What Does the Public Want?
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Every television channel has an old, new or syndicated police drama airing sometime, somewhere. The public has a certain romance with law enforcement and why shouldn’t they? Hollywood and their rating systems have cashed in on white toothy smiles, good looking actors and actresses, witty dialogue, fancy suits, and the ability to efficiently wrap up the most difficult crimes in fifty minutes with commercials.
The notion of justice as being swift, severe, and certain is obvious and culminates with the softer, sensual side of the “wink-wink” fraternization in the workplace. No matter how it’s achieved, police get the job done!
When the television goes off and they go outside, however, the public comes into contact with real police officers and their expectations for that “dreamy” side of justice are nothing short of dreamy. People’s expectations are high. In the early 1980s, public demand called for law enforcement support in response to spikes in violent crime. Our social contract calls for legitimate protection by our police by giving up some of our individual rights.
In recent decades, police supervisors and local governments have come together with their communities to roll out dozens of programs that put the public in touch with their local police officers and departments. Today, crime is statistically on the decline, but now the expectation is to keep it down—forever! Tougher sentencing and harsher penalties is now the public demand and it’s not coming in the time, shape, and form originally expected. It’s an expectation that requires the help of more than just the police, but the police are an immediate and available association to that expectation. Whew! I think I’m going to go back and turn on that television to see what I’m doing wrong.
As we look to effective police-community relations, public demands must be balanced with the broader challenges that make our jobs more fact than fiction:
• Technology: Criminals have tapped into our lives and living rooms through use of the Internet. We need constant vision and creative solutions to respond in anticipation of viral crime campaigns. Video games and media violence both have choke-holds on our children that exceed anything we’ve dealt with before in responding to violence through fantasy outlets once considered benign. The bad guys also have their grubby hands on weapons and weapons of mass destruction that seek to snuff out our brand of justice;
• Family: Is workplace violence or school and mall shootings a result of young people coming from broken homes? Has a disintegration of the nuclear family spawned countless acts of random and organized violence by adolescents or adults who have had few opportunities to take shelter? There is a great deal of research that suggests that close families spawn close relationships (even deviant ones), but the negative association and perception is evident;
• Socio-economics: Gaps between the upper, middle, and lower classes have increased tensions in communities where officers do not reflect their demographic makeup. How can we be responsive to public demands when we don’t look like each other or share the same cultural values?
• The War on Cops: 2010 was a bad year for police officers—hundreds killed in the line of duty while others seriously wounded and assaulted. We’ve moved from hostile build-ups that have led to gunfights to outright assassinations (and calls for assassinations) that will quickly require the police to change their tactics in encountering the public.
There are many more challenges, but these are the frontrunners that require more attention as we look to build on the community relationships that were started many years ago. The field of policing is a dynamic one—one that calls for constant vigilance, policy changes, and new training. Given low budgets and the feeling of being a cheap commodity, officers on the streets must have the resources and support of their administration as they look to extend their services to the community while managing new threats. It can’t be shotgun strategic plans that serve as shortcuts and eye candy—they will have a limited chance for success. The public demands safety and security.
Officers demand safety and security. Making this happen in our 21st century will require aggressive education and training that “sticks.” Only then, can the police begin to meet public demands and both sides be satisfied because they are in earnest—not something contrived from the security of a living room where entertainment or false crime statistics motivate public perceptions. What does the public want? It’s really what they need—and it’s you!