National Security

Thoughts from a Lifelong Cop on the ‘War on Police’

By Jon Harris:

I’ve been in law enforcement in one form or another most of my adult life and I have never seen things as they are now.  That being said, I think we need to really look at what is happening.

I do not believe that there is a “War on Police.”  Let’s make that clear right from the start.  I think that term is wrong.  We seem to have a war on just about everything.  War on women, war on races, war on drugs, war on immigrants, war on police, what’s next?  Maybe a war on dogs and cats, hamburgers, or outdoor barbecues?  It is getting silly but in this instance, the “War on Police” we hear about repeatedly is actually doing harm.  Not the “War,” but the feeling and the constant reinforcement in the media that this is reality when it is not.

We have, over the last few months, seen on the news what appears to be an endless stream of assaults on police officers.  Yes, the statistics of police being fatally attacked are up this year, there is no denying that fact, but a war?  I fully understand the tenor of discussion and the emotions all around are at a level we have not seen in a very, very long time and it is not helping.

Believe it or not, this hyper vigilance by the police was the norm back when I started my almost 40 year career in law enforcement.  In the 70s and 80s, police were on the lookout for domestic terrorists that targeted the establishment. Police were taught about, and movies were made about, groups such as Black Cultural Association, Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army, Venceremos Organization, Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army as well as others.  Those organizations did not get the ultra-press coverage as now, but they were there and every police officer was taught right from the academy to be vigilant and on the lookout.  I can remember almost every traffic stop I, or my partners made back in the 70s, always had us drawing our weapons.  Not pointing them at the occupants, but still drawn and held down at our sides, just out of view until we were confident things were OK. Then the weapon was slowly and somewhat clandestinely holstered.  In those times, this was standard procedure. Most of those stopped never had a clue this was the posture we took.  Of course now, that is not the way things are done.

The laws haven’t changed, but the public’s outcry in today’s ultra-litigious and politically correct environment, would never allow an officer to take these actions as they, the public, perceive as TOO aggressive or TOO ready to shoot. The police were on edge then too, but the “War” on this or “War” on that was not the popular phrase at the time.

I think the sooner we get away from the “War on Police” mantra that is being broadcasted from the mountaintops the better.  It is harmful and sets the public and the police against each other as combatants.  Remember that the police officer is just like you or me.  Tell us something enough times and hear it from people that should know, and you tend to believe it.  We are convinced, or at least the thought comes into focus much quicker, we are actually at “War” and therefore are about to be attacked.  That sets up an entire chain of decisions and reactions and not always based on actual facts.

So what is the effect of all this constant brain washing? Yes that is exactly what it is.  With us repeatedly being told we are at war, the individual police officers are worried.  They are watching for everything. Those that come in contact with the police are worried.  They fear they may be attacked by the police because that is what the press has been saying.  The false narrative that every officer is at war and is right on the edge of shooting first and asking questions later, does not make for non-stressful interaction.  Stress and anxiety coupled with fear and adrenalin causes a normally regular person to be confrontational, combative and afraid.  This can lead down a road neither participant intended.

I know all sides are very adamant in pushing their points about rights, violence, and what they see, true or not, as injustice.  Part of that is the political season, part of that is the various social movements, which have been co-opted. Some attempt to cause confrontation to help bolster their ideas.  Some want to prove the narrative and actively seek an incident. Some events we have seen were clearly orchestrated to capture the entire encounter on video to be distributed on YouTube or some other news outlet.  Scenes of protesters confronting the “Stomp and Drag” line of heavily geared police helps advance that narrative and in turn the “War on Police” message.  It almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We have to look at this through a clear and logical lens.  The police and the public are on heightened alert.  Everyone is worried.  When the public comes in contact with law enforcement, someone is being imposed on by the police.  In those situations, even if the police are justified, which is the vast majority of the time, someone is still being called to task.

In this environment, the police are being very careful. Every traffic stop, every call, is perceived as a risk, much more than it ever was in the past.  Even if that is not true, that perception is their reality.  Police didn’t used to worry all that much about an ambush but with the never ending drone of “War on Police,” now they do.

The news is blaring the “War on Police” all over the airwaves, and the politicians are screaming about the “War on Police” at every chance they can get in front of a camera.  The police are not helping this situation either.  Several prominent police officials have joined in as well and this adds credence to the “War on Police” idea.

People can and will assert their rights, even if they really don’t realize they are outside of what one can actually legally do.  So many have adopted the belief that they can legally refuse to follow an officers directions.  They refuse to get out of vehicles when asked.  They refuse to comply with very legal and logical requests. They do things when they are confronted by the police that simply are not legal and in the past would have never crossed their minds. When this happens, it only leads to escalation of the situation.  I have been told by people that I have stopped, when asked to exit their vehicle, that they will not.  They say it is their right not to comply.  They are wrong.  This defiance starts a contest of wills and many times escalates the situation in a way that is unnecessary.  They think the officer can’t force them to do that. Again, they are wrong and that resistance alone starts the encounter between the police officer and the person stopped on a bad trajectory.

People still want to make their point, I get that.  This has to be tempered and not done in this state of heightened anxiety, something that is prevalent today.  I guess what I am saying is this is not the time.  Allow things to settle, allow the adrenalin to slow down on all sides.  A split second decision made because of perception, false belief and not in reality is an accident waiting to happen.  All of us, police and those that encounter the police, need to take a breath, re-engage our minds, think just a little and chill just a bit.

Jon Harris is an OpsLens contributor and former Army NCO, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community.

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