Published in the Sun-Times Beacon News on August 23, 2009
In a recent speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about foreign policy and the security of America under our new leadership. In that speech, she used the term “Smart Power”, vowing to utilize the “full range of tools” at our disposal to become partners with our adversaries.
I started thinking about the term “Smart Power” and began to realize that it applies to policing as much as it does to national security. The “tools” police officers use to maintain peace and order are laws involving search and arrest, use of force, incarceration, and many others. As America’s first line of defense, these tools are afforded us by the US Constitution and their application demands responsibility and nobility.
There are many times in a police officer’s career where the thrill of the chase becomes greater than the cause. During those times, nobility can be lost. For example, the adrenaline pumping in the veins of the police officer running through the back yards to catch the armed robber makes them momentarily devoid of the notion that they are serving their community with justice and fundamental fairness in mind. They simply want to catch the bad guy. This may be a dangerous moment for the police officer (both literally and figuratively) because the adrenaline may also lead to the officer not utilizing ‘smart power’ resulting in an abuse of authority by using excessive force. We have seen far too much video footage of officers who did not exercise smart power during an apprehension and it is those few that tarnish the badge for us all.
To me, ‘smart power’ in policing is suggestive of, not only tools like incarceration, but of possibly our greatest power - our power of influence. When I was a recruit in the Field Training Program, my Field Training Officer and I met on a weekly basis with the sergeant that was assigned to monitor my progress. In my third month of the four-month program, the sergeant looked over my paperwork and noted that I was progressing very well. I couldn’t help but feel extremely gratified by the compliment until he looked at my FTO and said, “But we still need to get her into a fight and see how she fares.” I looked at my FTO for his response and had a momentary vision of leaving the office and picking a fight with someone on the street to prove how tough I really was. My brute thoughts and knuckle-cracking were interrupted by my FTO who explained to the concerned sergeant that I had been in many situations that could very well have turned physical. Rather than immediately going “hands on” he offered that I had used my personality to diffuse many situations so that it didn’t escalate to force. What a concept.
There are many times when a situation is not negotiable and an officer must use force to place someone under arrest or protect themselves or others from harm. But I do believe that an officer’s influence is the most powerful tool they have. Police Officers should use the ethic “service above self” when upholding laws and maintaining peace. They also need to keep focused on the cause of the action and not merely the action itself. Getting into a scuffle for the sake of proving you can is an abuse of power. Authority is interesting. When used responsibly, accompanied by moral choice and guided by principles, it is extremely effective. Contrarily, when it is abused the damage can affect people for a lifetime.