I recently celebrated a birthday. It was not necessarily a significant one, but my birthday also serves as the anniversary of my first day patrolling the streets of St. Louis as a police officer. If I was still employed in that field, I would be in my 19th year of service.
Although I’m dedicated to holding police accountable for actions committed against citizens, I do want to shed light on what they typically go through and how they feel as they do their jobs on a daily basis. Life for many officers is not good.
When I first became an officer, I thought I would be in a position to positively impact people. However, I quickly learned that my job was not about community service. It was about trying to get people to learn how to manage their own lives. Although some of my daily duties revolved around helping people who had been victims of legitimate crimes, I learned that police were the “catch-all” and citizens called 911 for almost everything that occurred in their lives and neighborhoods.
From responding to parents who wanted officers to intimidate their children into behaving, to mediating between neighbors who were arguing because a dog barked after 8pm, to husbands and wives who drank too much every other weekend and ended up in the middle of the street screaming at the top of their lungs, I responded to frivolous calls every hour. If I was not being called to intervene in frivolous things, I was being asked to manage high-stress situations that could possibly end with someone experiencing serious bodily harm.
Because I was experiencing so many stressful situations on a daily basis, and saw so much crime and hurt occurring regularly, I became hyper-sensitive to everyone and everything around me. I was suspicious of everyone that I interacted with. I stayed angry because people couldn’t take care of their own problems. All of this led to me not liking the job and not liking the people I came in contact with.
Frivolous calls and interactions were not the only problem with being an officer. The political nature of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department made the job unnecessarily difficult, as well.
I was taught early in my career that good policing was not about doing what was right or lawful. Good policing was about doing what was necessary in order to be promoted to a higher rank or transferred to a desirable detective position. Generally, there are two ways to be promoted or transferred. The first is to build your arrest statistics. The second is to have political steam.
The failsafe way to get promoted or transferred is to arrest as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time, or to seize as much cash and drugs at one time as possible. This is done in order to impress a supervisor who will in turn help you get promoted or transferred.
The obvious problem with this philosophy is that an officer’s first priority becomes making as many arrests as possible regardless of the circumstances. Officers are tempted to view any interaction with a citizen as an opportunity to make an arrest. They can begin to view citizens as a means to an end. Equitable application of the law becomes an afterthought.
The second way to get promoted or transferred is to have a political connection that benefits you. Officers call it having “steam.” Steam is when an officer has a friend or relative who has a personal connection or a certain amount of influence over a high ranking commander in the department.
The current chief of police in St. Louis is an example of having steam. Very early in his career he became politically connected and these connections allowed him to begin the process of being groomed to become chief by working more hours within the Mayor’s cabinet than working the streets like other officers. He is now trying to use those political connections to be elected mayor of St. Louis.
As much as I want to hold officers and systems of policing accountable, I also want to recognize the humanity of most officers and acknowledge that many of them are caught in a system that does not value them or the sacrifices that they make. They are caught between citizens who see them as villains simply because they wear a particular uniform and commanders who care first and foremost about their political careers and pensions.
As I interact with former coworkers and regularly hear stories about the department’s problems, such as vendors cutting the department off from credit due to the department not paying its bills regularly, the department being woefully understaffed due to mismanagement of funds, and officers being strongly “encouraged” to work 16-hour days due to the current manpower shortage, I am reminded that I made the right career choice in leaving.
(I will be leading a series of webinars for Central Seminary that address how people can help bridge racial divides within their communities. You can learn more about these webinars here.