It’s time to have an uncomfortable conversation. I get asked quite frequently why I think “good” cops don’t do more to speak out against “bad” cops. I began asking several law enforcement colleagues what they thought about this, and one replied, “There’s only one thing people hate more than a cop, and that’s a snitch. Everybody hates a snitch.” Yikes!
While that’s one way to answer the question, I do believe that the question is a bit too complex to answer so succinctly. It’s a complex question because the question assumes that good cops and bad cops are entirely distinguishable from one another. In some instances, they are, but in a majority of instances they aren’t. Let me attempt to explain with a comparative example.
I want you to think back. Have you ever had a friend, family member or acquaintance commit a crime, end up in jail unexpectedly or do something indecent that should have resulted in jail time? If so, what was your initial thought when you learned about it? Did you condemn them or did you comfort them? Did you judge them or justify their behavior? Most people, certainly not everyone, respond with disbelief. They recognize the person, but not their actions. Maybe you’ve had a thought like, “I can’t believe Joe did that. He’s such a good person.” In your eyes, Joe is a good person, and your first indication of wrong doing came as a result of behavior that might be out of character for Joe. We balance the one bad thing we now know against the 20 good things we’ve always known, and sometimes all we see is a good person who made a mistake. Maybe you don’t believe Joe did anything wrong at all. In that instance, you want to see more evidence. You desire more concrete proof to prove the narrative that you don’t believe in or trust.
Or, perhaps your “Joe” wasn’t a great person, but he was your person. In these situations, we tend to rationalize bad behavior with a “I know Joe had issues, but he is a really good person when you get to know him,” kind of thought process. We consider the environment, life circumstances and perhaps his rough upbringing, and conclude that the cards were stacked against Joe. He was setup to fail and perhaps more should have been done to change his world to give him a better shot at not falling into a pattern of criminal behavior. The other likely outcome is that we agree with Joe’s bad behavior. We may feel that Joe did what Joe had to do in order to make it or to provide for his family. We may justify bad action as an understandable means to an end.
For years, I sat across the table interviewing murderers, child molesters, rapists, and violent criminals who would confess to some of the most heinous acts imaginable. What always struck me as odd was how the friends and family members of these people came to their defense. I remember in one instance having to talk to the mother of a man who admitted to molesting two little girls. Mom was heartbroken and in disbelief. She was also his biggest cheerleader. “He’s a good kid,” she said. “He made a mistake.”
Why do we do this? Why do we come to the defense of those who commit indefensible actions? There are many factors, but I do believe we can sum up a majority of those reasons into two categories; Intention versus Behavior.
In law enforcement, and indeed in life, we tend to judge ourselves and those we care about based on intentions. Intentions are powerful because when you mean well but do bad, intentions become a kind of “get out of jail free” card. Intentions attempt to change a bad take, into a mistake.
So when cops see other cops they work with get accused of controversial behavior, their first thought isn’t usually, “Burn him at the stake!” It may actually be, “Wait a minute, Officer Joe did what? Not the Officer Joe I know.” From the beginning, a fellow officer might be given the benefit of the doubt. And why not? As far as we know, Joe received Officer of the Month last month, got a commendation for pulling that one guy out of his wrecked car and he volunteers his weekends teaching the local kids at the school about gun safety. In front of what we know, the things we don’t want to believe are easy to dismiss.
Another thing you often hear from the law enforcement community is “Let all the facts come out.” We know through investigations that facts and information take a great deal of time to come out. One video or one statement from an accuser is often just the tip of the iceberg. We never want to rush to judgement on 50% of the information. This isn’t unlike the general public’s desire to see all the evidence of an alleged criminal act. Today, there is high demand for transparency and videos from law enforcement during controversial incidents. There is a strong mistrust between the two sides and therefore, a belief that one side is hiding something or covering up a whole truth. Accordingly, before anyone accepts the other side’s narrative, we want to see more definitive proof before condemning anything. In the case of law enforcement, we usually hold out hope that a thorough investigation will reveal that an officer’s actions, while controversial, were legally justifiable.
To that point, I need to hit a bunny trail for a second. I don’t personally believe that it takes a rocket scientist to understand that there is something wrong with how we are policing today in this country. One of my biggest issues is that everything we do in law enforcement is based on legal justification. I honestly question if most officers recognize that a legal standard is below a moral standard. The law justifies actions that are sometimes considered immoral. Example? The law allows you and I as citizens (in some instances) to kill people in self-defense. Killing people is never moral, but at times can be considered legal. When we reduce every police encounter to a matter of legality or illegality, we miss the very point that drives the divide between the police and the policed. The real question shouldn’t be, “Was it legal?” No, the real question is, “Was it necessary? Was it right? Was it the only option? Was it humane?” Was it moral?
And to those of you who say that society is immoral, you are right. But when we wear the badge, the idea is that we aren’t supposed to echo society’s brokenness. We’re supposed to demonstrate righteousness to an unrighteous people. It doesn’t matter if the people we interact with are immoral, sinful, criminal, nasty or any other adjective we use to describe society. That’s the nature of human beings being human. See, what we were really doing when we swore that oath was giving up our right to be like everybody else. Society gets to be immoral and inhumane because society didn’t swear an oath to be held to a higher standard. We did.
Ok, soap box moment done. Let’s move on.
What about those situations where there is clear evidence of wrongdoing? Surely good cops would speak out in those instances right? Not so fast.
Years ago, I was involved in street level gang investigations. I spent a great deal of time meeting with and conversing with good people who lived in bad neighborhoods. I established a great rapport with the people in the community I patrolled. When crime took place, I would get a phone call under the condition that the person reporting the activity remained anonymous. Their biggest concern? Retaliation. The truth is, good people don’t report bad people because they don’t want the bad people to target them.
I wish it weren’t the case, but retaliation for ousting a bad cop is a real thing. I’ve seen it first hand and honestly struggle to wrap my head around it. Nationally, there are countless examples of good cops ousting bad cops, which results in the good cop being demoted, fired, punished or targeted internally for their efforts. If you’ve got a family, bills to pay or career aspirations, sometimes it’s best to keep your head down and not say anything. Do we expect more from our law enforcement officers? Absolutely! But people tend to forget that officers are normal people with a different color shirt on at the end of the day. Would you jeopardize your safety, longevity, promotion, provision and future to report someone at work? Perhaps. And you should. We all should, especially those of us who swore oaths. But, sometimes it’s easier to try to ignore it, lest that problem becomes your problem.
I should mention that in addition to being a sworn law enforcement officer, I also serve as a law enforcement chaplain. I get the unique opportunity to counsel and pastor cops. During one session with a ranking supervisor at one of the agencies I have connections with, the topic of police misconduct came up. They were frustrated at what was described as racism and questionable policing practices from within their agency. I asked why they chose to stay, and their response was, “I feel like as long as I’m here, there is one less bad cop out there who might hurt my son.” When the police don’t trust the police, that’s a problem.
During a session with another law enforcement veteran, I asked how things were progressing in their career and what challenges (if any) they faced. I was asked a question that I hadn’t expected. They asked me, “What do you do when things aren’t what you expected.” I began to explain that we all have illusions of what the job is supposed to look like, but after we get in, we get a real glimpse of the brokenness. The officer stopped me and said, “I’m not talking about the job. I’m talking about the people. What do you do when the people in uniform next to you aren’t the kind of people you thought they would be?” Again, yikes!
I’ve had way too many conversations like these, behind closed doors. The overarching theme I hear is that most officers feel absolutely powerless to do anything about the issues they see, and self-preservation becomes the name of the game. Everyone wants the problem people to go away, but would rather face an armed assailant than the wrath of a law enforcement agency they’ve decided to speak against.
Then there is the issue of conditioning. In reality, if you spend your entire career dealing with broken people, at some point you yourself may become broken. And even if your actions aren’t broken, your mindset and thinking patterns may be. It’s easy to begin to hate people in this job. When you see first-hand what a human being is willing to
do to another human being, it’s easy to conclude that people are not human, but problems. We develop an us versus them mentality, and when something happens to one of “them,” we say, “Good. One less problem to deal with,” or “Better them than one of us.” It’s similar to how many in society feel when a police officer is killed in the line of duty actually. People and police may feel apathetic. Or worse, relieved when the other dies.
There is also outright disagreement with what is considered appropriate or inappropriate. I would say that this is very common in my experience. When high profile shootings take place, I find that the law enforcement community widely considers the force necessary and reasonable, while society considers it excessive and unreasonable. We are looking at the same things, but our perspectives are different.
Perspective is shaped by what we know and what we don’t know. What a police officer knows is that things can go from good to bad in a heartbeat. We are trained to consider all possible outcomes and to respond with a level of force that is equal to or greater than that force which is presented to us. If you’ve never been in a police officer’s shoes, it’s hard to appreciate that many cops are legitimately afraid of the encounters they have with the public. We have been conditioned to expect the worst out of every possible encounter (not exactly a good thing in my opinion). As a consequence, the probability of us exacting death on someone at every call is at the forefront of our minds.
This is why you see cops pulling pistols out at traffic stops for broken taillights. It’s not that they are always responding to the threat they see, they are responding to the threat they think they could see or feel they are likely to see. It’s not the best way to do business and it has resulted in people being killed over misdemeanor encounters. I suppose that I’m at odds with the conditioning that prompts us to rationalize an incident like this with statements like, “If he would have just complied, he’d be alive.” Or some say, “If he didn’t break the law or if he hadn’t run, he’d still be alive.” We’ve developed a “comply or die” mentality that can now be used to justify killing people for misdemeanor offenses. Agree or disagree, it reinforces the idea that good officer’s may not report bad behavior that they don’t honestly see as bad.
Then there are the overt cover ups. Despite what Hollywood and the media would have you think, these types of blatant acts are rare, but they do happen. I had a homicide suspect ask me once, “Detective, how far would you go to protect someone you love?” My response was, “That depends. It depends on what I’m protecting them from, and whether or not they have the power to protect themselves.” I won’t break the law, violate my own morals or faith for you. Period.
When it comes to misconduct, there are consequences. It’s why people lie; to avoid the consequences. And whether the misconduct was intentional are accidental, we as people have a tendency to want to avoid consequences. So reports get changed, statements get altered, evidence gets “lost.” I’ve never personally seen evidence being lost or planted intentionally, but I’ve certainly seen the culture of doctoring written statements and reports to fit a narrative. And we aren’t always talking about an obvious misrepresentation of fact. Sometimes, it’s adding a little color or a few embellishments to push the cart across the line, so to speak. Still, it’s wrong.
So why not report a doctored report, or blatant cover up? The other reason good cops may not speak up when misconduct happens is because at the end of the day, they may feel that despite all the negative points, the end justifies the means. If a little misconduct means that the community at large is safer or that a "bad" guy gets locked away or killed, it may be worth staying quiet for the greater good.
All this to say, we’ve got a great deal of work to do in law enforcement. Somewhere down the line, enforcing the law became priority over serving and protecting people. I submit that I honestly don’t think the role of law enforcement in this country is to beat people into compliance with arbitrary laws that are subject to change year to year. It seems more fitting that we would be the vehicle to guide and direct people to better decision making, under the cover of law as a standard.
We say all the time that officers are held to a higher standard, but if that standard is the law, I almost question if that’s a higher standard than morality. We are going to need more good guys to speak up and do the hard thing because the public needs to know that we have their best interest at heart, not just our own. They don’t judge us based on the good intentions of 800,000 good cops. We are collectively judged based on the behavior of as few as 1.
Remember, sacrifice isn’t always physical. What else are you willing to give up? Or in this case, who?
Ryan Dunlap is a veteran law enforcement officer who is a former Detective, SWAT Hostage Negotiator and Crisis Intervention Officer. He specializes in Tactical Communication and conflict management. Ryan is a Pastor and currently serves as the Director of Security for a large faith based organization in the metro-Atlanta area where he specializes in developing integrated physical security strategies and emergency response planning. In his spare time, he volunteers as a Law Enforcement Chaplain.