A Professor’s Street Lessons
By Dr George L. Kirkham,
Assistant Professor, School of Criminology,
Florida State University, Tallahassee, Fla., U.S.A.
Taunted by criminology students (who were former police) that he couldn’t possibly understand what a police officers job was like, not having been one, academic Professor George L. Kirkham, often critical of police decided on a revolutionary step – to become a policeman, his prime objective being to establish “once and for all” that his frequent criticism of police was justified.
However, “walking a mile in the other person’s shoes” completely reversed his attitude and after six months in the Police Force he returned to being a civilian and wrote a story of his experiences now regarded as a police classic, in which he stated “……I came home and took off the badge and blue uniform with a sense of satisfaction and contribution to society that I have never known in any other job”.
This story first appeared in the F.B.I. Law Enforcement Bulletin many years ago, reprinted in the NSW Police News (January, 1987) and is reproduced here in full in order to give young police, and those of the Community the opportunity of reading an outsiders perspective on policing.
“I would become a policeman myself as a means of establishing once and for all the accuracy of what I and other criminologists had been saying about the police for so long”.
As police have come under increasing criticism by various individuals and groups in our society in recent years, I cannot help but wonder how many times they have clenched their teeth and wished they could expose their critics to only a few of the harsh realities which their job involves.
Persons such as myself, members of the academic community, have traditionally been quick to find fault with the police. From isolated incidents reported in the various news media, we have fashioned for ourselves a stereotyped image of the police officer which conveniently conforms to our notions of what they are. We see the brutal cop, the racist cop, the grafting cop, the discourteous cop. What we do not see, however, is the image of thousands of dedicated men and women struggling against almost impossible odds to preserve our society and everything in it which we cherish.
For some years, first as a student and later as a professor of criminology. I found myself troubled by the fact that most of us who write books and articles on the police have never been police ourselves. I began to be bothered increasingly by many of my students who were former police. Time and again, they would respond to my frequently critical lectures on the police with the argument that I could not possibly understand what a police officer has to endure in modern society until I had been one myself. Under the weight of this frustration and my personal conviction that knowledge has an applied as well as a theoretical dimension, I decided to take up this challenge. I would become a policeman myself as a means of establishing once and for all the accuracy of what I and other criminologists had been saying about the police for so long.
From Professor to Cop
Suffice to say that my announcement to become a uniformed patrolman was at first met with fairly widespread disbelief on the part of family, friends, and colleagues alike. At 31, with a family and an established career as a criminologist, I was surely an unlikely candidate for the position of police recruit. The very idea, it was suggested to me, was outrageous and absurd. I was told that no police that no police administrator in his right mind would allow a representative of the academic world to enter their organisation. It had never been done and could not be done.
Fortunately, many of my students, who either had been police or were at the time, sounded a far more optimistic and enthusiastic about my endeavors.
Police administrators and officers alike, they said, would welcome the opportunity to expose members of the academic community to the problems of their occupation. If one of us were really willing to see and feel the police officers world from behind a badge and blue uniform, instead of from the safe and comfortable vantage point of a classroom or university office. Police themselves would do everything in their power to make the opportunity available. Despite these assurances from my police-students, I remained sceptical over my chances of being allowed to do such an unorthodox thing.
This skepticism was, however, soon to be overcome. One of my better criminology students at the time was a young police officer on educational leave from the Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriffs Office. Upon learning of my desire to become a police officer in order to better understand the problems of police, he urged me to contact Sheriff Dale Carson and Under-sheriff D.K. Brown of his department with my proposal. I had earlier heard other police officers describe the consolidated 800-man force of Jacksonville-Duval County as one of the most progressive departments in the country. I learnt that Sheriff Carson and Under-sheriff Brown, two former F.B.I. Agents had won considerable respect in the law enforcement profession as enlightened and innovative administrators.
The size and composition Jacksonville as well as its nearness to my university and home, made it appear to be an ideal location for what I wished to do. Numbering just over one-half million residents, Jacksonville impressed me as being the kind of large and rapidly growing American city which inevitably experiences the major social problems of our time: crime and delinquency, racial unrest, poverty, and mental illness. A seaport and industrial center. Jacksonville offered a diversity of urban suburban and even rural populations in its vast land area. I took particular note of the fact that it contained a fairly typical inner-city slum section and black ghetto, both of which were in the process of being transformed through a massive program of urban redevelopment. This latter feature was especially important to me insofar as I wanted to personally experience the stress and strains of today’s city police. It was, after all, he who had traditionally been the subject of intense interest and criticism on the part of social scientists such as myself.
“……I would first have to meet the same requirements as any other police candidate…..a through character investigation, a physical examination…….the same training standards….”
Much to my surprise, both Sheriff Carson and Under-sheriff Brown were not only supportive but enthusiastic as well over my proposal to become a full patrolman. I made it quite clear to them at the outset that I did not wish to function as an observer or reserve officer, but rather wanted to become a fully sworn and full-time member of their department for a period of between 4 and 6 months. I further stated that I hoped to spend most of this period working as a uniformed patrolman in those inner city beats most characterised by violence, poverty, social unrest and high crime rates. They agreed to this, with the understanding that I would first have to meet the same requirements as any other police candidate. I would for example, have to submit to a through character investigation, a physical examination and would have to meet the same training standards applied to all other Florida police officers. Since I was to be unpaid, I would be exempted from departmental civil service requirements.
Restyling an Image
Both Carson and Brown set about over coming various administration and insurance problems which had to be dealt with in advance of my becoming a police officer. Suppose, for example, I should be injured or killed in the line of duty, or should injure or kill someone else. What of the department and city’s liability? These and other issues were gradually resolved with considerable effort on their part. The only stipulation set forth by both administrators was one with which I strongly agreed: for the sake of morale and confidence in the department, every officer must know in advance exactly who I was and what I was doing. Other than being in the unusual position of a “patrolman-professor”. I would be indistinguishable from other officers in every respect, from the standard issue .38 Smith and Wesson revolver I would carry to the badge and uniform I would wear.
The biggest and final obstacle which I faced was the necessity that I comply fully with a 1967 Florida Police Standards law, which requires that every police officer and deputy sheriff in the State complete a minimum of 289 hours of law enforcement training prior to being sworn in and assigned to regular duty. Since I had a full-time university job nearly 200 miles from Jacksonville this meant that I would be unable to attend the regular sheriff’s academy. I would have to attend a certified academy in my own area, something which I arranged to do with Sheriff Carson’s sponsorship.
For 4 months, 4 hours each evening and 5 nights a week, I attended the Tallahassee are police academy, along with 35 younger classmates. As a balding intellectual, I at first stood out as an oddity in the class of young men destined to become local law enforcement officers. With the passage of time, however, they came to except me and I them. We joked, drank coffee and struggle through various examinations and lessons together. At first known only as the “professor” the men later nicknamed me “Doc” over my good-natured protests.
As the days stretched into weeks and the weeks into months, I took lengthy notes on the interviewing of witnesses at crime scenes, investigated imaginary traffic accidents and lifted fingerprints. Some nights I went home after hours of physical defence training with my uniformly younger and stronger peers with tired muscles, bruises and the feeling that I should have my head examined for undertaking such a rugged project.
“….after what seemed an eternity, graduation from the academy finally came and with it what was to become the most difficult but rewarding educational experience of my life: I became a policeman.”
As someone who had never fired a handgun, I quickly grew accustomed to the noise of 35 revolvers firing at the cardboard silhouettes which our minds transformed into real assailants at the sound of the range whistle. I learnt how to properly make car stops, approach a front door or darkened building, question suspects and a thousand other things that every modern police officer must know. After what seem to be an eternity, graduation from the academy finally came and with it what was to become the most difficult but rewarding educational experience of my life: I became a policeman.