The New Landscape in Law Enforcement
In this episode of this 4-part series, President Tignanelli and Dr. Ken Wolf, POAM Director of the Members Lifeline Program, discuss the new landscape in law enforcement and the police-community relations and financial impacts. Listen to the entire podcast or read the transcript below.
Here with Ken Wolf. Ken, we were talking last, we talked a little bit about how the impact of the virus and the pandemic to stay at home orders, the different things, and I know you’ve got some more stuff that you’ve seen on your job that would help us to understand how that impacted people. Why don’t you share some of that with us?
Dr. Ken Wolf
I think from a more glow perspective, there’s been a new landscape in this country and it’s intensified in the last two years. And we see the political divisions. There’s been a lot of attention to racial tensions, extreme ideological groups, social unrest, the impact on police-community relations. And then the financial impact of the people forced to stay at home, kids forced to stay at home, parents forced to stay at home. And all that has affected not only citizens but the police because remember we’re human beings first and police officers second.
And there was a recent survey that I think is very illuminating when they were talking about or surveying people’s fears during COVID. 78% of the people surveyed said that they were having fears of developing severe illness, 74% were the fear of the impact on their personal finances, 59% were scared of spreading the virus, being asymptomatic or symptomatic, 56% developing severe illnesses themselves.
And you know, when you are the sole provider for the family, you can’t afford to get sick. And 29% were frightened about going to work. And yet when we think about the police officer and the first responder, you got to go to work every day. You don’t have the luxury of being furloughed and you have to be out on the front lines. And that impacts our perception of everybody we come into contact with.
And I think it would be helpful to have some insight as to the mindset of the citizens we’re interacting with because these anxieties, these fears, these living with uncertainties may lower their threshold of impulse control because they’re at a higher flash point of fear themselves. And then that sometimes results in negative interactions and more interactions in the police-community interaction scenarios.
I’m listening to that, and it’s very, as you say illuminating, and I’m thinking to myself that all those people, and I guess I borrowed an old line from Jack Webb years ago that we hire from the human race. And you kind of used a little bit of that there. And when you think about it, all those things you just said, if you took the uniform off, all those guys and all those ladies that are out there doing this job, all those things apply to them too. Only, they still had to go to work, as you said.
So as crippling as it might be to worry about all those things but you are worried about them in the safety of your home, and here the officer was coming into your home. And on top of that, that anxiety had caused you to be a different person too.
And maybe the unrest of you watching in the city of Portland, downtown, people actually chasing the police officers from the police station and setting fire to it. When people start to see that they, after some point, you start thinking maybe they’re right. And I think that can bleed over to these guys too. It looks like acceptable behavior, for lack of a better term, that it’s okay to run. It’s okay to shoot. It’s okay to fight with the police because they’re bad people.
And the media, I guess we can’t blame them for all of it, but it has, I like to say, caused us to lose status. It used to be, this was an honorable job. It used to be that it had a certain status. I was one that would say all the time, we’re held to a higher standard and we want to be, we really do.
We think we are that good. And all this media attention, it was going out there while people were locked in their homes was telling them that we can’t be trusted. That we’re bad people in so many words. And that caused the obvious reduction in the ability to hire good people, and that’ll be a whole generation, I think. I like to say before we fix it, but those numbers mean a lot to percentages because they do apply to us and then maybe even apply to us onefold higher.
Dr. Ken Wolf
And I think you raised an image issue. People mimic what they see. If you think of television in terms of its power to influence behavior, I mean, how much do the people pay for ads on TV or the super bowl, a hundred, a million dollars a minute, because they recognize that the viewer is seeing something on TV. There’s a legitimacy there. And the more we saw pictures of angry citizens screaming, yelling, taunting police, other people by repeated exposure instead of their horrified by it the first time.
The seventh time, they say, “Oh yeah,” as though that becomes an acceptable norm. And then I think those images and the minds of certain citizens say, well, if they can do it, I can do it too. And then it raises the level of tension in terms of a police officer-citizen interaction.
I wrote something and as saying that it reminded me. About a year ago, I wrote something on the website about changing the driver’s training methods to tell young people how to act when a police officer walks out, why does a police officer walk up close to the side of your car? Why does he walk up sort of suspiciously? And then we find out how many of them are now being assaulted during traffic stops, the old routine traffic stop, just this guy’s speeding.
And we talked about getting that changed in driver’s training, because I actually, a mom had come to me and said I tried to tell my kid, the officer has to be cautious and things, but we’ve got all this equipment on. We’ve got all of these big, big people back there, walking up with all kinds of things, hanging on their belts and it just makes people fearful.
And now what’s occurred in the past two years is it’s almost encouraged people to believe that we should be feared. That’s our intentions are good. We’re just here to raise trouble. And it’s just not the case. And I have to tell you one of the things that bother me the most is when I have people getting disciplined, and there are record numbers of discipline right now if you can imagine.
We have fewer police officers and we’re having a hard time hiring in for some reason or other. There are some employers that find it’s very simple to fire somebody. And the test that’s being used all the time now is one that I’m growing tired of. And it’s that it just doesn’t look right.
It’s not, he broke a policy. It’s not that he broke a law or a rule. It’s that it just didn’t look right. And that’s a tough boundary. What you think looks right, and what I think looks right, might be completely different. It’s not anything that’s black and white. And the optics, that’s the other one I hear. The optics aren’t good. We need to worry about our reputation. We need to worry about getting sued. We need to worry about what the public thinks.
And so it’s really pretty easy to get rid of this person. And because when somebody says, “Well, what did you do about it?” Oh, we fired him. It’s simple. And if an arbitrator gives them this job back, that’s out of their hands, they don’t worry about that. And that doesn’t look right thing, it is driving me crazy.
It’s not, he broke a policy. It’s not that he broke a law or a rule. It’s that it just didn’t look right. And that’s a tough boundary.
We operate on this. What’s called the Carol Doherty, and she was an arbitrator years ago, and this is highly recognized. It’s called the Seven Test For Just Cause. Almost every contract says that disciplines shall be for just cause, and seven tests talked about what needed to be done and for it to be for just cause. And I’ve been telling people lately, I think they should add an eighth test and that eighth test should be, “How did it look?”
Because that seems to be the most favorite one out there for people to fire guys or just what people say. It just didn’t look right. And how do we do that? I mean, how do we get officers to plan on how something’s going to look without causing them to retreat from what they know is the right thing to do, just to avoid not looking right.
Dr. Ken Wolf
And that brings up another issue in terms of the rules of engagement that are changing. You had the second thing for just cause. And on one hand, when you talked about the traffic stop, the citizen said, “Hey, what’s going on? Why is he doing this? And what can I expect?” Let’s think about what’s going on in the officer. Let’s think about the officer who’s been looking at police one and realizes how many officers are shot on the traditional stops during these ambushes at police departments.
So their level of vigilance is much higher in terms of possible risk. And we always talk about community-oriented policing. We want to be partners with the citizens. We do, but we want to do it in safe ways. So in the mindset of the officer, is this stop going to be like the one that happened in Texas and New Hampshire a day ago?
So they’re in a high state of vigilance because they want to go home at night to their families, just like the drivers do. And I think the citizens are not necessarily aware of all, as you were giving us data on the officers who are getting shot, who are getting ambushed. And that makes an impact on an officer because their level of street survival is having an awareness of risk. So when they may be quicker to react than they normally would’ve been, they’re thinking about the shootings two days and six weeks ago of other offices where the level of anger being manifested by citizens is causing that anger and assaulted behavior.
You spoke a little earlier about staying at home and how that impacted the people that we meet on the front porch. And I can tell you that in my job, the things that I’ve come across that relate to what you said there are, of course, we’ve got reduced manpower. It’s not just the difficulty hiring, it’s because they’re home. They’ve got a quarantine. We have employers out there that make you quarantine for 10, 12, 14 days for an exposure, maybe a positive test.
I’ve actually got one city that causes guys that test negatively to quarantine for 14 days. And that word quarantine sounds terrible. I think when I was a kid they put a sign on your front door, don’t come in here, but now they tell you can’t come out. That was a little different style of quarantine than I was used to.
But you think about it, an officer comes home from work and has to now quarantine down in the spare bedroom and have his food brought to him and it’s left on the floor outside of the door while the kids in the mom are down the hall, having dinner. And he’s got to think about that while he’s at work and he’s being exposed or potentially exposed.
I did have one officer tell me, “When I got exposed to this person, the first thing that crossed my mind was I’m going to lose some holiday, paying some overtime. And it really, he need it, I’ve got four kids at home”, and that was why he was afraid to approach this person in a normal fashion. And he did, and he did get exposed, but it was one of those deals where we never had to think about that.
We had to watch your hands. We had to watch the crowd. We had to watch the traffic, but we didn’t have to wonder if you breathed on me, that I was going to have to get my food handed to me outside the bedroom door. I mean, it was just completely different. And I think it had an impact on how these officers do things. And again, I hate to keep bringing it up. They’re just human beings. They’re just real people. They have kids, a dog parent, or a brother.
And nobody seems to want to know that because if they do something wrong, it’s because it doesn’t look right. And it’s unfair. I mean, I hate to say that fairness is what we should depend on because I don’t expect there’s much that’s fair about there anything out there, but in this particular case, it’s become a thing that’s causing us to react differently than we even think is right.
Dr. Ken Wolf
Right. And you triggered off a memory. We were responders at ground zero. A lot of the officers who were doing extrication from the twin towers would come home and they would take their clothes and throw their clothes away. And the donations they got from all the clothing places gave them new clothes because they didn’t want to take anything that would have contaminated or the smells from ground zero come into their homes.
And I’m thinking, what about the officer who has been on the streets. He comes into contact with people who may have and many do have the virus. And yet that officer has to come home. And is there concern? Did whatever happen to me on the streets? Could I bring something home that could affect my kids and the people I love?
We actually did have several cases where the officer be it the male or the female part of the family came home and the other spouse did get infected. And now you had two people quarantined. Next time we talk, I want to get into a little bit about how the job has changed because of this too. And not just in the communications we have with people, but about how overtime has impacted things and staffing has impacted things. And some of the other things like that. So talk about that the next time.
Stay Tuned for the Rest of Our Series
This is the second episode of a 4-part podcast series. Thank you for tuning in to another edition of the POAM Podcast Radio Show. This New Landscape In Law Enforcement episode is available for download on major podcast platforms. Get on our newsletter and send us all of your comment and suggestions for future shows.