In recent weeks we have seen over and over the video clip of the school resource officer pulling the girl from her desk and dragging her across the floor. I’m not going to make a judgment on his or her behavior and response because I don’t have all the antecedent behavior, interviews with all the witnesses and statement from the classroom teacher. But I will say this about the video: It looks really bad … period.
We are now privileged to thousands of video replays of daily life with the advent of inexpensive technology and a platform to share it internationally. Some videos of amusing kittens cause us to giggle while most videos of police officers exercising force in the execution of their duties cause most citizens to gasp. I get it and so do most good law enforcement executives.
It’s not an easy job, never has been as easy job and, frankly, on some levels has gotten more difficult. But we shouldn’t retreat from the challenges or throw in the towel regarding our “contract” with the citizens we serve. And citizens need to be careful not to categorize all officers or every police response by some of the negative videos we see looped over and over. Law enforcement is facing some big challenges and always has when it comes to policing a free society.
Many schools have outsourced classroom management to the police because they want to avoid the liability faced when they confront difficult students. The severely mentally ill have become a greater challenge for responding police officers because so many are on the streets and not hospitalized. Growing percentages of special needs populations and the autistic create broader training challenges, sensitivity to this issue and an appropriate response by law enforcement. Many families today call the police because their young children refuse to go to school or are disrespectful in the home. The world has flattened and our officers deal with much more diverse cultures and language barriers than ever before. The impact of seeing and dealing with trauma and violence takes a toll. Not to mention the ongoing drug-related issues: overdose, associated theft, and shifting cultural expectations. I could go on but I hope I’m making the point.
The world is rapidly changing and the expectations are much greater today upon law enforcement than they were 30 years ago. I know because I have been a part of it for 35 years. In communities where police community relations are at their best, it is because law enforcement has adapted or the community is fairly homogeneous and the response can be standardized.
Law enforcement is changing; we have to. But it will take time, money and investment. We will have to take time training, and that training will have to be ongoing and the most effective. We have to invest is changing cultures and communicating expectations between both the police and community (no easy effort). And we all have to be open to examine the role of police and where these expectations intersect with shifting cultural, societal and family values. Again this is no easy task.
We are also going to have to continue to recruit and hire some of the most complex problem-solvers our young population offers. And we will work diligently with our current membership in helping them adapt to some of these very difficult expectations.
As a society, we also are going to have to hold people personally accountable for inappropriate behavior and not make ongoing excuses for them every time their actions require a law enforcement encounter. In communities where people experience the best quality of life, feel the safest and are most productive, both the citizens and police are working cooperatively to maintain high standards of civil conduct. Law enforcement was never meant to be a stand-alone entity; it was always intended to be a partnership in western policing.
Much of the dialogue regarding policing has been constructive; some of it has not. But I know far too many men and women in this profession — from the front line to executive — who care greatly about this calling and will work hard to make the changes necessary. My hope is that the citizens we serve will work with us, continue their support (while expecting accountability), and understand the complex and challenging nature of this great profession.
Russell Martin is Delaware County’s sheriff.