On this Election Day, when turnout could hit a record low, I’d like to put a vote in for the police.
It has been a grueling 11 days since the shooting deaths of Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Danny Oliver and Placer County sheriff’s Detective Michael Davis Jr. In that time, we’ve seen an outpouring of anguish and grief, but also heartwarming remembrances about who these men were and about what law enforcement officers do when nobody’s looking.
We’ve learned of Oliver canceling his family vacation and heading into work when word arrived of a gunbattle in Roseville in which six police officers had been wounded. Davis went out of his way to arrange for a funeral service and headstone at the gravesite of a nameless child who had been found in a garbage bag.
We never would have heard those stories if these deputies hadn’t been killed. Cops routinely perform good deeds out in the field, but rarely do they share with us the things that make them human, or even heroes in some small everyday way.
I speak publicly often, most recently emceeing the annual honors banquet for the California Firefighters Association. Each year, it recognizes the heroic acts of first responders – 10 this year – most of whom turned out to be police officers. These honorees displayed astonishing acts of bravery, yet I’ll bet only a handful of us have heard about them. And the only difference between them and Davis and Oliver is that the recipients were fortunate enough to survive their ordeals.
There’s something wrong with commending the good that police do only when they die, while frequently branding the entire profession based on the occasional rogue, such as the California Highway Patrol officer caught on video beating a woman senseless in July, or eruptions in places like Ferguson, Mo. We may never get an accurate accounting of what happened in Ferguson, but look how little attention was paid to the closure of the beating case. Media coverage of the officer’s firing was hardly proportional to the attention paid to the video.
We often blame the media for always reporting bad news, but we forget why such stories are covered in the first place: It’s because they rarely happen. Planes landing on time at the airport are normal, which is why it’s never a story. When a plane crashes, that’s a front-page headline. You could say the same thing about cops. Coverage can become a 24/7 circus when one of them crosses a legal or ethical boundary.
For statistical perspective, consider there are 765,000 sworn law enforcement officers in the United States. Out of 40 million people who had contact with police in 2008, roughly 776,000 reported the use or threatened use of force, according to federal data cited by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. That’s just 1.9 percent.
FBI data for 2012 found that 410 Americans were “justifiably” killed by police. Critics call that a conservative figure since only 750 of the nation’s 17,985 law enforcement agencies contribute data to the FBI’s database. However, about 80 percent of police departments have fewer than 10 officers and simply don’t have huge data collecting operations, let alone a plethora of violent crime.
Are there bad employees in law enforcement? C’mon, what profession – what office – doesn’t have bad employees? Complaining about coworkers is practically a national pastime.
But most of us don’t go to work every day knowing it might be our last. Police do. They see horrific violence nobody else wants to, or should. They deal with an unappreciative public and a criminal justice system that sometimes works against them. Officers want to save lives, not find a child killed by a stray bullet and then having to tell that child’s parents. Then they go home to their own family and are asked, “How was work today?”
It’s the part of the job few civilians ever give much thought. But officers know it going in, and they don’t ask for praise or play the martyr coming out. They just press on because most of them believe they can make a difference. They often do.
I know the police aren’t perfect, and I’m certainly not saying we should throw roses at their feet. But instead of constantly complaining about what they do wrong, let’s not wait until one of them dies to finally acknowledge what they do right.
Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.