Balancing Duty and Humility: Kindness and Professionalism in an Evolving World

The world is a tumultuous place. Bipartisan governments force people into entrenched points of view based on their chosen party.  Social groups identify so strongly within themselves, the concept of different points of view being accepted becomes completely alien. Teams form, battle lines are drawn, and the reality of truth that lies in the middle becomes so blurred it can scarcely be seen at all. The same can be said about the outward perceptions of police and “criminals” as the humanity of both sects ceases to be perceptible by either side and at times, society as a whole. How do officers (and society) remember the humanity of “criminals”, and how can they (officers) themselves be seen for their own humanity through the cloud of robotic professionalism, public perception, and widespread criticism?

law enforcement at crime scene
It’s important to remember that all suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and not the other way around. (Photo credit: Pexels)

What is a criminal? 

Simply defined by Webster as “someone who has committed a crime.” So what is a crime? It’s simply stated, something the State, Federal, or Local government has determined to be prohibited. These range from parking violations all the way to the extreme of homicide. A wide range of offenses are judged by a wide range of different penalties, but all are defined most basically, as “crime.” So, anyone who has engaged in any behavior prohibited by law, is, by definition, a criminal. It’s not easy to say, but that includes every single person or organization that wrote those laws, and every single man or woman charged with enforcing them.

Now, without question, this is an oversimplification, but the point here is to caution everyone about labels and perceptions and prejudices that tend to accompany those labels. Having a “criminal history” tends to create an image in people’s minds but without context, how can anyone truly judge another person? No one should ever be forever branded by their worst day, and everyone should have the opportunity to rise above their mistakes and be known for who they are, as opposed to what mistakes they have made. Now, I can’t leave this unsaid, there are truly evil people, evil actions, and those who clearly, without question deserve the moniker “criminal,” but I’m trusting each of you to know the difference between that and what we are talking about here.

There is a long-lost concept required for redemption to be possible, and this goes for everyone. That concept, as foreign as it may be in today’s society, is accountability.

You have to own it to rise above it.

In the same way that no one should have to be saddled with judgment for their entire existence for a mistake, no one can attain forgiveness or redemption without accountability. Whether it is a person who has found themselves in handcuffs, or someone cutting corners and testing moral limits to accomplish their perceived righteous goal, taking responsibility for your actions and making a real effort to change, is essential. These days people are apt to try and justify behavior or blame some outside force for the choices they’ve made, but that is the key right there: CHOICE. Everything anyone says or does is a result of a choice that person made. Good or bad, right or wrong, we all have to account for our choices and pay the consequences for them. Once a person has been accountable and faced their consequences, we can no longer hold that action against them, or judge them based on that action.

Faith is not just for church.

Almost 20 years ago, I decided to go into law enforcement. And I did so with all the cliché ideals and desires to help people and make a difference. No matter how calloused and jaded I may have become over the years, I still must believe people can change, and that people should have every opportunity to be better than their worst day. I have been let down and disappointed time after time and have lost my heart more times than I can count. I am still, however, every day, seeking that next person to believe in, that next opportunity to have faith in humanity, and hope for a better world (super cheesy, I know). 

police officer with bystander
Kindness and courtesy, on both sides of the fence, go a long way. As officers, we must remain objective and kind, no matter the hurdles we face.

The successes will be far fewer than the failures, but that comes back to accountability. The old adage is true, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.” I do believe, however, that you can make the horse die of dehydration if you keep it tied up away from water. That is, I believe you can never be more invested in a person’s self-improvement than they are.

Reinforcing someone’s feeling of worthlessness or having no faith they can change can cause them to give up themselves and the hard road to self-improvement. Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” and in this case, you will make a positive impact on 0% of the people that you don’t believe in. Having faith in humanity is, more than not, disappointing and exhausting. But that one time out of a hundred, where you see success, will reward that faith and hopefully carry you through to the next.

Police work is rarely “Good Vs Evil” and is more commonly “People Vs People.”

There is a certain level of good and evil in each person. I would wager, for most people, based on circumstances, a split-second decision (or choice) is the only thing separating the two. Most of the people police officers interact with are currently in some sort of crisis (even if only in their minds). It may be just another day in the office to us, but to them, it may be the worst day of their life. We need to always remember our responsibility is to people, not crime, and that even though our job is to hold people accountable, it is not to make things worse.

How we interact with one another has lasting effects on perceptions and judgments. Not just in police work, but in our everyday lives as well. How you respond today impacts the interactions and conversations of tomorrow. Be kind.  (Photo: NBC News)

How people treat each other has lasting effects on their perceptions and will impact their future interactions with others. As an officer, there are few things more frustrating than having to try and undo negative interactions perpetuated by other officers.  It can be difficult enough to have productive interactions with people in my line of work, it becomes almost impossible when other officers have engaged in behavior that gives people preconceived negative notions about who officers are.

In the same way, I believe it is unfair for us as officers to place people in boxes labeled with their mistakes, I too believe officers deserve that same grace. I will not blindly state that all police officers are good and caring people, but I will die on the hill that most are. Throughout my career, I have worked with some of the finest men and women to have ever worn a badge. Good, honorable, and caring people, who always strive to do what is right. Even with all that, cops are people, with families, and lives outside of work. We have passions and personalities shaped by our life experiences, the same as everyone else. We have good days and bad days. Mistakes will be made, and interactions will not always be ideal. I plead for understanding and forgiveness for us as well.

In the end, we all owe one another courtesy.

“Criminals” are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters. Much to the shock of some, police Officers are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters as well. We are all human, we are all prone to make mistakes, lapses in judgment, and bad calls in split-second decisions. We all have to be held accountable for our actions, and at times harshly. But we ALL deserve grace, faith, forgiveness, and above all else, Courtesy. The only thing you can freely give, that costs nothing, but is worth everything, is courtesy. We all know, not every interaction allows for sustained courtesy, but it is where every human interaction must start. As a supervisor, I always tell my troops, we will never decide for an interaction to be negative.  And then I refer them to “Road House.” “I want you to be nice until it’s time not to be nice.” -Dalton

Carl Staas is a former Police Sergeant from West Central Missouri. He spent 17 years in law enforcement, performing routine patrol, investigations, evidence management, and finished his career as a patrol Sergeant and field training officer. He's an FBI LEEDA Trilogy recipient and tactical driving instructor. He doesn't know everything about guns, but he's always trying to learn more!

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