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Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Role of Respect in Policing

I taught a class for our police department entitled, “Customer Service for Police Officers” and in it, I stood on my soapbox and said that I believe everyone should be treated with human dignity and respect.  I have written many columns citing the same and I will tell anyone who will listen that the day everything changed for me in policing was when I stopped looking “down” at people and I started looking “at” them.

This seems to be a difficult concept for many to grasp because we have a tendency to withhold respect from those who have broken the law.   Many police officers struggle with the notion that they should “respect” a criminal – especially one that has committed a violent or heinous crime.

The struggle to understand this concept is not lost on me but what I’m trying to convey is that we (the police) have a very specific job to do.  That job is to uphold the constitution of the United States and to use the tools afforded us to enforce the laws of our land.  Nowhere in the constitution does it tell us to cast judgment upon or to mistreat those who fall short.

But humans are complex and driven by emotions.  And cops are human.  With that, it’s difficult not to withhold our emotions when we are confronted with a child molester or someone who has committed an equally devastating crime against humanity.

Thus, we tend to disrespect the wrong-doer and that can manifest itself through excessive force or verbal abuse – neither of which is particularly helpful in the process of an arrest. 

The majority of police officers do not violate the law or policy and will carry out their duties in a respectful manner but they simply draw the line at “respecting” the person being arrested.  I think this is precisely what we should expect from those we entrust to uphold the law.

Besides, respect is esteemed.  When you stop and ponder those people you respect, you will likely note that they possess positive virtues.  But that’s not exactly the way “respect” is defined.  Respect is an active process of non-judgmentally engaging people from all backgrounds.  It is practiced to increase our awareness and effectiveness and is demonstrated in a manner that esteems us both individually and those with whom we interact.

Simply put, respect isn’t reserved only for those who have a moral compass.  If I interviewed gang members, I would probably find that they respect someone in the hierarchy.  I imagine I would also find someone who respects Hitler or another infamous person.

We all align to different principles and those we hold in high regard differ for each individual.  Police officers value the law and protecting the public.  When a police officer can carry out those duties and still be conscious of the fact that even those who commit crimes against society should be treated with dignity, the better cops they become.

In some abstract way, I came to understand during my years in patrol that the more I treated people with human dignity and respect, there was less propensity of my being hurt.  Respect is not trust so I never let my guard down, but I have found that when a person feels respected, it has a disarming effect. 

I may not respect the action that brought me in contact with the individual but I can certainly treat them respectful in the process of holding them accountable.

So, if it’s too much to ask to grasp the notion of “respecting” those who break the law, I can reframe it simply by changing the verbiage.  Treat those who have committed transgressions in a dignified manner while still holding them accountable for their actions. 

I’ve always felt that if we treat people merely as they are, they will remain as they are.  But if we treat people as if they were what they should be, they just might become what they should be.

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