There are a lot of misconceptions about what it is to be a police officer on the streets of the United States. Of course it varies by jurisdiction, as local citizens have become accustomed to services that are not otherwise available elsewhere and each agency has its own available resources to meet those needs and demands which impact the role of the individual officer on the street. In comparison to other career fields, the regular patrol officer is expected to perform far more roles in a proficient fashion with extreme consequences at stake on a regular basis.
While medical doctors are exposed to a wide variety of practices and problems in medical school, the vast majority take on a role that is streamlined and specialized to a very specific area. Nurses follow in the same path, and typically find themselves in a specific niche that is a small scope when compared with the entire human body.
Attorneys are given instruction on a myriad of legal concepts and laws, but most specialize in either civil or criminal law, further limiting their expertise into business law, family law, tax law, criminal defense, and criminal prosecution. Oftentimes, these specialties then get reduced even more as an attorney practicing business law begins to focus solely on human resource law, contracts, and the like. Prosecuting attorneys and defense attorneys may specialize in DUI prosecution or defense, crimes against persons, etc.
Shrinking specialized interests into a specific and more streamlined role allows these folks to become extremely well-versed in those areas, as the other aspects fade from memory because they aren’t as important to the regular task at hand.
There are plenty of specialties in law enforcement, and depending on the size of the agency, there will be several that fall into a subject-matter specific role like SWAT, crash investigations, traffic enforcement, homicide investigations, robbery investigations, and the like. Narrowing the wide scope of law enforcement allows these specialists to focus their efforts into a very specific, reoccurring set of skills that are honed during these investigations.
The uniformed officer who works the beat will typically have a comfort area in which he or she performs best. Some are great traffic officers, some do well in domestic violence incidents, and others seem to be at their best during the chaotic, tip-of-the-spear type of critical incidents. These innate abilities shine when the officer is placed in those circumstances, but they are only utilized fully during those call types. The reality is that the uniformed officer working a beat will be exposed to such a wide variety of complaints and situations that the officer must stay current in a wide array of skills and tactics.
A patrol officer that rolls up on a disabled vehicle may assist the motorist with mechanical skill or a muscular shove to get the vehicle out of the roadway. After the vehicle is removed from harm’s way, that patrol officer may be summoned to another location to serve as a marriage counselor at a domestic disturbance while functioning as a social worker by attending to the needs of the small children in the residence. During the same shift, the officer may be called upon to perform CPR, deploy an AED, or deliver a lifesaving dose of Narcan in the same manner as an EMT before the actual medical professionals have an opportunity to lay hands on the patient. After the patient is transported by ambulance elsewhere, the officer may be called to a civil disagreement that is in no way a criminal matter, but he or she will be expected to provide proper guidance to the involved parties without over-extending into the realm of the JD.
None of the prior examples are roles that seem to fit the title of “law enforcement”, as no actual law is being enforced while the officer performs in that arena. During actual enforcement situations, officers must sort through physical facts and statements of those involved to arrive at a conclusion as to whether or not it would be appropriate to make a physical arrest, issue a summons or citation, or walk away with no enforcement action. These decisions must be based on the letter of the law and case law that bends and contorts written laws into practices that may not reflect the actual law on which the opinions are based.
Officers are often called upon to complete case reports that are second-guessed and scrutinized by victims, suspects, prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys, and investigators. In order to complete a concise and accurate report the officer must have a great deal of skill in pulling the necessary information from victims, witnesses, and/or suspects. Oftentimes these skills are difficult to master as the officer wades through irrelevant information that is offered in an effort to narrow it down into something that is logical, truthful, and relevant.
Obtaining the information to complete a case report is only part of the puzzle when it comes to the skills needed to create effective case reports. The officer is then expected to put that information into a case report that records all of the pertinent information in a chronological and concise fashion that is absent any typographical errors. Case reports related to arrests may then result in depositions and testimony in a court house where the officer is expected to recall information from incidents that may have happened more than a year before depending on the filing practices of the court.
Highlighting the aforementioned skills practiced by the patrol officer skirts the skills required to manipulate an emergency vehicle with racecar driver-like precision while the motoring public seems to totally disregard the sirens and lights that are urging them out of the path of the police car. When the weather dumps snow and ice on the roadways, the patrol officer is still pushed out on the street to drive from call to call, because that is the expectation of the public.
These tasks are completed while the officer attempts to maintain a measure of physical safety. Every year, officers are killed on the roadways in vehicular crashes, after being hit by motorists while directing traffic or working crashes, and by felonious assaults that may even result from a totally unprovoked ambush carried out for simply wearing a police uniform. Officers are expected to meet these threats with measured action, and especially of late, these officers are second-guessed by a growing crowd of use of force “experts” who watch a snippet of a video online and feel compelled to offer opinions of ignorance.
Those outside of law enforcement would assume that officers are consistently trained in use of force skills, but by and large they would be wrong. A few times a year an officer may be subjected to the physical tactics needed to effectively restrain a combative person in a training environment. Some agencies offer up only one annual firearms training event while others may hit the range more frequently. The one thing that remains the same across the board is that each officer will be expected to be a master of these techniques when the chips are down. Even when everything is executed to the letter of the law, the officer can expect to receive some criticism for failing to deescalate the situation although the suspect dictated the officer’s reaction.
The world of the patrol officer is ever-changing. Each shift is different. We ask our officers to hit the streets and perform in a wide variety of roles to better our communities. They must recall information rapidly, even if the human experience creates a situation never before encountered by the officer, in order to arrive at a socially acceptable solution.
I can think of no other career field that expects so much from an individual with such high stakes on the line. Medical professionals in the emergency room and EMT’s in the field may have a variety of encounters that are similar to ours, but they are not typically asked to perform the myriad of tasks which a patrol officer must routinely show mastery.
While we certainly have room for improvement on the individual and agency-wide levels, our nation’s patrol officers consistently rise to the task and provide critical services to our communities. I am exceedingly proud to be one of the uniformed jack-of-all trades. Patrol officers come from a wide-range of places and backgrounds and police a wide-variety of jurisdictions, but we all toe the same line.
It’s time to go patrol the Donut…