Why the Emphasis on "Officer Safety" Is Such a Problem
Being a police officer was not just a career for me — it defined me. Period.
Both my grandfathers were New York City cops; my late father was a Lt. in the New York City Fire Department; my uncle was a New York City cop for three years before he made the right move and switched over to the New York City Fire Department where he retired as a Battalion Chief. One of my cousins is a cop in the New York City suburbs. Another cousin is a former New York State correction officer and yet another one is a firefighter in upstate New York. All have worked in some of the toughest neighborhoods and assignments in this country.
I had the fortune and honor of working in what was then, per capita, the most violent precinct in the city. It was one of the city’s smallest precincts covering less than one square mile. And I knew this was a place of courage and honor on my first tour there when I swung open those heavy brass doors to enter the 32nd Precinct, Harlem. The precinct had its own nickname: “The Tomb of Gloom.” After opening those doors and never having done one minute on patrol how did I know the 32nd Precinct was hallowed ground and such a place of courage and honor? As I stepped inside the precinct my attention was immediately drawn to a memorial for those 32nd Precinct officers who made the supreme sacrifice and were killed in the line of duty. There are 26 plaques on that wall. There were, by far, more names on that memorial wall than in any other of the city’s 77 precincts. In a precinct that covers less than one square mile.
While working my way up from patrolling a beat on foot to riding in a radio car with my partner I had the incredible luck to work with some of the bravest, most heroic cops on the face of the planet. And there were a lot of them. I looked up to them and they always had a kind word of advice for me that made me a better cop and helped me become the person I am today. I will never forget those men of honor. In the 32nd Precinct there seemed to be an unwritten rule that, although you might unholster your gun 10 times each tour, you were more heroic if you could wrestle a gun out of someone’s hand. I was taught very early on that there was no honor in beating a fleeing criminal-especially if handcuffed. I was taught that, in essence, I was the good guy and he was the bad guy and we both were doing our jobs. It was not honorable to have a “heavy hand.” It was only honorable to do your job and use only the force necessary to make the arrest. In a precinct so small it is impossible to hide corruption and police brutality. I did not see a hint of either during my years in the 32nd Precinct. I am proud to be a 32nd Precinct alumni.
When I look back on my experience at the 32nd Precinct I see real “peace officers” at work. No SWAT raids, no armored vehicles. Just cops getting by with their wits, guts, and courage.
When I look at the current police culture I see a theme of “Officer Safety First, Citizens Second.” Which leads to the other new unofficial motto “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later.”
I recently viewed a video of a speech made by Lt. Ray McCormack, FDNY, Engine 69 in Harlem.
Ray’s speech was original and referred to the fire service but it mirrored the problem we see with the “Officer Safety First” police problem plaguing this country.
I would like to adapt Ray’s speech and make it relevant to the problem with today’s policing.
The mantra of “the officer is first and the citizen, or even the criminal, is second” must be changed. This pecking order is the problem. This change can only come from good leadership and effective training starting at the police academy level and continuing throughout an officer’s career.
Attempting to make the officer’s job safer by teaching him to place himself above those in need is wrong. We have seen this time and again with botched militarized search warrants and with officers refusing to engage a school shooter.
When that parent or teacher meets the officer outside the school or their house and tells the officer their child is trapped inside the officer is their last hope. What is an officer to do? Wait for a SWAT team or armored vehicle? Wait for five other officers for backup? No, the officer must find a way to save that life if humanly possible. What are the officer’s chances? Their chances are always the same-50/50. Either you do it or you don’t.
We need more courage, determination, and pride. We need more of the old style “peace officer” tactics used as depicted on television by that Sheriff that never carried a gun-Andy Griffith. Some cops will respond “you are aware we are not in Mayberry anymore don’t you?” My reply to that is that people are people if you treat them with dignity and respect whether in Mayberry or Harlem. We need to use tactics like those depicted by Paul Newman’s character in the movie “Fort Apache: The Bronx.”
I will leave you with the following: Too much officer safety makes Johnny a terrible leader, a poor last hope for the citizens he has sworn an oath to protect and serve, and a first rate candidate for a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality.