Stories From the Squad Car: How to Assist Law Enforcement as a Bystander

Law enforcement work is notoriously dangerous. At times, it can be quite lonely through chosen social isolation or feeling like a villain due to current public opinion regarding the profession. As current political and social trends continue to heat up and hostilities grow, the inherent dangers seem to increase. Fewer people are choosing law enforcement as a profession, but there are also a lot of decent people out there that want to help as a bystander but don’t know how. So, what can bystanders do to support and assist officers who continue to dedicate their lives to protecting and serving the communities they work in? Let’s talk about it. We need to talk about it.

Depression, Distrust, and Death

There were a reported 245 “line of duty” deaths in 2022. These ranged from gun violence, car crashes, health and sickness, suicide, and accidents. Law enforcement has always carried an inherent danger, but in recent years we have seen an increasing number of targeted attacks on law enforcement officers. The vocal media portrayal of law enforcement is increasingly negative and continues to cause distrust throughout society. This affects officers in a way that goes far beyond the feelings caused by the news stories and carries into interactions with the public as well.

The media has put an ever-growing negative spotlight on police, and society’s trust in peace officers has fallen to new lows. Officers who are just trying to do their jobs are being met with more distrust and even hostility.

An officer simply trying to complete an assigned task or provide a service is often met with distrust and hostility. In my personal experience, many people have told me, “I just don’t trust cops.”  As with many other things in life, no singular person, entity, or situation is responsible for this perception. A result of this, however, is that officers are leaving the law enforcement field in droves, and the ones left behind are feeling increasingly abandoned as they continue to dedicate their lives to a society that they believe despises them. I know for a fact that this is not the case, but it can be difficult for some to see the positive support system that’s still there. That’s where each and every person out there can make a huge difference.

A Friendly Face and a Kind Word

The day-to-day struggles of law enforcement can be incredibly daunting and the job itself can weigh heavily on officers. Add to this, the media-driven public perception and bad behavior by some officers, and people are hesitant to trust or be willing to have productive interactions with law enforcement. This leaves officers with a feeling that society is against them, causing them to question who they are really sacrificing to protect. The answer to that question is quite simple. It’s YOU.

police officer with bystander
A simple “hello” and a warm smile goes a long way for many officers. All too often, we forget that peace officers are human beings with thoughts and emotions. Smiles and conversations make it worth coming back to work each day.

A vast majority of interactions officials in law enforcement experience are negative in nature, but there is a constant opportunity to renew that image in their mind’s eye of who they really work for.

Take a moment to stop and speak with an officer. Express your appreciation for them, or even just offer a kind smile or friendly wave from across a room or across the street. Small acts of kindness like these can have a tremendous impact on that officer. I can tell you, from my experience, the feeling you’re left with walking away from such an interaction works like a shot of adrenaline. It refreshes our faith in society and renews our passion for service.

I’ve Got Your Six

Rural communities all over the country have small, sometimes single-officer departments. Highway Patrol and State Police patrol large, sometimes sparsely populated areas, with backup too far away when it’s needed. Even metropolitan areas, small cities, and county Sherriff’s departments are experiencing manpower shortages and are stretched thin day after day. We need each and every law-abiding person in society to be where we can’t, and let us know where we need to be.

The old adage, “see something – say something” is essential to effective law enforcement. Be aware of your surroundings and your fellow human beings, and don’t hesitate to make the call. Officers would always rather respond and not be needed than be absent and unaware while someone is being victimized. Law enforcement also needs bystanders to be good witnesses. Be willing to aid in investigations, and provide that ever-important “eyewitness” testimony that can prove to be an essential part of figuring out what has happened.

law enforcement at crime scene
Due to the nature of our work, we rarely know what’s going on when we respond to calls, much less what the risk factors are. Witnesses play a vital role in helping officers apprehend suspects, work a crime scene, and mitigate risks to bystanders and fellow officers. Talk to us and help us. Police work requires officers and bystanders to work together.

I would never suggest anyone do anything they don’t feel comfortable or safe doing. Officers go through extensive training to prepare for this kind of work, but as a bystander, you can have a role to play as well. Officers try to be constantly aware of what is going on around them, but this can be challenging when dealing with some of the more intensive situations, especially where there are crowds of people. Officers can’t see everything and there may be a situation where a bystander finds themselves in a situation to again be an extra pair of eyes.

There may also be situations where citizens find themselves wanting or needing to get physically involved in a situation an officer is involved in. The most important piece of advice I can give in these situations is to communicate your intentions clearly and obey any commands the officer may give you. It may not be immediately apparent to an officer what your motivations are, and it may take a moment for you and the officer to reach the same conclusion about what part you intend to play. I have found myself in these situations, and have been forever grateful to those citizens who had my back.

Conclusion

The work of law enforcement is risky, lonely, and sometimes depressing. Sharing a kind word, flashing a warm smile, offering a vigilant eye, becoming a willing witness, or being an uninitiated hero, can make all the difference in the world. These actions can not only have a positive impact in an isolated situation but can also have a lasting effect on the officer’s perception of society and allow them to continue believing in the work they do.

I would like to take a second to just say “thank you” to all the people out there who want to be of assistance. Law enforcement is an essential aspect of society and officers cannot complete their mission without you.

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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