I have taught a class on ethics for police over the course of 36 years, at two different universities, and continue to teach the subject online. With absolute certainty, I can tell you that the vast majority of the students in my classes want to become police officers to help their communities, to help people. Whether white, black, brown, Latino, Asian, male or female, their answer to the question of “why become a police officer?” is the same.
Occasionally, a recent veteran of the armed forces wants to relive the combat high, but even those folks are few and far between. So what happens? Several dynamics are at play.
There are centuries of culture, supported by instructors’ war stories that undermine and negate the little bit of ethics offered in most police training.
As in low-level military combat, officers are trained for the worst and then wait and wait—their trigger finger honed and ready—while nothing dramatic happens. When trouble does start, they overreact.The U.S. military is over-producing weapons of war; it had to get rid of the surplus somewhere, and police departments were its target clientele.
The final dynamic is the nature of the job itself. After 9/11, police and firefighters were the nation’s heroes, and Criminal Justice programs witnessed big bumps in enrollment. Years later, those heroes are still fighting for medical care and other support. Today they find themselves viewed not as heroes, but as enemies of the people. When you are the victim, you want police assistance. When you are the perpetrator, police are the last people you want to see. Speeders curse the highway patrol officer who stops them in an effort to reduce traffic fatalities.
Police are asked to enforce unenforceable and unpopular laws. They are called to areas where the perception of crime—e.g., victimization of the elderly—far outstrips the reality of need. They serve communities with a history of police neglect and abuse, creating tension and hostility between residents and law enforcement, even when the police are there to help.
So, no, all police are not bad. Making claims of universal, widespread police corruption is not helpful. Do we need reform? You bet we do. Do we need to rein in costs and redirect money to community needs? Yes. Do we need leadership that can navigate the current critical situation rationally and effectively? Yes. Do we see that kind of leadership at the federal level? No.
We cannot go back to the status quo, but going forward should not negate the contribution of those officers who have committed themselves to the public good.