A Professor’s Street Lessons
The School of Hard Knocks
I will never forget standing in front of the Jacksonville Police Station on that first day, I felt incredibly awkward and conspicuous in the new blue uniform and creaking leather. Whatever confidence in my ability to “do the job” I had gained during the academy seemed to evaporate as I stood there watching other blue figures hurrying in the evening rain toward assembly. After some minutes, I summoned the courage to walk into the station and into my new career as a core city patrolman.
“…I quickly found that my badge and uniform acted as a magnet which drew me toward many individuals who hated what I represented.”
That first day seems long ago now. As I write this I have completed over 100 hours of duty as a patrolman. Although still a rookie officer, so much has happened in the short space of 6 months that I will never again be either the same man or the same scientist who stood in front of the station on that first day. While it is hard to even begin to describe within a brief article the many changes which have occurred within me during this time, I would like to share with fellow policemen and colleagues in the academic community a few of what I regard as the more important of what I will call my “street lessons”.
I had always personally been of the opinion that police officers greatly exaggerated the amount of verbal disrespect and physical abuse to which they are subjected in the line of duty. During my first few hours as a street officer, I lived blissfully in a magic bubble which was soon to burst. As a college professor, I had grown accustomed to being treated with uniform respect and deference by those I encountered. I somehow naively assumed that this same quality of respect would carry over in to my new role as a policeman. I was, after all, a representative of the law, identifiable to all by the badge and uniform, rather than serving to shield me from such things as disrespect and violence only acted as a magnet which drew me toward many individuals who hated what I represented.
I had discounted on my first evening the warning of a veteran sergeant who, after hearing that I was about to begin work as a patrolman, shook his head and cautioned, “You’d better watch yourself out there. Professor it gets pretty rough sometimes.” I was soon to find out what he meant.
Several hours into my first evening on the streets, my partner and I were dispatched to a bar in the downtown area to handle a disturbance complaint. Inside, we encounted a large and boisterous drunk who was arguing with the bartender and loudly refusing to leave. As someone with considerable experience as a correctional counselor and mental health worker, I hastened to take charge of the situation. “Excuse me Sir”, I smiled pleasantly at the drunk, “but I wonder if I could ask you to step outside and talk with me for just a minute?”. The man stared at me through bloodshot eyes in disbelief for a second, raised one hand to scratch the stubble of several days growth of beard. Then suddenly, without warning, it happened. He swung at me, luckily missing my face and striking me on the right shoulder. I couldn’t believe it. What on earth had I done to provoke such a reaction? Before I could recover from my startled condition, he swung again – this time tearing my whistle chain from a shoulder epaulet. After a brief struggle, we had the still shouting, cursing man locked in the back of our cruiser. I stood there, breathing heavily with my hair in my eyes as I surveyed the damage to my new uniform and looked in bewilderment at my partner, who only smiled and clapped me affectionately on the back.
Theory v. Practice
“Something is very wrong,” I remember thinking to myself in the front seat as we headed for the gaol. I had used the same kind of gentle, rapport-building approach with countless offenders in prison and probation settings. It had always worked so well there. What was so different about being a policeman? In the days and weeks which followed, I was to learn the answer to this question the hard way.
As a university professor, I had always sought to convey to students the idea that it is a mistake to exercise authority, to make decisions for other people, or rely upon orders and commands to accomplish something. As a police officer myself, I was forced time and again to do just that. For the first time in my life, I encountered individuals who interpreted kindness as weakness, as an invitation to disrespect or violence. I encountered men, women and children who, in fear, desperation, or excitement, looked to the person behind my blue uniform and shield for guidance, control and direction. As someone who had always condemned the exercise of authority, the acceptance of myself as an unavoidable symbol of authority came as a bitter lesson.
I found that there was a world of difference between encountering individuals, as I had, in mental health or correctional settings and facing them as the patrolman must: when they are violent, hysterical and desperate. When I put the uniform of a police officer on, I lost the luxury of sitting in an air conditioned officer with my pipe and books, calmly discussing with a rapist or armed robber the past problems which had led him in to trouble with the law. Such offenders had seemed so innocent, so harmless in the sterile setting of prison. The often terrible crimes which they had committed were long since past, reduced like their victims to so many printed words on a page.
Now, as a police officer, I began to encounter the offender for the first time as a very real menace to my personal safety and the security of our society. The felon was no longer a harmless figure sitting in blue denims across my prison desk, a “victim” of society to be treated with compassion and leniency. He became an armed robber fleeing from the scene of a crime, a crazed maniac threatening his family with a gun, someone who might become my killer crouched behind the wheel of a car on a dark street.
Lesson in Fear
Like crime itself, fear quickly ceased to be an impersonal and abstract thing. It became something which I regularly experienced, it was a tightness in my stomach as I approached a warehouse where something had tripped a silent alarm. I could taste it as a dryness in my mouth as we raced with blue lights and siren toward the site of a “Signal Zero” (armed and dangerous) call. For the first time in my life, I came to know as every police officer knows – the true meaning of fear. Through shift after shift it stalked me, making my palms cold and sweaty and pushing the adrenalin through my veins.
“….lawful authority…is the only thing which stands between civilisation and the jungle of lawlessness.”
I recall particularly a dramatic lesson in the meaning of fear which took place only after I joined the force. My partner and I were on routine patrol one Saturday evening in a deteriorated area of cheap bars and pool halls when we observed a young male double-parked in the middle of the street. I pulled alongside and asked him in a civil manner to either park or drive on, where upon he began loudly cursing us and shouting that we couldn’t make him go anywhere. An angry crowd began to gather as we got out of our patrol car and approached the man, who was by this time shouting that we were harassing him and calling bystanders for assistance. As a criminology professor, some months earlier I would have urged that the police officers who was now myself simply leave the car double parked and move on rather than risk an incident. As a policeman however, I had come to realise that an officer can never back down from his responsibility to enforce the law whatever the risk to himself, every police officer understands that his ability to back up the lawful authority which he represents is the only thing which stands between civilisation and the jungle of lawlessness.
The man continued to curse us and adamantly refused to move his car. As we placed him under arrest and attempted to move him to our cruiser, an unidentified male and female rushed from the crowd which was steadily enlarging and sought to free him. In the ensuing struggle, an hysterical female unsnapped and tried to grab my service revolver and the now angry mob began to converge on us. Suddenly, I was no longer an “ivory-tower” scholar watching typical police “over reaction” to a street incident – but I was part of it and fighting to remain alive and uninjured. I remember the sickening sensation of cold terror which filled my insides as I struggled to reach our car radio. I simultaneously put out a distress call and pressed the hidden electric release button on our shotgun rack as my partner sought to maintain his grip on the prisoner and hold the crowd at bay with his revolver.
How harshly I would have judged the officer who now grabbed the shotgun only a few months before. I rounded the rear of our cruiser with the weapon and shouted at the mob to move back. The memory flashed through my mind that I had always argued that police should not be allowed to carry shotguns because of their “offensive” character and the potential damage to community relations as a result of their display. How readily as a criminology professor I would have condemned the officer who was now myself, trembling with fear and anxiety and menacing an “unarmed” assembly with an “offensive” weapon. But circumstances had dramatically changed my perspective, for now it was my life and safety that were in danger, my wife and child who might be mourning. Not “a policeman” or Patrolman Smith – but me, George Kirkham! I felt accordingly bitter when I saw the individual who had provoked this near riot back on the streets the next night, laughing as though our charge of “resisting arrest with violence” was a big joke. Like my partner, I found myself feeling angry and frustrated shortly afterward when this same individual was allowed to plead guilty to a reduced charge of “breach of peace”.