I began my law enforcement career as the Vietnam War was winding down. Then, as now, people were angry, frustrated, distrustful of the government and contemptuous of authority. As they always are, police officers were at the center of the storm. The 1970's was the most lethal decade for police officers averaging 127 deaths by firearm per year. Contrast this with the current decade's average of 53 per year. We have seen a spike this year, which may be directly attributable to societal attitudes toward the police. Policing In The Age of the Internet :
What's the difference between then and now? The biggest change in society since the 1970's is technology, specifically personal computers, cell phones (and their cameras), the internet and social media. Technology has facilitated instantaneous communication and drives the 24-hour news cycle. Events are broadcast live from half a world away and people's impressions of events are formed by a story
crafted even before all facts are known. This is very important in the case of police-involved incidents because thorough investigations take time and officials are necessarily cautious in releasing unvetted information. We have an obligation to get it right, others do not. This can make it very difficult to live down the narrative of the incident, even if it is not true. What's Changed:
So how do we police in the information age? Today police officers are much better educated, trained and equipped than ever before. When I graduated from the police academy the program was 8 weeks long. Now it is six months long. There was no such thing as in-service or recert training. If you wanted training, you got it on your own. Police technology (radios, computers, firearms, body armor, Tasers) has improved dramatically and is used more widely. What's Remained the Same
: The common denominator remains the police officer the human being. The essence of policing is the interpersonal reaction between police officers and individuals in the community. People's attitudes and impressions are certainly influenced by what they read in the newspaper or see on television because, after all, how many people have first-hand interactions with police officers? Individual interactions or observations of interactions between police officers and citizens can either reinforce or dispel pre-conceived attitudes toward police officers or form entirely new ones. Relationships matter. So how do you survive and thrive as a police officer?
- Be yourself. You are who you are. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses. Improve where you can. Realize that you're not perfect and that you will make mistakes. Learn from them and try not to make them again.
- Take care of your family. Cherish them and keep them close. They'll be there for you when no one else will.
- Respect people. The public demands respect from police officers. The chief complaint against police officers is discourtesy. It doesn't cost you anything to be civil to people. Respect is important inside the building too. After all, if we can't respect each other, we can't respect anyone else.
- Treat people fairly. Everyone deserves fair treatment. Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. Do the right thing because it's the right thing to do.
- Keep your sense of humor. Even though we deal with deadly serious subjects, that doesn't mean we can't have fun. See the humor in everyday life and have a laugh every once in a while. It's good therapy.
- Find outside interests and friends. I loved being a police officer, but we need to develop friends and interests outside of policing to keep us balanced. After all, it will be over some day, probably sooner than you think.
I'm optimistic for the future of policing in general and here at Yale. I think we will emerge from our current difficulties stronger and better than before. I'm excited for those who will assume new roles and responsibilities here. I hope you excel and surpass anything done before.
"The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday!"
Michael Patten, CSSP
Assistant Chief of Police Operations