Questioning the Police? Be Prepared to Overcome the Hero Worship & Wagon-Circling

Police Angel II

Is this really representative of every police officer?

There are two major challenges a person faces any time he or she speaks about a police officer in terms that reflect anything other than gratitude or appreciation: hero worship and wagon-circling.

Police are not alone in being labeled heroes. Other professions in which the members of said profession are described as heroes include: doctors, nurses, teachers, firefighters, and our military service members. Basically, if your job potentially saves a life (or you are a teacher), you get to be a hero.

While it is noble that we have collectively decided to honor police officers (who have unquestionably chosen a life-saving profession), the much ballyhooed adoration goes overboard. This is a problem because of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who choose to be a police officer, not all of them are swell people who deserve to be labeled a “hero.” As one friend recently pointed out, some seem to think the laws of statistics do not apply to law enforcement. When we point to one of these non-heroes with concern, the hero-culture tries to shut the criticism down. Sometimes the questioning is squelched by police officers who have begun to believe their own hype (i.e., “Don’t question us. Didn’t you hear? We are heroes.”). Other times the questioning is thwarted by people who think the only way to support the police is to believe every single one of them is a hero despite all evidence to the contrary.

The other challenge in questioning the actions of a police officer is the wagon-circling of police any time criticism is raised against anyone within their ranks. Any person who knows a police officer probably knows what I mean. Police officers do not think of their fellow officers as co-workers; rather, they are “brothers.” While this sentiment is understandable, helpful, and even somewhat admirable, it too often clouds where police’s first duty lies—not to their fellow officers, but to their community and the people in it.

The result of all of this is that police–a profession where higher accountability is critical due to the disastrous consequences of failure–face less accountability than many other types professionals. This lack of accountability is only possible because too many officers and their supporters operate under the unsupportable belief that every officer is infallible.

In my profession of law, I find that the vast majority of attorneys have no tolerance for dishonest or incompetent attorneys. They are difficult to deal with and give everyone in the field a bad name. As a result, attorneys’ conduct is heavily regulated (at least in Oregon). This was never clearer to me than last month when a younger attorney had her license to practice law revoked for 30 days because she changed the time on a parking ticket to try and avoid paying a small fine. Before the Bar got involved, she had already paid the fine, and when confronted by the Bar, she admitted wrongdoing and apologized. I have no doubt this public reprimand (which was published in detail in a magazine provided to every Oregon attorney free of charge) was humiliating. It will also follow her for the rest of her career. In fact, if you look up her name in the Oregon State Bar directory, it will, for the rest of her career, state that she had her license suspended for 30 days as a disciplinary sanction. This young attorney also could have lost her job over this. The Oregon State Bar, combined with peer pressure from other attorneys, does a very effective job of policing its members. The same cannot be said for law enforcement.

I recently witnessed the wagon-circling phenomenon combine with the hero-worship phenomenon in a very disturbing display. I know two police officers on Facebook, one well and one very distantly. The one I know well frequently posts about his job, and regularly receives comments along the lines of “We are so grateful,” “Thank you for what you do,” and “You are an inspiration.” Real hero stuff. With the recent press coverage of what appears to be pretty terrible police behavior (most notably in Ferguson, MO, but other places as well), it seems my Facebook friend police officer lost his cool. He posted on his Facebook page that he would unfriend (not just unfollow) any Facebook friend who posted anything that was not 100% supportive of police officers. Got that? Everyone was free to heap praise on him for being a hero, but any question about any police officer (even a police officer 2,000 miles away, whom he’d never met) was enough to warrant the ending of a friendship. The second police officer I know saw my friend’s post and commented that he had already been unfriending all of his friends who voiced anything but unconditional support for every one of his police brothers and sisters across the nation.

This is frightening. If this small population is representative of police in general (and I have no reason to think that it is not), police are taking affirmative steps to fish for compliments, praise, and adoration, and eliminate all input that challenges the notion that every officer is perfect (i.e., place themselves in a bubble of unquestioned flattery and adulation). This intentional detaching from reality was confirmed when my police officer friend informed me that law enforcement only had a “few bad apples” and “all were found and weeded out.” This came from an officer with 14 years of experience. Such irrationality and delusion from a person with so much power should frighten anyone.

There are approximately 1 million law enforcement officers in this country. Like any population of 1 million people, it will contain some who are incompetent, unethical, and cruel. Accordingly, we need to do two things. First, we need to begin by acknowledging that not every police officer is going to be a hero. And second, we need to find a way for police officers to recognize that their first obligation is to the community, not each other—and particularly not to bad police officers. This will require police officers be removed from their self-induced bubbles. Once these two goals are accomplished, perhaps the community and the police can begin working together to ensure each officer truly represents society’s finest.

– Dylan


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