It Begins With The Code

These words are not my own, but they are wonderful and insightful and need to be shared. It is a privilege to call Pete Cajigal a friend, and I hope you find his message as poignant and timely as I have.

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I’ve been a law enforcement officer for over twenty-eight years, and currently I’m the Assistant Chief Deputy US Marshal in Tampa, Florida. I’ve never seen anti-law enforcement emotions at the current pitch; it is sad and more than that, it is scary. When so many are ready to condemn an officer’s actions without much of any kind of review, and couple that damning with violent thoughts and actions, we are at a dangerous tipping point. We can’t have the society we want if we are so ready to condemn, physically threaten, or hurt those who protect us. With that said, let me make an important point: if you try to hurt or kill one of us or someone else, you need to expect lawful force to be applied to you, including deadly force.

Who’s making this issue worse? There’s a lot to be done by community leaders to improve their neighborhoods, and among many things is dumping the “no snitches” mentality.

But who else is making it worse—in what ways do we in law enforcement contribute to the anger?

I think a lot of us make it worse. Social media users and radio and TV talking heads, I mean you. Let’s be honest: When people turn to social media to vent their anger with law enforcement, do you then post things in response, pointing the finger of blame back at them? Do you think that helps anything? It doesn’t. Because I mean, who do they think they are? Well, let’s be real for a moment—they are our bosses.

We work for them and we took an oath to serve them. Who do they think they are to complain about us? They must be crazy, right? When you think about the fact that a large percentage of the populace who is angry with us, who feel as if their communities are not policed in the same way as other communities, are the children and grandchildren of those who were beaten while lawfully protesting or battered by the streams from fire hoses just a few short decades ago, maybe—just maybe—they might not have trust in law enforcement to look out for their interests.

After all, who was beating them or turned fire hoses on them while they marched or protested? Law enforcement, that’s who. A lot of us were used as instruments by those who keep other humans down. The civil rights generation of yesterday is the parents and grandparents of today, and face it, their experiences with those of us with badges don’t contribute to the best chapter in the history of law enforcement. We can’t call them crazy with that element of our history. Couple that with some in law enforcement currently giving minorities plenty of reasons to show that they in fact far too often do not get correct service from us.

code of silence
Image by Michael D’Antuono

We in law enforcement contribute to this when we blindly defend officers’ actions despite often seeing that the officer was in the wrong, and we can’t call African-Americans or others crazy, ignoring what used to be only seen by a few but is now plain for everyone in the world to see. We contribute to their misconceptions of us when we tolerate within our ranks those who have no business with a badge and gun. I’ll never forget attending a speech put on by a veteran law enforcement officer who told us all, “ten percent of you shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t have a badge, or a gun, or the authority that comes with them.” We know who they are, but when we adhere to any outdated and obstructionist code of silence, we provide our critics—and worse, those who would do us harm—ample ammunition of the worst kind.

Not only am I a law enforcement officer, I am Hispanic. Are all cops just a bunch of racists? No. Racism is wrong. But do some Caucasians ever experience adverse reactions to people who appear different from them? Do minority officers always treat members of their own ethnicity differently or fairly? There are very valid reasons why Implicit Bias training is being implemented in many agencies. “Studies show that when given this training, officers who are simply made aware of such biases become motivated to reduce their influence and make correct decisions.” And for the biases that aren’t implicit but explicit, we have to call out the bad behavior because it hurts us all.

Any law enforcement agency invites culpability when they don’t adequately train, discipline, or, when warranted, dismiss officers who violate policy or the law through heavy-handed policing. The heads of that agency must know what to do when they find it. The problems come when peer officers and direct supervisors know one of their own is out of bounds and won’t properly elevate the problem to the right people to confront.

Rid agencies of the officers who hinder each and every one of us who wants to do the right thing. They not only dishonor us and make it more difficult, but they put everyone at added risk. Tolerating it hurts us all.

To me, the finest chapters in the history of my agency, the US Marshals Service, took place during the civil rights era. When other agencies wouldn’t do the right thing or weren’t permitted to do so, we were brought in.

There will always be crime. We have a right to expect the best from the people we police, but in turn, they have the greater right to expect from us that we hold each other and ourselves to the highest standard in how we treat them, no matter who they are or what they look like. We must do better, all of us. History will either show we gathered together and unified again as a society, or splintered into further separation.

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4 thoughts on “It Begins With The Code

  1. An even handed approach to a serious problem, looking at both sides instead of stopping the listening process and emotionally taking one side or the other. I wish our society worked like that.

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