- By Lt. Tim McMillan
Don’t you ever f***ing question a fellow cop
With deliberate melodrama, I tossed the keys in the air so they would come down with a commanding clank on the front table of our police squad room.
In front of me sat every police officer assigned under my command. I watched as their eyes focused on the set of police package Dodge Charger keys I had just used to theatrically announce my arrival. As they realized what those keys were, they all quickly turned their attention towards me at the front podium.
The officers in front of me saw the typical decor of a 60” flat screen TV behind me. However, for me it felt like I was standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, and ever so softly I could hear the voice of God saying, “That’s right. Get them.”
The Charger keys laying motionless in front of me once were assigned to an officer that worked alongside the men and women sitting in that squad room. However, not long before I walked in, those keys, along with a host of other property, once bequeathed to the officer as necessary tools of the trade, had been repossessed. This particular officer had their career as a police officer come to an abrupt end by decree of my Chief of Police.
In truth, what this officer had done to lose their job, isn’t even comparable in terms of significance to some of the head-scratching headlines the public has been accustomed to seeing. However, those headlines belong to other agencies, and there is a standard our Chief has set in place and has maintained since 2002 when he took over as the top cop of our agency. The reality is the officer had simply done something dumb. However, when one is granted the significant authority and responsibility that police officers are given, sometimes dumb things can indeed cost you your job.
As those officers intently stared at me, I lit into them with a biblical vengeance. I think I even heard Moses say, “Good job.”
My indignation toward my officers was focused on one specific golden calf. I rebuked them because I felt like some of them had known that this officer had done something dumb two days prior, however, none of them had said a word.
Full disclosure, I didn’t really know if any of them knew what the officer had done. She actually had been by herself and provided she didn’t tell anyone else, which was highly likely, none of them may have actually known. However, in this instance that really didn’t matter. Because the cloud of confusion over who did or didn’t know wasn’t important for the point I was trying to make. Instead, what was not confusing was the fact that I was mad, and under no certain terms, was enabling each other to engage in bad behavior, or look the other way, going to be tolerated under my command.
Assuredly, no less than half-a-dozen times during the early years of my police career I heard the same story from different grizzled old police veterans. There were some slight variations of the story, but it always followed the same theme.
Imagine for a moment the retired cop in his 50’s or 60’s, who reminds you of Andy Sipowicz from the television show NYPD Blue. The kind of cop that made you feel like they once chain smoked inside the station, stayed up all night drinking whiskey at the local cop bar, and then ate coffee grounds for breakfast. Once you have that image in your mind, understand this is what these old-timers looked like. At least to me.
The scene for our tale is set in in front of some hospital emergency room, in the 1970’s or 80’s. The one telling the story is always a young trainee, sitting bright-eyed in the passenger seat of an old box-style police car. In the driver’s seat is a more retro version of themselves… their training officer.
At some point, a frantic couple pulls up to the doors of the emergency room…
“What’s going on?” – Oh, it’s an anxious expectant father with his pregnant wife.
Now, just as the couple is getting out of the car, what to our wondering eyes should appear, but a motorcycle cop, little blue bubblegum light flashing, pulling up right behind the couple’s 1963 Chevy Nova Station wagon. It is important to interject right now, that some of the details change from person to person telling it. However, for reasons I do not know, it is always a motorcycle cop that pulls up.
As our tale proceeds, the storyteller recounts to us watching the motorcycle cop emotionlessly stroke out a speeding ticket to our now understandably restless future father. As the woman screams in labor pains, the traffic cop robotically writing his ticket, our veteran training officer looks over out our youthful rookie in the passenger’s seat and says, “What do you think about that?”
This is when our narrator tells us that he told his training officer he thinks it’s pretty messed up of the motorcycle cop to write the man a ticket when the woman is going into labor.
Assumingely, mimicking his training officer, with the raspy tone of a two-pack a day smoker, our narrator tells us, “Don’t you ever f***ing question a fellow cop.”
I am not even kidding. Half-a-dozen times I heard this, and I swear I read it in a book once as well.
Now, if you are waiting for a punch-line that says these veteran cops who told this story, then told the class, “The moral of the story is don’t ever f***ing question a fellow cop,” I can’t give that to you because none of them ever said that. Honestly, I’m not sure what was the purpose of this story. Maybe, it was mere lamenting of a bygone era. The only thing I took away from this story was that an inordinate number of decades past cops hung out at hospitals and that motorcycle cops are d***s.
After 15-years in the profession, I’ve discovered one of those two takeaways is indeed true.
Ultimately, what these veteran cops were describing was the “thin-blue-line of secrecy,” the “blue code of silence,” or essentially cops keep their mouth shut about other cops.
Maybe this “blue wall of silence” was the conventional norm in policing’s past. However, it is neither an accepted attribute in modern law enforcement and nor should it be encouraged to exist.
Now, policing is no different than any other occupational role on the basis that it is a profession filled with human beings. Inherently, human beings are fallible and are going to make mistakes. So when I talk about the unwillingness to look the other way at the misdeeds of fellow officers, I’m not suggesting that an officer should run to their Sergeant to tell them that Officer Bob used three staples for his police report and not two as the policy clearly says. Rather, I am referring to the incidents where an officer sees another cop engage in acts that are immature, unprofessional or gateway behaviors to potentially worse, immoral, unethical, or even criminal acts.
I’m not saying this as a Lieutenant because I want all police officers to be “company men and women.” Rather, I’m saying it because actions that breed mistrust by the public with their police services, ultimately harm a department, the profession, and indeed yes, the actual officers making a violation themselves.
See, the inherent nature of law enforcement is a complex role for one to fill. The bottom line is, police officers at times are forced to make split-second judgments in very tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving situations. Essentially, cops have a tough job. As a result of the robustness of the profession, law enforcement officers are afforded a degree of subjectivity in their favor regarding how their actions judged.
However, the most dependent factor in this entire equation is trust. When the public trust their police departments, if an incident occurs that looks concerning, they trust that the agency will do the right thing. This includes any time that a police department comes out and explains to the public that things aren’t nearly as bad as they may appear.
That is often one of the most considerable aspects lost when you see a public outcry over an incident or something that ends up making major national news. Often times, the police and some of the public assume that whatever the specific incident being protested is actually the real problem being expressed. The bottom line is it isn’t!
That isn’t the real issue.
Often times major incidents merely represent a catalyst for an underlying problem that is found in a lack of community trust or faith in the police in their community. We have seen this time and time again when an agency becomes the subject of a viral news incident. When an outside entity comes in to investigate, the actual inflamed situation may not be procedurally bad or unlawful. However, what is often discovered is a series of other problems stemming long before the public spark.
Eventually, this is the reason I was verbally breaking stone tablets in front of my officers that afternoon a few years ago. Essentially, the fish stinks from the head down. Therefore, it is incumbent upon agencies to set the tone of what is the acceptable culture within their agencies.
Now, I don’t want to make it sound as if I made my officers drink water laced with the ground dust of a golden calf to punish them for something I didn’t even know if they’d done. It is the exact opposite, I was doing it for their benefit. Ultimately, they all knew it was because I cared about them.
“If no one has ever told you before that you are your brother’s keeper, then let me be the first. You are your brother’s keeper. Safeguard each other well.”
That is a direct quote from what I said that day to my officers. Now, this isn’t just gauzy sermon I was giving. It was indeed exactly true. We are our brother’s keeper, and part of being a good keeper is watching out for each and the behaviors that can lead down a road of getting in trouble.
If you take a 21-year-old out of the police academy, who are already filled with youthful vigor and energy, and make them think that the police world is built on bravado and machismo, don’t be surprised someday when you see a headline pop into your newsfeed with a cellphone video of that same officer being filmed pistol whipping some person in the head.
Guess what? When Don Lemon is on TV arguing with former Sheriff David Clarke about the justification behind that officer using his gun as a blunt instrument of compliance; people are raking the cop over the coals on Twitter; or eventually you see they are the citizen formerly known as officer, now known as defendant... just recognize that your unwillingness to help your fellow officer know what behavior is or isn’t acceptable, indeed is an influencing factor.
The power of informal leaders amongst the ranks should never be diminished or overlooked. Often the most influential people in a police agency are not the ones with rank on their sleeves or shoulders. Rather, they are the officers who are respected by their peers exclusive of formal rank. For informal leaders, it is vital that you set the tone for your fellow men and women in blue. Which includes recognizing we are all human and therefore susceptible to human emotion.
Consider back to the video of the Nurse being arrested in Salt Lake City, Utah, back in July of this year. What would the outcome have been if any one of those officers had stepped up before it got to the point we are unlawfully arresting a Nurse? What if any one of those officers had said to that Detective, “Hey, let’s go outside and talk about this for a minute.” Given things a chance to cool off and maybe someone check-up on the law themselves. Honestly, I highly doubt we would be bringing that whole situation up right now, because it would never have happened.
Honestly, if you listen to the public they’ll be the first to tell you the truth is it isn’t the actions of bad officers that upset them the most. Rather, often it is the silence of the good officers that causes the biggest stings of mistrust.
At the end of the day, the public agrees to a social contract with law enforcement. This contract grants the police significant authority and power over the citizenry. In return, the public expects law enforcement to honor this contract by using their power and authority ethically and morally well.
Indeed! We are all our brother’s keepers when it comes to maintaining this contract with the public. As your brother’s keeper, make sure that each of us is maintaining that contract correctly. If not, you are only hurting yourself, the profession, and eventually yes… indeed your brother as well.