A few days ago while driving to Macon, I pulled over on the shoulder of the freeway to complete a phone call because I was having trouble hearing the person who was speaking to me. A couple of minutes after I pulled over, a Georgia Highway Patrol car pulled up beside me. I rolled down my window to see what the officer wanted and he said, “I am just checking to make sure that you are all right and that your car has not broken down.” This is what I want and what most people want: police officers who take seriously the idea of protecting and serving.
There are thousands of men and women who get up each day and go out into the streets of our communities with the good intention to do their job to protect and to serve. Some of them have lost their precious lives while doing this work. Unfortunately others will lose their lives and that is a fact that should concern everyone of us.
We have come to a very serious place in America regarding law enforcement and community relations. Nationally we instituted community policing principles a few years ago and that was very helpful. This was done because the Justice Department knew there needed to be systemic reformation of local police forces. Community policing was helpful but did not go far enough.
Though many police departments across the country have done much work in an effort to build bridges, there is clearly much work left to be done. And it is unacceptable to assume the work of the past should suffice for the present when things are as troubled as they are today. While there are many very good law enforcement officers across this country, there are some who are not. There are police officers who have not lost their sense of humanity and who clearly understand there are limits to be observed in the ways they use force. There are officers ike the patrolman who stopped to see if I needed help and the one who went to buy dinner for a hungry family when he was called to their house to settle a dispute that arose about how they were going to afford dinner.
But, the honest, hardworking, humane officers with integrity are suffering from the behavior of the ones who do not know how to control their use of power, the ones who have psychological and spiritual issues that make it possible for them to use their power to abuse others and in too many cases to take the lives of folks. Many professions have a culture that develops around them and the loyalty culture that has developed around enforcers of the law who misbehave is one that cannot continue to be blindly supported by their fellow officers nor by folks who think they deserve to be supported because they wear a uniform, have a badge and a gun, and do dangerous work.
Every officer is responsible for making sure the mandate “to protect and to serve” is lived out to the fullest and when it is violated in unlawful ways that such behavior is not tolerated. I hope every instance of misbehavior is documented, and when officers cross the line in their use of power that they will be held accountable and that effort of holding them accountable will send a message across this country that makes it clear that this type of rogue behavior will not be accepted.
Fellow officers can do a lot in helping to make this message clearer. Community leaders and citizens groups can help also. This affects all of us and the health and stability of our communities depend upon us changing the patterns that have developed. Offending officers are guilty, but all of us have a responsibility to help.
This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.