Policing Then and Now: Times Are Changing

As time marches on, the expectations and opinions of law enforcement change, evolve, and in some ways cycle. Support, love, appreciation, admiration, disdain, apathy, hatred, resentment, and disgust always exist, but the overall public opinion can shift from one end to the other, and back again, sometimes in a relatively short amount of time.  How and why does this happen, and how do we keep up with the ever-changing environment to continue providing the best service we can to our ever-changing society?

Times Change and People Change; Society Changes Even More.

Even though they fight against it, children thrive under a set of circumstances that involve boundaries and structure. That can be a tightrope for parents to walk. Too ridged and the kids will rebel; too lax and they run amok. If the notion of that tightrope isn’t enough, not every kid has the same “sweet spot.” And, that sweet spot changes as they grow up. Their perspectives, desires, and understandings change, and so too does their response to authority. As parents, we must adjust our methods over time in order to achieve the same results. This doesn’t mean the rules aren’t there and there’s still not a need for structure and boundaries, but the older a child gets, the more they require an understanding of the “why” and the more entitled to it they may be.

Is it any different in the case of adults and law enforcement? Ultimately, we want people to obey the rules and be safe. In the event those aren’t happening, we must act. How we approach those calls to action can greatly impact how our intervention is received.

I’m going to be very real for a second though: I have previously talked about this same issue and believe in it enough to touch on it again. Make no mistake though, there will be times when it just doesn’t matter how appropriately an officer deals with a particular situation, irrational opposition can and will persist.

Trust in law enforcement continues to dwindle, though the “Defund the Police” movements seem to have dissipated slightly as of late. 

The times when people would just go along with a command from an officer because it comes from a source of trusted authority are becoming less common. The social contract is more fragile than ever as the expectations of people within society change and evolve. As experienced law enforcement officers, we know what is needed to maintain peace and order, but if society no longer agrees to allow our authority, the contract fails, and chaos ensues. It doesn’t seem to last, as we have seen with many of the “defund the police” trends, but how many people suffer while things get worked out? 

“Back in My Day”

When I was a baby cop, I would listen to the stories of the “crusty old vets” that I admired and aspired to be like, and think to myself, “How could the same job have been so different back in their day?”

One day — I swear it happened overnight — I became that old guy with all the “back in my day” stories. For me though, it isn’t so much about how we used to do things, but what it was like to do the job. At times I get frustrated too, to think about how I felt when I was first hired. I was incredibly excited to have an opportunity to prove myself and make a difference in my community. I craved trust and respect from my fellow officers and supervisors, and I wanted to prove that I belonged and could be trusted not only to have the knowledge and skills, but the temperament, personality, and instincts to be a good cop.

law enforcement officer assisting a citizen
What makes a “Good Cop” anyway? Is it a warm smile and a lax demeanor? Is it knowing your stuff and having your squad’s back? Or is it a perfect blend of the two?

Many new officers today walked different paths to the start of their careers, and that need to prove themselves looks a lot different. When there were a lot more applicants than jobs, getting hired felt like a real accomplishment. Having to truly compete for a position created an inherent honor and pride if you were selected. Departments had the benefit of being selective of their candidates and could weed out those who didn’t have the commitment or dedication to be a part of the team. 

Nowadays, there are more jobs than applicants, and departments are struggling to find qualified recruits and at times, are being forced bend over backwards to accommodate the recruits. Some think of this as a negative, and if I’m being honest, I have felt the same way from time to time. A certain amount of struggle and strife create character, while rolling out the red carpet can breed entitlement and potentially a lack of dedication.

But does it really? 

Law enforcement is often characterized as being “behind the times” or “set in their ways.” Perhaps these trends that tend to frustrate us old farts are just the agency trying to catch up with the rest of society and could truly help bridge the gap between officers and citizens. I’m not always convinced, but it is certainly an interesting concept to consider. Whether I like it or not, the reality is that policing has to evolve with society or the struggles will only continue to get worse. 

We have to figure out new ways of approaching the age-old goal of serving and protecting, and the way we approach people and communicate through situations is more important than ever. Those kids we were talking about earlier will eventually grow up and no longer accept “because I said so” as an answer. If we want officers to evolve and be more productive in their interactions with the public, we as department leaders need to evolve how we deal with civilians and be a little more approachable ourselves. As astute as I may be, the leaders of my department were way ahead of my evolution in this particular concept and it was very difficult for me to catch up.

Three Sides of the Same Coin

Who determines the right way of doing things or establishes the current terms of the social contract? There are three different perspectives that define and drive what law enforcement is or needs to be at any given time in history. Those three perspectives come from the officers themselves, the courts, and the public. As time marches on, the operation and perspective of the first two shift and change by the needs and desires of the third. How quickly policing and the courts can keep up with the needs or desires of the ever-changing public is the determining factor on the scale of how symbiotic or cancerous the relationship between them can be.

Politicians, lawmakers, and courts are responsible for setting the rules and parameters for the people as well as the officers who serve them. It is up to them to be entuned with the people and make necessary changes to prevent situations of widespread unrest. Departments need to respond quickly to comply with these changes and officers need to let go of their aggressive aversion to change and embrace evolution for the greater good. If we can’t do that, then we’ve failed at our jobs entirely.

In the End, Who Knows?

I’ve become fairly skilled at understanding perspectives after years of being taught the value of “seeing both sides” and trying to never get too entrenched in a single point of view. That said, I am rather stubborn and often think I know what’s right despite what else may be out there. That’s a flaw of the human race as our personal morals, life experiences, and upbringing largely influence our modes of thinking. The truth, though, is that none of us really know what the answer is. So, I pose the question to you: Is society falling apart, and slipping toward anarchy? Are law enforcement officers relenting to the pressure and becoming too soft? Certainly, the courts are putting fewer people in prison and handing out increasingly softer sentences. Is it all bad, or is it just the next episode in the societal evolution that every era has struggled through? Maybe we’ll never know, but we can certainly keep trying to better ourselves as officers and as a society. Right?

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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