I know a lot of cops. Most of us do. We went through the Santa Barbara school system with them, met them around town with our kids at school functions, or have family members in law enforcement. Though the newspapers are full of stories alleging everything from police brutality to manslaughter and murder, none of us can imagine the people we know in the profession would do anything other than protect us from lawbreakers and criminals. Yet we continue to see evidence of a problem that seems to be either escalating or perhaps just bubbling to the surface.
A firefighter friend was talking about a new paramedic training class he was going to take. The training included working in combat situations to prepare for victims at fire scenes involving shootings. This is a new area of education for the fire service, but it’s a hazard our law enforcement departments around the country have had to deal with for years. When we read about the seemingly extreme overuse of force by law enforcement against the citizenry, we need to also realize that these are outlier instances. They are not the norm.
When I was in grade school, I recall reading about a police officer shot at a scene in the five-points area where Salinas, Montecito, and other streets merge. I remember the strong impression left by a photograph of the officer sitting on the ground, crying and in pain. People are hurt or killed in accidents on the job every day for many reasons, but most of us do not expect it unless we’re in law enforcement, the fire service, or the military. Statistics for each profession are well known. The military predicts the casualty rate for every planned action. Police and fire expect to lose officers every year despite ongoing training. The unspoken fear each spouse has is that someday their partner will not come home or will be badly injured. In 2014, 126 officers were killed in the line of duty.
The world I grew up in as a child was quite different than today’s. A police officer of the late 1950s probably carried a .38 caliber police revolver as his only weapon. Today our peace officers are armed with semi-automatic pistols, have shotguns in the cruiser, and are backed up by a special team with automatic weapons and riot equipment. The Barney Fife officer of old has been replaced with a team that mirrors the training and capabilities of our armed forces. Law enforcement did not proactively ask for this capability, we did. We now demand that they be prepared to do everything from writing a traffic ticket to engaging in a shootout with criminals armed with armor-piercing bullets and wearing bulletproof vests.
The press seems to be calling on law enforcement to use more restraint with potential lawbreakers who are attempting to flee or are attacking them. The public wants law enforcement to use some new measured approach. Do they act with less than the full complement of tools available to them? Or should they be prepared for the worst situation that might develop? Do they let people fleeing the scene of a crime get away? Should those with weapons be allowed to run for it?
Put yourself in an officer’s uncertain situation. You are alone at night in your home, and someone breaks in. You may or may not have time to call 9-1-1 for help. The intruder may be armed or not. You don’t know. All you know is you are afraid and don’t want yourself or your family to be hurt or killed. You have at your disposal a gun you’ve been trained to use and pepper spray. Danger is imminent. Which do you choose?
Our police force is trained to be prepared for the worst. They don’t want to be hurt or killed on the job. We don’t wish for that to happen either. In the movie A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson gives a gripping performance at the end when his character, Colonel Jessup, declares about a world with walls: “You want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.” I am appreciative that men and women continue to choose law enforcement as a career despite the hazards of the profession. We want them on that wall. We need them on that wall.
The court system will now begin to handle the recent events in Baltimore. The proceedings will play out in the news and be the subject of incessant debate from the left and right. I don’t plan to watch any of it, and you shouldn’t either. If you want to know what to do with your time, use it to think about changes we need to make in this country that can lift all of us up economically and promote mankind to his highest God-given potential.