In Policing Attitude is Everything

In Policing Attitude is Everything

In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In policing, it is attitude, attitude, attitude. If officers are not up to a genuine and sincere effort to take their oath to protect and serve seriously, then poor public service is the best we can expect. At worst, misconduct will likely follow. Police officers with a jaded mindset are analogous to a person using a GPS with bad coordinates: every interaction one has with the public is a bit off kilter.

Peace officers in America have for generations been afforded almost complete autonomy in a culture in which their word has been traditionally accepted as the truth, creating a license to act without needing to worry about consequences, and over time, this has led to abusive behavior as having been effectively grandfathered in as acceptable. Technology has upended this sovereignty, and increasingly police union reps are angry in part because they are being asked, for the first time, to be subject to the law, rather than assuming they are above it.

Since January 2017, the politicization of policing has amped up to the present, where it is now common to observe police union spokesmen ranting and raging about how they are not getting their due respect. They are not helping their cause; they are making it worse. It was inevitable that the ubiquity of cellphone cameras would compromise police officers’ history of autonomous activity and add evidence to the contrary as presented in police reports. Some police officers do not like to be held accountable for their actions (not many people do), but a just society requires it.

When citizens call 911, they are requesting a form of thoughtful dominance that will bring order to chaos. It is assumed that alpha male and alpha female officers will respond to the call, because the job requires such a disposition, regardless of whether such a character trait comes naturally to them or not. But unfortunately, because this boldness is required of law enforcement, the occupation is attractive to individuals with authoritarian personalities, people who see the world in simplistic terms, right versus wrong, black versus white, with no room for gray areas, nuance, or the need for deliberation. When racists become police officers, they have effectively been given a license to hate, but the nature of the work and the physical changes that ensue can have a negative effect even on officers with noble intentions.

As I explain in Blue Bias, police officers who face repeated experiences of reaching the fight or flight stage in their parasympathetic nervous systems will incur biological changes over time: their amygdalas will grow in size and they may become hypersensitive to insult or having their authority challenged. This is apparent in internet videos of officers going ballistic when only a slight provocation sets them off. If police supervision does not pay close attention to their officers’ behavior over time, they are doing themselves, their officers, and the public a disservice. Officers who have become over-stressed need to be able to decompress and chill out, so to speak. The adverse behavioral effects on officers who endure repeated stress is exacerbated by the increased militarization of the police, because contempt and scorn thrive in an esprit de corps warrior mentality.

In Rise of the Warrior Cop, Radley Balko shows how the militarization of policing has made law enforcement in some cases “more militarized than the military.” He points out that officers these days are armed, trained, and equipped like soldiers, and the fallout from their mistakes often goes without accountability. Balko says that his book is not anticop, a claim that I also make in Blue Bias, but the politicization of policing has become so intense that any and all criticisms intended to improve policing are taken as being hostile, as in an us versus them context. And worse, there are a growing number of news sites, message boards, and social media groups where peace officers with an authoritarian ideological bent rant and rave, calling movements like Black Lives Matter terrorist groups. Many of these posts are ideologically authoritarian and racist in tone and the attention they bring to bear on the already complicated reputation of the police is devastating, causing many people who have always given police officers the benefit of doubt to have second thoughts.

When authoritarian culture encroaches on democratic societies, Timothy Snyder tells us to be wary of the paramilitaries. In On Tyranny, he writes, “When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.”

So, if policing is all about attitude, like I said at the beginning, then it does not take much imagination to see that the militarization of policing makes a warrior attitude mandatory, when justice increasingly requires guardians. Policing is a difficult and an often seemingly thankless job, performed by thousands of men and women with noble intentions. But that said, policing offers priceless rewards through the gratitude of citizens who have been rescued and saved from harm by officers simply doing what they signed up to do: protecting and serving the people. I know from personal experience that it is easy to become jaded and disillusioned from so much involvement with humanity at its worst, and when this happens, a negative attitude is not only contagious, it also sets up conditions that enable miserable officers to spread their unhappiness among the public. Police officers who are sincere in their efforts to protect and serve derive satisfaction from an attitude that justice is its own reward.

Charles D. Hayes is the author of Blue Bias: An Ex-Cop Turned Philosopher Examines the Learning and Resolve Necessary to End Hidden Prejudice in Policing.