I posed the question to a police officer this week and he could not give me a good answer. Morale among officers is the lowest he has ever seen. He is not alone in his thinking as I have received similar answers from other officers. The job is difficult, dangerous and increasingly thankless. For these reasons many officers are considering leaving the profession and there is a fear that the quality of future officers may be on the decline. Excellent candidates may choose other careers.
In California recent law changes have made it easy on criminals and hard on everyone else. A state ballot proposition passed in 2014 converted many felonies into misdemeanors and made many crimes the equivalent of a parking ticket. Repeat offenders who used to get jail time are now given nothing more than a citation and sent on their way. The inability to remove many lawbreakers from the streets has been demoralizing to officers who want to protect society.
Recent events have highlighted the dangers that officers face on a daily basis. While shootings such as the one in Dallas get national coverage the dangers of the job are not limited to firearms. Police officers often find themselves attempting to detain uncooperative suspects who are bigger and stronger than they are. A police officer patient of mine recently related a terrifying story of fighting for his life. He was in a five-minute fight with a suspect in the midst of a hostile crowd. Punches were thrown, bodies were slammed into cars and weapons were drawn. It never made the news but it left him seriously shaken.
This officer and others like him have told me that they often worry about being killed or injured. They all relate the same primary goal. They want to go home alive at the end of the day. Many have told me of fearful spouses who have difficulty sleeping while their loved one is at work. Stress levels are incredibly high and depression and anxiety are common.
For men and women in a career filled with danger and stress attacks on the profession wage a heavy toll. When protestors march and chant about harming cops and when racism is assumed in every interracial interaction officers are on edge. Their work has become so highly politicized they fear that every interaction carries the risk of criticism and disciplinary action. One officer I know discharged his weapon at a suspect who was reaching for a gun while holding a hostage. Even though he missed and no one was harmed he was subjected to a grueling and demeaning performance review that lasted for over a year.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that many officers are not paid well. Starting salaries in the United States are as low as $26,000 a year, about $12.50 an hour. Patrol officers make on average less than $40,000 a year in 11 states and less than $50,000 a year in over half of the states. We cannot expect the best and brightest of our citizens to put their lives on the line when we do not pay them well or appreciate them enough.
Recent police shootings illustrate another seldom discussed reality of police work. Even well-trained, educated and experienced officers can sometimes struggle to perform in high stress situations. It is one thing to know what to do and to be trained on what to do. Doing it in a life or death situation is a different story all together. I have seen this in my own profession. I have observed firsthand as experienced doctors who had passed all the tests and completed all of the training melted down in a life or death situation. They had good intentions and wanted to do well but they did not have the psychological make up to perform under intense pressure. Regardless of training, we cannot escape the reality that we are all human.
I wonder if this is not a major factor in many police shootings. As I watch the videos from Minnesota and Louisiana I wonder if panic and fear were the primary factors leading to poor decisions and actions by the officers involved. From what I know of police officers, and about people in general, this is far more likely than racism to be the root cause of the tragedy.
If we want to minimize police errors and mistakes we will have to create an environment in which the best and brightest among us pursue careers in law enforcement. If we continue to attack and question the motives of police officers, if we paint with a broad brush and accuse them of racism or other ill motives, if we continue to pay them poorly and treat them poorly, the best and the brightest will turn to other careers. All of us will suffer as a result.
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