Detective Lieutenant Barry M. Baker (ret.) is a 32 year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department
Police public image is so important, and a police department can do a lot to instill that importance in its police officers. However, the individual police officer must come to understand the importance on a personal level.
When you watch cop shows(ad) — movies; made for TV, or the so called documentary or reality shows — always remember that all are, first and foremost, entertainment. The producers have little knowledge or concern about the way they portray police officers. It doesn’t matter whether the portrayal is positive, negative or accurate as long as the production is entertaining.
Cops or Actors
You’ll work with some police officers who like to “perform” in public for the benefit of onlookers and fellow officers. They seem to forget that TV and movie actors have the opportunity to retake a scene when they screw it up. A police officer has no such second chance to rehabilitate his police public image.
The most notable actor will be the toughest cop on earth when he has the immediate backup of other officers. You’ll see this actor fall into a different character when no backup is immediately present. This same actor likes to verbally humiliate victims as well as suspects when there’s an audience to appreciate the performance.
Professionalism and Police Public Image
“Professionalism” is an overworked word, but its importance and relevance to your career and police public image cannot be overstated. The way you conduct yourself is either going to make you look intelligent, strong, knowledgeable, and thoughtful, or your conduct will make you appear incompetent, weak, silly and stupid.
There is one valid comparison between the shows and real police — you’re always being watched by someone. Think about your own reaction when you see a uniformed police officer. The officer evokes your curiosity, and that curiosity causes you to watch and evaluate that officer’s police public image.
You’ll deal with some pretty tragic circumstances, and you’ll get used to them. Don’t forget how victims, witnesses and onlookers view your conduct under any circumstances.
Examine this Scenario
Let’s say you respond to the scene of a homicide. Your sergeant assigns you to guard the body which is lying in the middle of the street. You’re awaiting the arrival of the crime lab and medical examiner.
There’s a crowd behind the crime scene tape, and you can hear people crying. They could be family members or friends of the victim. An officer walks up to you, and he starts talking about a practical joke he played on another officer. Before you realize where you’re standing, both of you break out in laughter.
Trust me when I tell you this. Every person standing behind that tape is going to think you’re laughing about the homicide. This is not a good look for your police public image.
This Scene Can Look Even Worse
Let’s say the victim, this time, was shot and killed by a police officer. A police officer involved shooting will bring police officers from all over the place. An officer approaches the officer who did the shooting, and he shakes his hand followed with a big hug.
The hugger is only lending his emotional support to the officer for what he knows has been a traumatic experience. However, you can be assured that any onlookers will view the handshake and hug as congratulatory gestures.
You obviously shouldn’t dwell on tragedy, and you don’t want to become emotionally involved in the tragedy of others. However, you do want to remain cognizant of your conduct and appearances in the context of your police public image.
Some Police Officers Just Don’t Get It
Then…along comes the police officer who’s just simply lazy and incompetent.
How often have you been on a multiple lane highway, and traffic is forced to merge into the right lane? You know how difficult it is when there’s no traffic control like a police officer to aid the transition. I found myself in this circumstance on one hot, summer afternoon.
I was in the right lane, so all I had to do was let other drivers over periodically. An accident scene finally appeared where the highway raised out of a depression from beneath an overpass. I eventually saw the top of a police car which was blocking the center and left lanes of traffic. The police car was some distance back from the accident scene, but since no police officer was visible. One would think the car belonged to one of the officers on the accident scene.
Lazy but Comfortable
When I reached the traffic choke point, I looked over to see the police officer sitting in his car. He wasn’t writing on a clipboard or talking on his radio. The officer wasn’t doing anything expect looking like a lazy, incompetent fool.
He had the driver’s seat in the reclining position, and he looked very comfortable. His cheek was pressed against the headrest, and if he hadn’t moved his head, one would think he was asleep. He might as well have been asleep for all the good he was doing.
Had he been directing traffic as he should have, every passing motorist would have been appreciative of his presence. Instead, it was too hot for him. His air conditioned comfort was more important than the negative police public image he was projecting to hundreds of people.
Watch and Learn About Police Public Image
As you contemplate your police career, take every opportunity to watch police officers as an exercise in evaluating conduct. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances of your observations entail. Whether you’re watching how a police officer operates a police car or the officer’s interaction with others, you’ll be amazed how much you’ll learn about the importance of police public image.
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