGAZINE...