Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Case study: Local police, support and issues

Four stories in the news today that are useful case studies. Let me be the first to say it's not easy being the police. I come from a family that used to be huge law enforcement supporters. My father was deputized as a deputy sheriff when he returned from World War II and he carried a service revolver.

One of the biggest challenges for local law enforcement is that they must be prepared in an instant to respond in the entire gamut of possibilities: from being a good and compassionate neighbor who helps someone out, all the way to finding oneself in combat in a terrorist crime situation.

I am concerned, as I've observed the police for over fifty years now, that many of them have difficulty being open to the entire range of responses, from easy going compassion to having to be "Rambo" on the spot. I'm not going to assign blame because there are a number of reasons, some valid, that many have lost their perspective. I'm also going to point out that many are outstanding at maintaining that entire range of perspective, but sadly, I have encountered too few of them. I do read about them and applaud them when they do appear in the news.

But it is something that the police must be sensitive to in order to maintain public safety and support, support from people like me. I hope that I have readers of my blog who are in law enforcement and who will add this to their training or at least a point of discussion back at the station house over a cup of coffee.

Case study one:

A woman who has her bleeding dying dog in her car is pulled over by a policeman and delayed for five minutes because in her haste to get to the vet she passed in a no pass zone, and the dog died. Read the details at the link. Now there are two sides, the people who think the policeman should have let her go right away as soon as he knew the situation, and those who defend the policeman.

Whenever there are two opposing views, by definition the problem is "too late" to solve. Here is what I suggest. Police need to be reminded of the good neighbor part of their function. In Yiddish we call that being a mensch, a good guy who does a good deed. He should have not only let her go, but he should have, if duty allowed, escorted her at least part of the way to ensure that a distraught woman at 2:30 am with her dying dog gets to the vet. For crying out loud, how difficult is that to understand? That would have been the correct decision. But because that decision did not occur to him because, as I said, many police no longer understand that role in the community, I do not think he should be punished. I do think it is a chance for all the police to think about how easy it would have been to be a mensch instead.

My dad, the deputy sheriff, worked as a night watchman at a chemical plant. If he was on night shift he would often drive me to elementary school in our family car. One morning the car broke down. A local cop drove me to school in his cop car (yes, I sat in front, ha... and boy are those seats hard). That is what it used to be like; cops were mensch. Try to rediscover that. For inspiration watch the old movies where a common humor device was a scene with a woman in labor being driven by frantic husband, being pulled over by a cop for speeding, and then the cop races them to the hospital.

Case study two:

This young and promising cop was shot and killed as he tried to be a mensch, a mensch in the wrong situation. He pulled over a teen who was driving at night without a license. Instead of taking him to the station and calling in the parents, he takes the kid to his residence in a local apartment in order to hand him over to his parents. In the apartment the kid gets a gun and shoots the cop stone cold dead.

Police see it all and I guess they take risks that the rest of us think, what? It used to be that if a teenager did wrong, especially in a risky part of town, the cop took him to jail and part of being a "mensch" was that the parents had to come get the kid and everyone was embarrassed into learning a lesson. I wonder why this officer did not take the kid to jail, and thus paid with his life. The case study is to understand that letting someone off the hook in a dangerous situation is sometimes not being a mensch. Cops have posted that they do this routinely, taking the kid home to work it out with the parents. You aren't social workers. You don't know what you are walking into. For everyone's safety, go back to how it used to be, that a wayfaring teenager got an embarrassment and a scare by being taken to the station where his or her parents are then phoned to come in.

Case study three:

Today a gunman, apparently an employee, open fire while ranting about religion at a ski resort, killing the manager and escaping in his car. However, a policeman was on patrol nearby, spotted the car, pursued it and when the perpetrator opened fire, the cop shot back, and killed the suspect in a gun battle. The cop is a SWAT member and had his rifle.

All I want to do is say, "Good job officer!" Two things happened correctly here. One is that even in sleepy burgs bad stuff happens and this cop was on patrol close to the scene. Patrol is SO important. So kudos to the police on patrol and those who schedule them. The second is the importance of gun practice. Doubly fortunate this is a SWAT guy, but cops, remember that you should practice, practice, practice. Who knows how many lives this officer saved with his precision shooting in a shoot out situation? We could have had another California on our hands if this guy had gotten away and fired along the road or once he was in populated areas again. I know some cops drag their feet at going to their gun practice. Do it!!!

Case study four:

A former Utah state trooper is suspected of being the gunman in the random killing of two people on highways in Texas. He died of a self inflicted gun wound. He is also suspected of robbing two people prior to the killings. He had to resign as a trooper due to addiction to pain medication. He became addicted after suffering a traffic injury while on duty which caused deep pain and led to his addiction. He was a faithful Mormon, family man and suicidal. He had moved with his family to Texas after having to resign the force to take a computer salesman job, and could not earn enough due to the economy.

This is one of the most tragic things that I have read in a year that has been chock full of tragedy and horror. Why is there not a private or public program that could have treated him, comprehensively, in a way to keep his dignity, after he had to resign? The United States has a very bad history toward military and law enforcement regarding comprehensively and compassionately treating pain, trauma and addiction, and allowing them to continue to earn a comparable living while obtaining treatment! Now three families all with young children have suffered a crushing loss of their fathers, right before Christmas. One of the victims was a truck driver about to fly home to be with his family.

Local communities have a responsibility to take care of the service people who fall, in more ways than one, in the midst of serving them. Was there no one wealthy enough in Utah to get this guy the help he needed, in return for how he kept them safe for so many years? Someone send him to genuine rehab in his community, and give him a job that was still of the dignity of service that he had to surrender?

We make our law enforcement super heroes and then super dogs, and it seems like everyone has forgotten the middle humanitarian ground of local community support.

I hope that you have found these case studies helpful and that ultimately somehow the powers that be make some policy changes, and those in the community also have a conversion of heart about how the police should behave at their highest standards and also in turn be treated with the highest respect, caring and concern that they would merit. I say this as someone who has not been treated well by local police in my own hometown just several years ago, but that does not stop me from trying to be of good guidance.