• By Lt. Tim McMillan

Why Aren't The Police Encouraged To Help The Public?

Recently, I came across a story about a Chicago area police officer who was called to a local gym to deal with a teenager who had been repeatedly sneaking in to play basketball without a gym membership.

The gym manager said the teenager would repeatedly walk past the front desk and onto the court. He said only a day after being warned, the boy tried to sneak in yet again.

The manager said he felt like he had no other option but to call the local Skokie, Illinois Police Department about the trespassing teen.

Ultimately, Officer Mario Valenti would end up answering the gym's 911 call. Now, what makes this story interesting is what Officer Valenti’s did with the teen once he got to the gym. To everyone’s surprise, Officer Valenti didn’t arrest the teen. Instead, he paid $150 out of his own pocket to get the teen a membership to the gym.

Officer Valenti and the teen he bought a gym membership for.

Officer Valenti said he would rather see the teenager playing basketball than on the streets possibly getting into trouble.

"Most of us took this job to help people, not to hurt them," Officer Valenti told the Chicago Tribune.

"The job can be negative. For the most part, the job is dealing with good people having a very bad day so you're not seeing the best side of people."

Officer Valenti further added, “It seems like all that's represented (in the news) with police is the bad stuff, and it's a shame, because when I took this job 23 years ago, I didn't think everyone was going to hate you, which is sometimes the feeling you get as a police officer."

When the Chicago Tribune covered the story in August of this year, they also reached out to the Skokie Police Department for comment. The department’s spokesman, Officer Eric Swaback told the paper, “It's important that the public sees ALL of what police do. The good stories are not out there. People don't always know about them. Police do good things all the time but, unfortunately, people have no way to hear about them."

Now, it is undeniable that Officer Valenti’s actions represent the incredible good that police offices are capable of. Additionally, I don’t have as pessimistic of an outlook on what the public sees from the police as the department spokesman has.

In fact, I can think of more than a handful of similar stories such as this one that has made it into the mainstream news. One of the most significant reasons that I can recall the numerous similar stories is because, as heartwarming as these stories are, there is one thing about them that always upsets me.

The truth is officers are frequently in the position to come in contact with problems such as what Officer Valenti encountered with the teen who was sneaking into the gym. In my opinion, it isn’t that the news doesn’t cover enough of these types of positive interactions. Rather, what upsets me is that there aren't a whole lot more stories like them to choose from.

Now, it isn’t the average officer on the street’s fault that they aren’t solving problems like Officer Valenti. Rather, the biggest obstacle with police officers being creative problem solvers often comes from a lack of encouragement and support by an agency or city to provide a wide-range of methods to solve community problems.

In the story with Officer Valenti, the glowing example of what I’m saying can be found in the fact the Officer had to pay $150 out of his own pocket in order to get the teen a membership to the gym.

Essentially, the teenager was lucky that Officer Valenti was able to afford to purchase him a membership. Because, what would the outcome have been if another officer who couldn’t have afforded to pay for the $150 membership had responded?

Whether or not that officer wanted to arrest the young man would have been irrelevant. The Officer who couldn’t afford to pay $150 out of his own pocket would have had no choice but to arrest him.

At the end of the day, therein lies the problem. Officer Valenti was right, it is better to see the teenager on a basketball court than the streets. Additionally, is arresting him really going to do any good in solving the problem or bettering that young man down the road? No, of course not. Therefore, honestly as great of a story that Officer Valenti’s actions represent, the truth is it really sucks that in order to solve a problem and better the community, the Officer had to pay out of his pocket to make it happen.

Now, trust me, I understand that cities can be tight with police budgets. In fact, at my own police department, we’ve had to set up lines of communication with local area churches that will help pay for things when we run across people in which the solution for their problem extends beyond our duty belt. Our officers are able to reach out to some the churches' leadership in the middle of the night if need be to pay for hotel rooms, food, or even clothes. On several occasions, we have coordinated with churches to help get a person a bus ticket back home when they’ve become stranded.

The truth is when it comes to policing a community the overwhelming solutions that are provided to officers only involve some kind of punitive action like an arrest or issuing a citation. Here in lies the environment that fosters a lot of the problems we see today. As police officers, we only take from the people we encounter and rarely if ever give anything back.

Assuredly, the overarching goal of law enforcement is to give back to a community in terms of peace of mind over their overall safety and security. However, is that often simply the bare minimum of what is expected by the public? If we cannot provide peace of mind over safety and security, well what exactly is the role of the police?

Why is it that we do not afford police officers the chances to give back to the overwhelming majority of the community they encounter? The members of the public who haven’t violated anything necessary of an arrest or citation?

Ultimately, agencies would do a great service to themselves, their officers and the community if they encouraged and set up methods allowing their officers to be real problem solvers. This wouldn’t take anything away from the job that officers are already doing. Instead, it would simply give them more tools to use at their disposal.

In my opinion, one very easy and tangible method of providing this to police officers is to give them access to city debit cards with a set amount of available funds. This would allow officers to not only help out those in dire straits, yet also provide them with the means to help out the public in day-to-day typically unremarkable encounters.

If an officer is working a car wreck were kids are passengers and just so happens to be near a gas station. Wouldn’t it be great for the Officer to be able to offer the kids a chance to get some candy or a drink during an already unsettling event?

How about the stranded motorist who has run out of gas? What if the officer could say, “Hang on, I’ll go get you a few gallons real quick.”

Something so simple as giving cops access to a debit card with a $50 limit on it could truly help change the public’s entire opinion and view of the police.

Additionally, it would give police officers a chance to have more positive interactions with the public rather than the overwhelming and all too common negative contacts the police currently make with the citizens they serve. Suddenly, in a very tangible way, police officers could actually be able to “Serve” a community instead of just simply being satisfied with the ability to only “protect.”

I have mentioned this concept several times over the last few years and each time I say it to those amongst the rank and file of the police profession they have always responded positively and recognized the ability to do some incredibly positive things.

Conversely, when I have mentioned it to management at police departments outside of my local area, they have looked at me as if I just asked them would they consider implementing a “Beastmaster” unit, complete with officer outfitted in loincloth uniform with an eclectic cornucopia of trained animals at their disposal.

“You really think that a ferret would be a good fit for police work?”

Strange looks aside, I have yet to find anyone that can give me a good reason a system such as this shouldn’t universally exist.

Here are the top responses and my reply that I frequently have encountered the moment I mention it.

“Sounds like a great idea but I doubt the city could afford it.”

$50 dollars? A city couldn’t afford to give officers access to $50 on a debit card?

The Taser X2 devices that the bulk of police departments now carry cost $1,400. That’s just for the device. The cartridges cost $80 a two pack. Every time an officer deploys their Taser, there goes almost the cost the community debit card.

Now, I’m not saying get rid of your Tasers. I think Tasers area very valuable less lethal tool for officers to have. However, whatever you did to talk a city into paying for the Tasers, do that. Tell your city leaders, unlike the Tasers, this is something that will leave a lasting good impression with the community and improve the public’s view of the police. Better yet, don’t say the word “community” or “public.” Instead, when you speak to the city or county leadership say, “constituents” or “electors.”

“Yeah but then we would have Officers misusing the debit cards for their own use.”

Then you fire them… The officers that is… The ones who misuse the card. That “misuse” as you call it, is actually called theft. A crime in all states of the Union.

Seriously, a host of professions provides their employees with access to company credit cards, etc. There is no way you are telling me that a pharmaceutical sales rep possesses some vastly superior cognitive capacity over police officers when it comes to turning in receipts and an expense report.

Lastly, you give them a gun…. Seriously, you provide your police officers with a weapon of death and destruction, not as a perk, rather as a fundamental requirement for the job. If you’re telling me that you give your officers a gun, but don’t trust them with a $50 debit card, well I don’t know what to tell you other than we have a much bigger problem on our hands.

“Then the public will just take advantage of it and use the officers to pay for stuff they need.”

Going back to the gun thing again. So you trust your officers with a gun but don’t trust them to be able to tell when a person is in need, or when the correct situation warrants it?

Equally as important… Oh well! It’s their money. It’s the public’s money, as in tax revenues. The public is the one who pays into the system, so technically it’s their money and we’d just be giving it back.

At the end of the day, I don’t want to take anything away from the incredible compassion and positive solution to a problem that Officer Mario Valenti of the Skokie Police Department provided to for a teenager that day he was called to the gym. I truly respect and admire his dedication in helping support a vision of what I believe policing should and could be.

Ultimately, my frustration when I read a host of stories like Officer Valenti’s comes from the fact that I hate that in order to achieve something like this, these officers have to pay for it themselves. Truthfully, it also always rubs me the wrong way when I see the police departments piggyback on the good deeds of their officers as if to demonstrate that their actions are representative of the entire agency.

Maybe they are. Maybe every single officer at the agency would do exactly what Officer Valenti did that day. However, if the agency is encouraging the officers to have to pay for out of their own pockets, then the system becomes a burden to the officers and voids the ability for positivity.

Equally, if the agency is not encouraging or supporting these actions… well, I’m sorry, those acts of commitment to the public belong to the men and women who perform them and not to the agency. Instead, the agency just got lucky they hired an officer that polices with heart. However, if you don’t encourage or support these types of positive actions, they will continue to be exceptions to what is normally how the public and officers view what it means to be the police.

Tim McMillan is a retired police lieutenant and investigative intelligence analyst; and holds BA's in mathematics and cognitive psychology. Primarily, focusing on the Defense and Intelligence Communities, he now uses his unique background, coupled with a willingness to examine any mystery, to deliver groundbreaking investigative reporting. Tim is a contributor for The War Zone, Vice, and Popular Mechanics

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