A friend’s son graduated from the police academy this year, and he has now been an active police officer for the last few months. He shared that his son keeps getting the same question: “Why would anyone want to be a police officer?” The new officer’s standard answer is, “Somebody’s got to!”
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That is very true. Someone has to, right? Heaven help us if we ever get to the point where absolutely no one wants to be a cop. I suppose this is his canned answer to many people just to get them off his back.
As I’m involved in law enforcement training, I often get asked this same question. While I have my standard answers as well, there are other reasons I discuss with people who are close to me, those I know I can trust. Taking all things into consideration – the political climate, the perennial lack of support, the public apathy – why would somebody still consider becoming a police officer?
Honestly, I believe what draws a person to police work comes from deep within. This may sound corny or self-serving, but wanting to work with the public, help those in your community and do a job that is often thankless, calls for a special kind of individual. Contrary to how the media and activists would like to portray us, policing is a noble profession.
Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing, created the Metropolitan Police Service in London in 1829, solidifying police work as an ethical and honorable profession. According to the University of Washington, in Peel’s model, “police officers are regarded as citizens in uniform. They exercise their powers to police their fellow citizens with the implicit consent of those fellow citizens.” Elaborating on this, Peel established his three core principles of policing, which are just as relevant today as they were nearly two centuries ago
- The goal of policing is to prevent crime, not catch criminals. An effective police department has low arrest rates because their communities have low crime rates.
- To prevent crime, the police must earn public support. All citizens share the responsibility of preventing crime as if they were volunteer members of the police force. But the community will only do this if they trust and support the police.
- The police must respect community principles to earn public support. Police earn a good reputation by enforcing the laws impartially, hiring officers who reflect and represent the community, and using force only as a last resort.
In addition to the three core principles, Peel and his policing commissioners established nine policing principles:
- To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
- To recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
- To recognize always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also securing the willing cooperation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
- To recognize always that the extent to which the cooperation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
- To seek and preserve public favor, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humor, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
- To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public cooperation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
- To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
- To recognize always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
- To recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.
Simply put, while there will always be some form of crime and criminal elements, we cannot afford to lose the trust of the public and communities we serve. Members of the public must be our allies and partners. Because of this, we can never allow our thinking to devolve into an “us vs. them” scenario.
Whether they realize it or not, those who choose to embark on a career in law enforcement exemplify Peel’s original principles. These principles are unwavering, and they represent the foundation of policing and the police officer. This back-to-basics approach is what I would recommend agencies review periodically and especially any time there is a new administration.
I am also reminded of Protecting the Guardian, an organization I work with that educates and trains officers and their families on the prevention of stress, trauma, suicide, and the impact of the job. They emphasize the three pillars of self, job and family:
Self: Officers will take pride in themselves both physically and mentally.
Job: Officers take pride in their job, to serve with duty, honor, and if need be, sacrifice.
Family: Officers will take pride in family, to care and be there by recognizing the importance of one’s own family, that the family stands with them, and they stand with their family.
If we think about cadets entering the academy today, these three pillars (along with Peel’s principles) constitute the foundational mindset every officer and department should adopt and follow.
Being a police officer can often become more than a job or a career; it can turn into a person’s entire identity, which has both negative and positive effects. As I mention in my article, “Who Are You Without the Badge,” it’s important to “regain your identity as a human being who is defined not only by their job, but by their interests, their relationships and their values.” We are members of our communities first and police officers second – and not the other way around. This goes hand in hand with Peel’s insistence that “police are the public and that the public are the police.”
So sure, the humble answer to the question of why anyone would want to be a cop is that “Someone has to do it,” but new officers feel the calling and have the will and desire to serve their communities. And despite the ups and downs over the last several years, seasoned officers remain on the job protecting and serving our communities because deep down, they care.
For my friend’s son, he knows why he is there. Besides the pat answers, this man has the willingness to do more and help others. He is willing to serve because, despite the negative attitudes of the public and the state of the profession, he knows it is an honorable profession. He knows that the same people who demonize the police have friends and family who don’t feel that way and need the police to protect and serve.
So, when someone asks you what drew you to policing and why you’re still a cop, I want you to reflect on Peel’s principles and what made you become a cop in the first place.
I will leave you with a statement from a LinkedIn post written by Deon Joseph, a seasoned officer with the LAPD:
Those of us in law enforcement should be constantly ready to answer the question of why anyone would want to be a cop. Sure, it’s easy just to say, “Somebody has to do it,” but a more honest answer would include the principles we uphold, the importance of our mission and the love we feel for our neighbors.