A Professor’s Street Lessons
Humaneness in Uniform
For all the human misery and suffering which police officers must witness in their work, I found myself amazed at the incredible humanity and compassion which seems to characterise most of them. My own stereotypes of the brutal, sadistic cop were time and again shattered by the sight of humanitarian kindness on the part of the thin blue line: a young patrolman giving mouth to mouth resuscitation to a filthy derelict, a grizzled old veteran embarrassed when I discovered the bags of jelly beans which he carried in the trunk of his car for impoverished ghetto kids – to whom he was the closest thing to an Easter Bunny they would ever know, an officer giving money out of his own pocket to a hungry and stranded family he would probably never see again: and another patrolman taking the trouble to drop by on his own time in order to give worried parents information about their problem son or daughter.
As a police officer, I found myself repeatedly surprised at the ability of my fellow patrolmen to withstand the often enormous daily pressures of their work. Long hours, frustration, danger and anxiety – all seemed to be taken in stride as just part of the reality of being a cop. I went eventually through the humbling discovery that I, like the men and women in blue with whom I worked, was simply a human being with definite limits to the amount of stress I could endure in a given period of time.
I recall in particular one evening when this point was dramatised to me. It had been a long, hard shift – one which ended with a high-speed chase of a stolen car in which we narrowly escaped serious injury when another vehicle pulled in front of our patrol car. As we checked off duty, I was vaguely aware of feeling tired and tense. My partner and I were headed for a restaurant and a bite of breakfast when we heard the unmistakable sound of breaking glass coming from a church and spotted two long haired teenage boys running from the area. We confronted them and I asked one for identification. He sneered at me , cursed and turned to walk away. The next thing I knew I had grabbed the youth by his shirt and spun him around, shouting, “I’m talking to you punk!” I felt my partner’s arm on my shoulder and heard his reassuring voice behind me, “Take it easy, Doc!” I released my grip on the adolescent and stood silently for several seconds, unable to accept the inescapable reality that I had “lost my cool”. My mind flashed back to a lecture during which I had told my students, “Any man who is not able to maintain absolute control of his emotions at all times has no business being a police officer.” I was at the time of this incident director of a human relations project designed to teach police “emotional control” skills. Now here I was, an “emotional control-expert”, being told to calm down by a patrolman.
A Complex Challenge
As someone who had always regarded police as a “paranoid” lot, I discovered in the daily round of violence which became part of my life that chronic suspiciousness is something that a good cop cultivates in the interest of going home to his family each evening. Like so many other officers, my daily exposure to street crime soon had me carrying an off-duty weapon virtually everywhere I went. I began to become watchful of who and what was around me, as things began to acquire a new meaning, an open door, someone loitering on a dark corner, a rear license plate covered with dirt. My personality began to change slowly according to my family, friends and colleagues as my career as a policeman progressed. Once quick to drop critical barbs about police to intellectual friends, I now became extremely sensitive about such remarks – and several times became engaged in heated arguments over them.
As a police officer myself, I found that society demands too much of its police officers, not only are they expected to enforce the law, but to be curbside psychiatrists, marriage counselors, social workers, and even ministers and doctors. I found that a good street police officer combines in his daily work splinters each of these complex professions and many more. Certainly, it is unreasonable for us to ask so much of the men and women in blue: yet we must, for there is simply no one else to whom we can turn for help in the kind of crisis and problems police deal with. No one else wants to counsel a family with problems at 3am on Sunday morning, no one else wants to confront a robber or madman with a gun. No one else wants to stare poverty, mental illness and human tragedy in the face day after day, to pick up the pieces of shattered lives.
“It is too much to ask of a police officer to be a curbside psychiatrist, marriage counselor, social worker and even minister and doctor apart from administering the law……yet we must, for there is simply no one else to whom we can turn for help in such crises.”
Again as a policeman, I have often asked myself the questions: “Why does a person become a cop?” “What makes them stay with it?” Surely it’s not the disrespect, the legal restrictions which make the job increasingly rough, the long hours and low pay or the risk of being killed or injured trying to protect people who often don’t seem to care.
The only answer to this question I have been able to arrive at is one based on my own limited experience as a policeman. Night after night 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. Somehow that feeling seemed to make everything – the disrespect, the danger, the boredom – worthwhile.
An Invaluable Education
For too long now, we in America’s colleges and universities have conveyed to young men and women the subtle message that there is somehow something wrong with “being a cop”. It’s time for that to stop. This point was forcibly brought home to me one evening not long ago. I had just completed a day shift and had to rush back to the university with no chance to change out of uniform for a late afternoon class. As I rushed into my office to pick up my lecture notes, my secretary’s jaw dropped at the sight of the uniform. “Why, Dr. Kirkham, you’re not going to go to class looking like that, are you?” I felt momentarily embarrassed and then struck by the realisation that I would not feel the need to apologise if I appeared before my students with long hair or a beard. Free love advocates and hatemonger revolutionaries do not apologise for their group memberships, so why should someone whose appearance symbolises a commitment to serve and protect society?
“Why not,” I replied with a slight smile, “I’m proud to be a cop!” I picked up my notes and went on to class.
Let me conclude this article by saying that I would hope that other educators might take the trouble to observe first hand some of the police problems before being so quick to condemn and pass judgment on the thin blue line. We are all familiar with the old expression which urges us to refrain from judging the worth of another person’s actions until we have walked at least a mile in their shoes. To be sure, I have not walked that mile as a rookie patrolman with barely 6 months experience. But I have at least tried the shoes on and taken a few difficult steps in them. Those few steps have given me a profoundly new understanding and appreciation of our police, and have left me with the humbling realisation that possession of a PH.D. does not give a person a corner on knowledge, or place them in the lofty position where they cannot take lessons from those less educated than themselves.