Throughout the past couple of years, the public perception of law enforcement has become increasingly negative due to several high-profile incidents in which officers or agents either exceeded their authority, or were believed to have done so. At times, some media outlets have fanned the flames and rushed to judgment and shaped the “facts” to fit a narrative that would help to create outrage and therefore generate ratings. Some law enforcement officers are not without blame as we have seen most recently in Chicago where not only did an officer improperly apply force, but it appears multiple members of the police department and city government conspired to conceal a homicide. Although I have been extremely critical of some police actions, I am still sometimes accused of being a police apologist whenever I have emphasized the need for objectivity and calm in the face of controversial acts that understandably generate strong emotions. Some in law enforcement believe that the negative shift in public perception is part of a “war” against law enforcement that is being played out on our televisions and through social media. I have a different take.
“War” = Ratings = Attention
The matchup between these two heavyweight boxers is going to be an absolute WAR!
There is a WAR on Christmas!
The WAR on drugs, the WAR on poverty, the WAR on Christian values, etc.., etc., etc.
Philosopher and Theologian James Childress describes the use of the word “war” as a dilemma: “In debating social policy through the language of war, we often forget the moral reality of war.”
I tend to agree with Childress and would add that not only does the using the language of war while discussing social issues cause us to forget the harsh realities of war, but it polarizes debates and changes the mode of communication from meaningful conversations to relentless battles. Conversations include ideas whereas battles ultimately result in casualties on both sides.
So why all this talk about war? It’s simple. Throughout history, if you want to mobilize the masses then you claim you are at war against a formidable enemy – be it physical or ideological. Additionally, if you want to rally your followers and generate increased support then you need to control the media. Major media outlets are controlled by massive corporations and therefore we constantly hear about the WAR against Christmas or the WAR against illegal immigration, but not about the WAR against corporate tax loopholes. That war does not exist because the media has not declared that social problem to be worthy of inflammatory terminology.
The Treatment of Law Enforcement Officials is Getting Worse
This is absolutely true. As our society has become more polarized in our beliefs and respect for governmental authority has decreased, the police have become targets of verbal and physical assaults. As a former law enforcement officer, I admit there are times I have to make sure I don’t get an “us versus them” mentality when discussing the police and those who are heavily critical regardless of the facts. The best way for me to do this is to keep things in a historical perspective.
In the United States, there is a long history of police forces being used as a tool for oppression. This is a sad fact that is evidenced by how some organizations were utilized throughout the civil rights movement. Additionally, police are the most visible symbol of governmental authority which is fine until people become disenchanted with the government and believe the government is responsible for society’s failures. Therefore, in a polarized society where 24/7 media outlets are quick to assign blame and use terms such as WAR, people lash out at the most visible and accessible symbol of governmental authority. The hard truth is that most people do not know the name of their Senator, but they sure know what the local police cruiser looks like.
No – There is No War on the Police
I do not believe there is a WAR on the police any more than I believe there is a WAR against Christmas. Law enforcement as a profession is going through a difficult time and is suffering from wounds that are sometimes self-inflicted, but often caused by misconceptions, misinformation, and the hunger for ratings. For decades, departments have tried to remind us that 99 percent of police officer are doing a great job. However, that claim has become a cliché that is often falling on deaf ears. Social media outlets are being flooded with videos of law enforcement officers doing the wrong thing, but few remember that it is rare for anyone to find it worth while to post videos of the police doing their jobs with honor.
In response to these difficult times, many law enforcement organizations (such as those where I live in the area of Pittsburgh, PA) are changing their ways, becoming more transparent, and joining forces with the community to improve both operations and perceptions. These changes result in conversations, rather than battles. The removal of violent terminology opens the door to reason and accountability and discourages knee jerk reactions. The challenges police are facing on our streets are real and can be horribly violent. To ignore this would be naïve and irresponsible. However, we must be careful not to buy into the WAR mentality that is being pushed on us at every turn.
When a society believes it is at war with its protectors, it’s time for everyone involved to take a big step back from the frontlines.
If you have any thoughts on the matter, feel free to leave a comment below.
J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.
In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered. When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.
And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology