Public Perception of Law Enforcement


Darin Buenaluz, Staff Writer

Law enforcement around the country has come under fire due to a string of controversial encounters between officers and members of the public, especially since the beginning of 2020. From my perspective, the public opinion of law enforcement has shifted in a direction that portrays all of law enforcement as aggressors and disruptors of order, rather than protectors of it. Furthermore, the current public perception of law enforcement doesn’t always fully encompass the complexity of the job. It also often paints all law enforcement workers with the same brush, subjecting people who are detectives, crime scene investigators, or those who work in forensics to the same judgement as the uniformed officers you see everyday. 

As such, does the law enforcement community as a whole deserve to be negatively viewed and treated poorly because of the actions of a handful of bad officers? And what do police officers truly stand for as they work every day to try to protect their communities? To find information, I spent nine days at a Master-At-Arms (MAA) – an individual in the Navy tasked with law enforcement – training at the Ben Clark Training Center frequently used by the Riverside Police and Fire Departments. After learning from current and former law enforcement in the civilian and military sector, I feel that I have gained a better understanding about the law enforcement community.

I learned in great detail that the job of police officers is far more complex than simply pulling people over and putting handcuffs on individuals caught breaking the law.  At the training I attended, all trainees are members of the United States Naval Sea Cadets Corps, most between the ages of 14 to 17. They learn about nearly every aspect of what law enforcement does in the field every day, and they put what they have learned into practice during Patrol Nights, which are done on the training grounds. This includes different types of car stops, pedestrian stops and searches, self-defense (using both one’s body as well as batons and pepper spray, firearm usage and safety), room clearing, and understanding how to properly detain an individual. The different “suspects” are staff cadets and adult staff from the training.

Cadets conduct Patrol Nights in assigned squads in a controlled, but realistic environment. Each team is evaluated by the training instructors. Some are real, active duty law enforcement, while others have been chosen by the head of the training for their experience. Cadets have no one but their fellow squad members to rely on for assistance during each simulation, which adds additional pressure. Several Patrol Nights are held in a row towards the later end of training, and they give cadets the opportunity to gain a clearer image of what police officers do everyday for months, if not years on end.

As part of this training, cadets learn from their adult staff who are experienced in the field of law enforcement. The cadets are also given presentations from special guests who currently work in law enforcement across various fields such as narcotics, or serve on canine units. Furthermore, cadets wear a heavy bulletproof jacket, a duty belt, carrying most of their gear, and combat boots everywhere they go in order to fully experience the physical stress that officers have to endure.

Everything I learned at MAA training is practiced by law enforcement everyday, and from my experience, there is considerably more pressure serving in law enforcement than meets the eye. I experienced this pressure firsthand from my evaluators, who observed everything we did in the assigned scenarios down to the smallest details. This included having to remember the important things to ask about individuals, knowing where every component of one’s gear is at all times, and understanding how to de-escalate situations. This is all while being under the eye and criticism of the public. 

My experience made me realize that the job of police officers, like the job of all men and women of any working field in society, comes with human error. There will be decisions made by officers that will attract controversy or disagreement. Especially under this kind of immense pressure, human error can have dire consequences, as it can result in individuals suffering from injuries or even death. To combat this, Congress has been working to pass the Justice in Policing Act, which includes major factors such as requiring all police officers to be trained on religious and racial profiling, have body and dashboard cameras at all times, and limiting the amount of military-grade gear they carry.

In recent months, the actions of police officers have received attention from a large number of  media outlets on both sides of the political spectrum. These incidents have, in part, led to protests around the country, demanding reform and the defunding of law enforcement agencies in several states, notably in major cities such as Seattle, Portland, and Minneapolis. Unfortunately, some protests, including the summer 2020 protests in Los Angeles and the gathering in Minneapolis on the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, escalated into riots as demonstrators began to physically express their emotions towards law enforcement. 

In Seattle, demonstrators established a Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), that lasted for most of the month of June in response to the events in Minneapolis in May 2020, affecting many businesses and residents who lived within the self-declared exclusion zone. In addition, some took advantage of the riots for their own benefit, resulting in many businesses being looted or destroyed. Demonstrations like this have, in part, led to an increase of officer resignations and retirements, as well as a decrease in new officer hirings.

“More than 200 officers left their jobs since last year, citing an anti-police climate in Seattle, City Council policies and disagreements with department leadership,” said a statement by the Seattle’s Chief of Police Adrian Diaz. Seattle, like many other American cities, experienced an uproar throughout the summer of 2020 following the death of George Floyd. 

“We have lost about one-third of our staff to resignation and retirement. Certainly with the way that police have been portrayed and vilified in some cases, they have decided that it is not the life for them,’” said Chief David Zack of North Carolina’s Asheville Police Department in an article by The New York Times

Police officers leaving their jobs at unprecedented rates has been seen across the country in many cities that have been in the spotlight by the media. 

As seen in Minneapolis, “105 officers left the department last year, which is more than double the average attrition rate,” said Brandt Williams in a report by MPR News.

An article from The Oregonian in Portland, which also experienced protests and later riots over the death of George Floyd, said, “Since July 1, (2020), 115 officers have left the Police Bureau, including 74 who retired and 41 who resigned.” 

“About 15% of its force (more than 5,300 officers) leave in 2020, a 75% spike from the year before,” said Jemima McEvoy in a report by Forbes, regarding the New York Police Department, one of the largest departments in the nation that has suffered from severe budget cuts since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. 

When the narrative that the police are an enemy of the people is spread, that means that the hard working and honest men and women that make up the majority of the United States police force must work to protect people who don’t want them. This can have disastrous results.

“‘Mostly law-abiding population in our distressed communities, those communities that need the police the most, will ultimately suffer the most as a result of pandering to ridiculous demands for reduction or elimination of police resources’” said William C. O’Toole, a retired assistant chief of police and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

While there is no singular answer as to why the job of law enforcement is portrayed negatively, there are some major factors. For example, in the current day and age of social media and technology, anyone can be their own news reporter. However, this does not necessarily mean the individual who is recording it shows everything that happened or has an unbiased narrative. Police body cameras record everything that happens from an officer’s perspective, meaning that when they are reviewed in court all that the officer does can be clearly and closely examined. In comparison, spectators on the street are not obliged to record everything that happens if they don’t feel it’s necessary to share. In addition, beliefs can be easily influenced or swayed by what is read on Instagram, or heard on the news. Social media has been used by millions to express their support or conversely anger towards the police, where users can state their opinions with little to no information so long as it fits a supported narrative. 

While it is true that social media has brought to light grave injustices, such as the treatment of George Floyd during his arrest and the eventual conviction of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, it has also played a significant part in creating a negative portrayal of all law enforcement workers whether they were involved in these incidents or not. 

Without a doubt, there are bad police officers, or officers who make bad decisions as individuals. But by no means are their actions reflective of all members of law enforcement. 

Lieutenant John Eaden, who was the most senior staff member of my training, told us that police officers should have an instinct to protect. They are not trained to kill, but instead are trained to neutralize a threat against themselves or others. However, neutralizing threats sometimes results in an individual losing his or her life.

The lives of police officers are a lot more complicated than they are portrayed. It is easy to be an armchair critic and say what the police did was right or wrong in X or Y situation, but what I learned is that things change the second the one in the field dealing with these types of situations is you. Therefore, we shouldn’t immediately come to the conclusion that law enforcement as a whole is bad. Incidents such as the George Floyd case should be reminders that even the police, who serve as our protectors, are not faultless. We can learn from these incidents so that we can improve both law enforcement and the society that officers have been tasked with serving. However, we shouldn’t limit our view of law enforcement to the uniformed men and women we call police officers, nor by the controversial events that draw media attention.


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