A lot of people seem to agree that 2016 was not a particularly great year. We lost a number of beloved actors and musicians, we endured a presidential election process that featured two hugely (yugely?) unpopular candidates, and terrorists continued to strike in new and unexpected places.
On top of all of that, the relationship between the public and law enforcement personnel seemed to reach a new low last year. Cell phone and police body cameras captured new images of controversial officer-involved shootings of unarmed people of color and (in what is surely a related development) an alarming number of officers were gunned down while performing their assigned duties. Seven police officers were killed in the line of duty in the Middle Georgia area alone.
I believe that we are largely shaped by our experiences, and people’s feelings toward law enforcement are no exception. I’m sure that if you feel you’ve been harassed or treated unfairly by the police while minding your own business (maybe because of your race or even just because you’re from the “wrong” part of town) you might view the men in blue as a tool of the authority figures who are intent on keeping you in your place.
That hasn’t been my experience. Most of my interactions with law enforcement have been very positive, and I see the police (as well as firemen, teachers and people in the military) as citizens who get paid too little to do difficult jobs that we don’t appreciate nearly as much as we should.
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As a matter of fact, I had an experience in my younger days that caused me to have an especially high level of respect for law enforcement that has stuck with me all these years. One summer while I was in college I had a job as a security guard at one of the local medical centers. It did not go well.
When I took the position I assumed it was one of those “night watchmen” gigs where you were mainly responsible for making sure doors were locked after a place closed down. Instead they gave me a badge and a nightstick and, with no training whatsoever in things like self-defense or conflict resolution, expected me to provide security at a busy public hospital.
I was paid the princely sum of $3.50 an hour (15 cents an hour above minimum wage at the time) to do this job that I was completely unqualified and unprepared for. Add in the fact that I really hate confrontations and avoid them whenever possible and you had a perfect recipe for the worst career move I have ever made.
Much of the job consisted of telling people who weren’t following hospital rules things they didn’t want to hear and enduring the flack I got as a result. But there were a handful of occasions where I was called in to handle potentially dangerous, violent situations.
One time in particular I had my hand on my nightstick as a guy advanced on me in a threatening manner as I tried in vain to calm him down. Luckily, a particularly stern, older nurse came on the scene and told the guy to sit down and be quiet and he listened to her. Sometimes it’s obvious to people who the real authority figure is, uniforms notwithstanding.
In my brief and unremarkable stint as a rent-a-cop, I got a little taste of what real police officers have to deal with and it led me to two important conclusions. One was that my rather extreme conflict-avoidant nature made me a bad fit for a career in law enforcement. The other was that the police have a very difficult, stressful job dealing with troubled and sometimes violent people and they have my respect and appreciation for the work they do.
My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of the seven Middle Georgia officers who lost their lives in the line of duty in 2016. I hope this year is a better one for the men and women who serve and protect us.
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.