11 May 2021

    Starting out with a confession: I borrowed my title from an email sent by a friend. We had been discussing the Law Enforcement of our Youth, as portrayed in the movies. (We’re in our 80s now, so we’re talking 1940s and 1950s.) On a regular basis, our heroes – Hoppy, Roy, Gene, the Lone Ranger – won out over the bad guys. It usually didn’t occur until the last few minutes of the show, but we were pretty much guaranteed (by “The Code”) that the Good Guys would prevail. Usually, the end was accompanied by a lot of shooting, but guess what? Almost nobody got killed. No matter what the villains looked like – White, Mexican, or any other type (there weren’t many Blacks or Asians in those films, good or bad) – they were taken in by the lawmen after the Good Guys shot the guns right out of the hands of the Bad Guys[1]. A doctor probably got to look at their (minor) wounds, but they all went off to jail very much alive.

   Where I grew up in East Oakland, California, cowboy lawmen were found only in comic books, movies and TV. Actually, I don’t remember any kinds of policemen in my suburban neighborhood, but I think I assumed that they were around – Jimmy Stewart types, like in the movies - in pressed blue uniforms, walking the streets of town, visiting with the local folks, and occasionally intervening in some local trouble.[2] Things are different, now. I’ve lived in the Portland, Oregon, metro area for 40 years, and have never seen a policeman “walking a beat.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a policeman who wasn’t attired and equipped with heavy jackets (even in midsummer), and a couple hundred pounds of handguns, night sticks, radios, and other paraphernalia. When we have our well-known (and usually mislabeled and misunderstood) marches and protests – consisting of several hundred to several thousand peaceful demonstrators, and half a dozen jerks bent on breaking windows, throwing bottles, and generally causing trouble – fifty police arrive in full riot gear, with shields, batons, flash bombs and tear gas. That’s not really the “meeting the public” profile of Jimmy Stewart in the movies, but apparently it’s how most people in the United States see and interact with our police forces these days.

  *  *  *

   I admit that – like most people – I get most of my information on law enforcement from The News and from TV crime shows, neither of which is known for its accuracy or objectivity. I do know a little about a certain “cop mentality,” something I first became aware of about the time I graduated from college as a wildlife manager. On completing school, there were two obvious career paths a wildlife manager could take – to become a caretaker of a government reserve (a “refuge manager,” like I did), or to enter wildlife law enforcement (become a “game warden”). As we left campus, we were all pretty much cookie-cutter people: low key, personable but not necessarily outgoing, and liking to hunt, fish, watch birds, farm, or with similar outdoor aspirations. Within a few months of some of our former classmates and friends entering law enforcement training, however, they seemed to have changed dramatically. They didn’t talk about ducks or deer, anymore; they talked about Crime. People who broke game laws (no matter how minor) were no longer errant sportsmen, but “perps.” (I know; it wasn’t that particular word in the 1960s, but whatever the police called Evildoers in those days.) Although we crossed paths with the enforcers throughout our careers, it was often difficult to be the close friends we had been in school. Our philosophies had changed too much.

   Being a refuge manager, rather than a game warden, didn’t divorce us entirely from Crime. There were always people without proper hunting or fishing licenses; hunters who took more game or anglers who took more fish than allowed by law; trespassers in closed areas; and similar misdemeanors. It wasn’t unheard of for a real criminal to leave a dead body on an isolated piece of government land, or (in later years) for us to discover illegal marijuana plots. We handled the day to day issues in our regular meet-the-public/do-our-jobs uniforms, with a citation book but no guns, badges, or other police gear. For the serious crimes, we called the local sheriff or our trained law enforcement people. It worked well.

   There’s no question that we could have had some additional training in The Law, just to protect ourselves legally and to keep from infringing on the rights of the public. What we didn’t need (and most of us didn’t want) was to become “police.” About 1970, we suddenly found we had no choice, as anyone who enforced federal laws (of any type) had to complete a comprehensive course in all aspects of law enforcement – the same type of training given to real “policemen” - at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC). FLETC changed a lot. No longer were we biologists working with the public to protect our wildlife resources; we were “police,” dealing with potential “perps.”

*  *  *

   For most of us, the new emphasis on crime fighting was uncomfortable, but a few relished the training, and quickly adapted to the Good Guy versus Bad Guy mode of operation. And - after this long reminiscence through careers in wildlife management - this is what I wanted to get at.

   People take up careers in law enforcement for a variety of reasons, not all of them altruistic. Some are real “protect and serve” people; some are “crime fighters;” some like to carry a gun; some are bullies who like power over other people; and some are just looking for a job. Some bring strong background stories with them, perhaps related to race, drugs, domestic violence, or other personal issues. In other words, they are a cross section of Humanity. It’s how this cross section is trained and managed that decides what Law Enforcement looks like.

   Apparently, most Americans are deeply afraid of Crime, ostensibly the reason that most American households have at least one firearm for “protection.” It would seem, because of that fear, the public  would favor development of “tough cops.” Yet, “research on community expectations of police show that the U. S. public expects officers to be honest, respectful – and even to provide emotional comfort when needed.[3] If this is true, then we are going about recruitment and training of police officers all wrong. A study of basic police training across the 50 states showed that “police recruits spent an average of 633 hours completing the basic academy, a training program that certifies them as licensed police officers. Of those 633 hours, only 20 hours are dedicated to… public administration training, knowledge and skills that are not law enforcement-specific but rather relevant to all public service professions… The remaining 613 hours, on average, focus on tasks and knowledge relevant only to the profession of law enforcement. These topics include, but are not limited to, report writing, driving skills, patrol procedures, defensive tactics, criminal and constitutional law, traffic stops and firearms training. That means that most U. S. police cadets spend about 20 hours of their entire basic training learning the kind of knowledge and skills that are considered foundational for all other public service professions.[4] (my underlining.)

    But, getting Law Enforcement back on track requires more than training. It requires a better method of selecting candidates, weeding out from the start those whose motives and mentality are not to “protect and serve.” Initial judgments need to be followed  up with regular, in-depth evaluations of performance. It requires both the public and the police to abandon the notion that “the police can do no wrong.” It requires that the idea be abandoned that police reporting the bad actions of other police is “ratting them out.” And it requires that the police, the public, and the news media learn the difference between a demonstration and a riot, and a potential violation and a major crime, and then to make the response and the reporting proportional to the situation.

 I think Cohen (op. cit.) summarized the situation well:

   “Police officers, like their counterparts in other government agencies, are public servants. Unlike most public servants, however, officers have the legal power to deprive citizens of their freedom in a split-second decision, at their own discretion, possibly while pointing a gun.

   “Given their extraordinary powers, it would be reasonable to expect that officers are thoroughly trained on the values of public service – especially, how to make ethical and unbiased decisions when dealing with civilians.”

 In other words, like it was true with Hoppy and our heroes of Yore, we need Law Enforcement’s motto to be “Protect and Serve,” not “Get the Perps!”


[1] Sadly, and to our shame, Native Americans weren’t treated the same way in films. Even from the Good Guys, too often it was “the only good Injun is a dead Injun.”

[2] I’m talking about my lower middle class suburban neighborhood. Things were almost certainly not like that in other parts of town. When the local population of African-Americans grew dramatically during the War Years with people seeking work in the ship yards, Oakland recruited police from the South who “knew how to deal with those people.”  Probably the Jimmy Stewart character wasn’t among them.[Arroyo, C. No date. Black labor and race relations in East Bay shipyards during World War II. Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan.]

[3] Cohen, G. 2021. Public administration training in basic police academies: a 50-state comparative analysis. The American Review of Public Administration, published online 1 April 2021; summarized by the author in “The Conversation,” 7 May 2021.

[4] Cohen 2021, op. cit.




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