Millions of Americans stood around their televisions or sat glued to their phones while constantly “refreshing” in order to view the most updated breaking news on the deadliest attack on law enforcement since 9/11. On July 7th, the Dallas police attacks saw the shooting of 12 officers, with five dying from their injuries. All of this occurred at what was supposed to be a peaceful protest against police brutality, specifically referring to the recent officer-involved shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. While most of us sat horrified, wondering what type of society we’re becoming, there were still people applauding the actions of that “sniper.”
It wasn’t but a few days after this event that the chief of police from St. George, Kansas reached out to me. He inquired about the possibility of me joining him for a ride along, to subsequently share with the public the attitude and thoughts of policemen. After asking him if I would be allowed to carry, to which he responded was against policy, I hesitantly agreed to the ride along (if you know me well enough, you know I don’t go anywhere without my gun). Originally we had scheduled it for a Friday night, July 22nd to be exact. However, as fate would have it, earlier that week a police captain from Kansas City—just two hours away from us—was shot to death while responding to a call. Our ride along had to be postponed to allow the officers adequate time to make it to the funeral on Saturday. This shooting further necessitated the ride along and the writing of this blog.
St. George, Kansas is by no stretch of the imagination a large town. It is quaint and quiet; a town in which one wouldn’t expect trouble. Now despite my silent hope to get into high-speed chases, burglaries, shootings, and other things I only get to witness on TV, I was thrilled to know that this was going to be a safe night where I could focus my attention on the pertinent questions that many want to ask police officers nowadays. For the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to the officer I rode with as Dan. What I most appreciated was his candor in answering some pretty difficult questions. It was evident that Dan is a family man; he loves his wife of 14 years and his 12-year-old daughter. There is no mistaking that. At the end of a long shift, they are what he wants to see. He differs from you and I in no way other than his chosen career. This is the point that even I had misinterpreted prior to the ride along. The uniform of authority that police wear makes them seem unapproachable, unrelatable, and to some, intimidating. From what I learned, though, this is not who they are, and it certainly isn’t what they want you to believe. This is what I learned…
When I asked Dan why he went into law enforcement, he admitted his answer was clichéd—he just wanted to help people (which is evident given his previous work in EMS and firefighting). However, he followed that up with a statement anyone can appreciate. Dan said, “if something bad is going to happen, I want it to happen with me there.”
We first pulled over a woman that was going 16 mph over the speed limit. He walked up to the white sedan very cautiously, touching the back of the car in order to leave his fingerprints, and approaching the driver’s window slowly. I stood back watching the interaction, and Dan was nothing but respectful. As it turned out, the woman was in violation of a few different laws. Not only was she speeding, but she wasn’t current on her license and registration after a recent marriage and move. Dan came back to the rig and mentioned that these are both offenses that warrant an arrest. So why isn’t this story ending in an arrest? Because her young son was in the vehicle with her and that’s not the impression Dan wanted to leave on him about cops. Fortunately, Kansas law leaves that discretion up to the officers. They are kind, compassionate, considerate and aren’t looking for an arrest or altercation every chance they get. This leads me to my next point…
It is easy to believe a narrative in which cops are portrayed as mindless bots just fulfilling whatever task they’re assigned. For some, this narrative might also include unquestionable loyalty towards “bad cops” for the simple sake of protecting the brotherhood. Yes, police officers are figures of authority and they are required to uphold the law. They are also normal human beings with emotions and feelings like anyone else. If they have a fight at home, a death in the family, or have just come from a child abuse case, they still have to maintain composure when going about the rest of their job. The fact of the matter is, we have no idea what kind of day they’ve had when they pull us over. From everything Dan said about police officers, it doesn’t seem like they go into this field in order to satisfy some superiority complex or to unjustly rule with an authoritative fist, but simply because they want to protect and serve. Knowing what I now know, I’d like to say that most officers have situational ethics; they take in all the information that is presented to them, and make a judgment about what the right call is only then. They are not robots of the law!
When I inquired about when this negative attitude toward cops first appeared, he was very matter-of-fact in saying that Ferguson was the beginning of this mess. What surprised me a bit was this comment; “It was an entirely false narrative. Which, had it been true, would have had anyone wearing a uniform just as upset as everybody else. We would have been out there with them protesting and calling for his head! But, we know not to make rash judgments, to take a deep breath and not get tunnel vision, and to wait for what the investigation shows.” Along those same lines, he denounces blind and obvious acceptance of bad cops within a department. Bottom line, there is no tolerance for them. Good cops (believably, the majority) will not protect bad cops. Dan states, “I don’t know of an officer that will stand for a corrupt cop. That brotherhood or sisterhood, the thin blue line that people reference, that’s endless until the point where you cross a legal line, where you become a criminal. That thin blue line will not protect you. If anyone is getting protected, it’s because of other people’s selfish motivations to try and protect their department’s image.” Lately it has become the norm for so many to jump on this “all cops are bad” bandwagon. Well guess what, folks? Just as much as YOU hate bad cops, GOOD cops hate bad cops! Malice, criminal intent, evil, lawless…these unfortunate elements are NOT exclusive to cops or careers, they are common to humanity. Whites, blacks, Asians, doctors, lawyers, bankers, males, females, gays, straights, you get the point—bad people are found in all cohorts! You cannot punish all cops for the actions of a few bad apples. It’s not right, it’s not fair, and it makes you no better than the bad ones.
Take a moment to fully process this quote; "The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence” (Sir Robert Peel). Police officers are neighbors, they are people in line at the grocery store, they are parents sitting on the bleachers of their kids’ soccer games. They do everything that you do, the only difference being that they get paid to serve the community. I’ll even admit that I held them to a different standard before this. I found them “unworldly,” intimidating almost, as if they were just looking to find something wrong with me. But, after riding with Dan for six hours and being afforded the opportunity to understand the mindset of a cop, I realize now that there is no difference between us.
I briefly want to share a few details of one of Dan’s officers, Jon Reed, because I think it drives this point home. Reed has worked in law enforcement for 21 years. He has three grown kids and one grandchild. When he’s not working for the department, he runs Home Town Health Care, a home care/health and hospice service for 30 Kansas counties. He came from very little, but he grew up understanding the value of hard work. He has raised deer, elk, and bison to provide meat for Midwest stores, he loves to hunt, he has acted in movies like Jonah Hex and The Lone Ranger, and he has been a third degree Mason for 19 years. His fondest memories include taking each one of his children out on a 16th birthday dream hunt. His oldest daughter harvested an elk, his middle daughter harvested a 190 class buck, and his son harvested a 10’4 alligator.
They are people just like you and me, with hobbies, families, passions, and side jobs to make ends meet.
To be curt, I’m ashamed, appalled even, that the state of this country warrants a blog article on humanizing police officers. Shouldn’t this be common sense? What has happened to us that law enforcement and first responders need to fear for their lives on any given day? Since when has a uniform become synonymous with a target? Let me break this down for you; people in this country want to cry about stereotypes, but the police are becoming one of the largest stereotyped groups and yet no one calls BS on it. If the police were a protected group, what has been happening to them would be considered a hate crime. Police operate on rules of engagement and integrity; they don’t hide on roof tops to ambush innocent people. They put themselves into harms way every day in order to allow protests AGAINST them. They leave their families knowing that it might be their last interaction.
“When they come to save your life, they don't ask if you are black or white. They just come to save you." –Rudy Giuliani
Theresa Vail is a member of the Kansas Army National Guard, Miss Kansas 2013, and current Host of NRA All Access.
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