Today’s LEO climate is indisputably changing. Many would say it changed long ago. There is no doubt to the fact that today’s operating environment as a LEO is much different than it was pre 9/11 or even some years after 9/11. I am using 9/11 as a benchmark for this conversation because it is a solid point in history that many of us, as LEO’s today, remember well. The question that needs to be asked is this: is today’s current law enforcement climate a sign of an impending, metaphorical, storm? In this, I am seeking to discuss whether or not we are hitting, or have already hit, a tipping point in our work environment. Has society hit an “all is lost” point, or are our surroundings and advances in media and technology making it appear different from what it really is?
A couple of factors will play into these questions. Last night, on the local news, an investigative reporter researched the “use of force” levels in police departments surrounding the tri-state area in which I live, and serve. The results of this investigation show that many departments are showing a decrease in the amount of force used in law enforcement encounters over the past five years. Many departments do not have an electronic way of tracking these statistics; however, they are still reporting a decrease in the amount of use of force encounters. Is this because of a more well-trained police force, or is this because of a more compliant public? I will submit to you that, while we are seeing a significant increase in the amount and quality of training in our police departments, we are also seeing an increase in the number of citizens willing to go to extreme lengths to “defeat” the police. It is a transverse relationship that will be discussed further as you read along.
The first thing I would like to address regarding today’s law enforcement environment is technology. We are all familiar with the amount of cell phone footage that comes out when an officer is involved in an OIS. This, in turn, can lead to a view of an incident that is removed from the facts surrounding it. Subsequently, the media outlets will then report and see this footage and report the story, once again, removed from the actual facts surrounding it. With these knee-jerk and quick reporting techniques, we can be left with a community that is spun into an outrage, thrown into anger. It then falls on the police department to back-track, and report, sometimes too early, the facts surrounding an incident or investigation to calm the public. This can damage the investigation and can also enrage the public even more, for without an official, full-length investigation, the public has seen what potentially the pre-mature investigation is finding, preliminarily, hard to explain. Incidents outside the last 10-15 years have not had these advances in technology that make departments hard pressed for quick answers. While technology is an asset to many aspects of both society and our profession, it can also hinder the ability of the community and law enforcement to proceed with an incident absent outside and unnecessary influences.
The second aspect of our current operating environment that must be discussed is the increase in the quality of law enforcement training that exists in our departments today. It appears that, with every incident garnering national headlines, we see a reactive training program placed into many of our departments; Active shooter training, riot training, Narcan training, additional and compounding use of force policies, etc. We are continually becoming, nationwide, a more competent and well-trained police force. We, as police officers and police departments, are also becoming more equipped and prepared to react and respond to ever-growing threats. An increase in well-equipped officer and departments has led to an impression, on the public, of militarization. What needs to be directly addressed is that we, as police officers, need to react and respond to the threats we may face every day. With an increase in the availability of firearms (very powerful firearms, at that) to the public, police officers must increase their available protective options against this threat. This comes in the form of increased body armor, increased armored personnel carriers for tactical teams, and greater firepower. This increase in firepower does NOT represent an increase in the desire or the requirement to use this firepower against the general public. What is represented is the potential increase in lone-wolf shooters, active shooter incidents, police related ambush attacks, etc. With the increase in these incidents, police officers must be more prepared to act to stop these incidents once they have started and must be prepared to act immediately. We have found ourselves in situations where we are not prepared to act, where departments find themselves at a loss of preparedness. The police force in America today is simply allowing itself to take advantage of advancements in equipment and training to keep the general public safe.
In conclusion, what we are seeing today is a more aware police force and, definitely, a more aware public. The greatest thing about the United States is that we have the freedom to make our own choices and decisions. In this aspect of freedom, we also see the availability of evil individuals to carry out their evil acts. It is our responsibility to take control of society when these people choose to attack. No, we are not facing a metaphorical storm. What we are facing is a strained relationship between law enforcement and the public, a relationship that can most definitely be mended. Education of the public, and continued education of law enforcement is the only way to combat this. Whether or not the public wants to participate in this is ultimately their choice. As for the present, we, as officers, will continue to do our jobs, within the law, with the respect of our families, the public and all those who wish to stand behind us.