Updated: May 16
By Randy Watt, former Ogden City Police Chief and Army Combat Veteran
“These are the times that try men’s souls …” When Thomas Paine released “The Crisis” on December 23, 1776, he spoke of the causes for being enjoined in a war with England. The conditions which had led to the war were very much like these we are living through today. The colonials had dealt with decades of ever expanding government control, including regulations, taxes, and tariffs which crippled the economy, instituted by a government far away and out of touch with the “commoners.” The situation had been ripe for armed insurrection and, on April 18, 1775, when British troops attempted to disarm the people, an action necessary to all tyrannical governments, “the shot heard ’round the world” was fired. The ultimate result was the difficult birth of the finest nation in the history of mankind.
For 21st Century law enforcement, these are also times that try our souls. According to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, 2020 saw 373 officers die in the line of duty and 2021 saw 472, the largest number since 1786. These statistics represented a 150% and 216% increase, respectively, over 2019. The FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed or Assaulted (LEOKA) Report for 2020, showed 60,105 officers assaulted, a 7% increase over 2019. Preliminary data for 2021 shows 61 officers feloniously killed, a 36% increase over 2020. Significant among those cases is the change in manner of death, with ambush-style attacks on officers now the leading cause, the 19 officers killed in this manner representing a 216% increase over 2020. While the annual numbers of felonious deaths among officers are not yet back to the years of 1970s, 2021 marks the most significant rise in that direction in decades.
Fear pervades too many neighborhoods
Only Rip Van Winkle would be unaware of the causes of such metrics. False narratives, encouraged for years by radical leftists and parroted by mainstream media, have created the largest levels of loss of trust in police since the 1960s. While actions of a few “bad” cops play into the narrative, the narrative itself has been debunked many times by statisticians and social scientists. As an example, in her op-ed titled “The Myth of Systemic Police Racism” in the Wall Street Journal on June 2, 2020, Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of “The War on Cops” (Encounter Books, 2016), stated, “The police fatally shot nine unarmed blacks and 19 unarmed whites in 2019, according to a Washington Post database, down from 38 and 32, respectively, in 2015. … Assuming a comparable number of victims last year, those nine unarmed black victims of police shootings represent 0.1% of all African-Americans killed in 2019. By contrast, a police officer is 18.5 times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer.” (italics added)
Additionally, efforts by radical activist attorneys elected to prosecutorial positions along with activist judges appointed to the benches, have contributed to exceptional rises in crime rates across the country and particularly in so-called “blue” states and cities. Laws, ordinances, and executive orders designed to make up for the mostly myth racial disparities in policing efforts have resulted in so-called bail reforms, de-criminalization of “petty” crimes, reduced sentences, and other radical, unfounded changes to the criminal justice system. The dystopian effect on greater society through the return of multiple and career offenders to the streets, has been significant. Crime, particularly violent crime, is rapidly rising at rates not seen in decades, if at all. The end results are devastating to the contributing members of society. Increased government taxes and fees to cover the costs of damage and increased social programs place increasingly heavy burdens on working families and persons. Rising insurance premiums, property loss and damage, and an inability to hire a workforce cause businesses to close. Fear pervades too many neighborhoods, particularly among minority communities, the demographic hit hardest by such criminal justice reforms.
Complicit in the increase in crime rates is the concept of de-policing. While many pundits speak of the loss of trust in police on the part of the public, few recognize the loss of trust in the public, particularly the politicians, by police. It doesn’t take exceptional education to realize the disincentive for police officers in being proactive in policing. No police officer wants to be the next story on CNN, the cause of the next set of riots, or the latest target of activist District Attorneys. Where pride in service, of going the extra mile, of being actively engaged in protecting the public, has always been a hallmark of police service, those feelings are in ever-growing decline. Anecdotally, many officers report they are just there for the paycheck now.
Levels of mistrust create problems, not solutions
As the Ogden, Utah, Police Department has learned repeatedly since the mid-1990s, there is a direct correlation between officer self-initiated activities, such as traffic and “stop and frisks” and crime rates. Where police are actively engaged in legally authorized enforcement activities, crime is suppressed. When officers are no longer engaged in proactive policing efforts, crime, including violent crime, goes up. One need only look at what is happening in the large metropolitan cities where reforms are being foisted on the populations and the police, to see the effects. The results of de-policing are greater freedom for criminals to prey on society and, again, the demographic impacted the most are low income minority communities.
In looking to the future, the greatest impact, though, is on the pool of available job candidates. Many researchers and think tanks point to growing “levels of mistrust” among the youth about police officers in general and about police work as a respectable career. The result is a rapidly reducing pool of youth who will be available for recruitment and interested in long-term law enforcement careers in the future. As the mostly false narratives about police continue to be parroted by adults and persons in positions of authority among the youth, the engagement of youth in constructive forums with police are reduced. As with the military, another career field subject to recruitment pressures and which is suffering from a lack of qualified candidates, as available pools of candidates shrink, law enforcement agencies must look to either alternatives to traditional police force structure concepts or to reduced standards. Both lead to more problems, not solutions, for the impending crisis.
So what can be done?
Under rhetoric, are realities
First, current law enforcement leaders must push back, hard, against myths and misinformation. Where, in times past, law enforcement professionals could be mostly quiet and rely on the public to see through the issues, those days are gone. The reality of this age of information requires rapid response with counter information as soon as possible. While past generation leaders could wait the time necessary for the investigation to be completed before issuing formal responses, the case will already have been tried in the court of public opinion and a verdict rendered within days, if not hours. Law enforcement leaders must become familiar with, and practitioners of, effective messaging. Seizing or regaining the narrative, immediately debunking false and injurious reports, setting an immediate professional tone, and standing on principles, are all part of messaging response processes necessary in today’s anti-police environment.
Second, law enforcement must be willing to dialogue, to enter into public forums and discussions to inform various constituencies of the realities of policing and its positive community effects. Engagement with community representatives is key and law enforcement leaders must harness the power of community groups in efforts to change the messaging. “Good news” articles published through various media forums must be a constant and relentless daily effort. Going on podcasts, doing interviews, engaging in public speaking events, all are important to engaging communities in an effort to change the narrative, and all require continual effort. The only way to overcome the negative effects of the media is speak more loudly and longer than they do. Getting access to media forums is hard, but many leaders report that once they made a strong effort to be heard, avenues for doing so opened up.
Third, underneath all the rhetoric is the reality of the average citizen who simply wants to go about their day, work to produce income, enjoy their families, reduce their personal stress, and feel free. Crime, both its reality and its perception, destroy all of these. Law enforcement leaders must find ways to re-energize their officers and get back to the successful practices of proactive policing. No greater duty exists for law enforcement agencies than to protect community members from crime. In order to do so, law enforcement leaders must be willing to push back, hard, against ridiculous and ill-conceived “reforms,” along with the reformers. Local and state legislators, while well-meaning in their legislative attempts to produce change, often fail to realize that the biggest message they send is “I don’t trust you” to police. It is the law enforcement leaders job to inform and educate, and sometimes vehemently oppose, such efforts.
Lastly, law enforcement leaders need to look toward the future. While hiring and retention issues exist now, they are minimal compared to what’s coming if the issues and concerns of young people aren’t addressed and alleviated. Immediate extra efforts must be made, through additional and collaborative programs, to ensure that the negative narrative of police is overcome and replaced by a positive one. This will be hard work, but is critical if a future and catastrophic hiring crisis is to be averted.
When conditions in Thomas Paine’s time ultimately became unbearable, the people pushed back. Just as then, there is currently an ever growing realization by the people that bad policies, political agendas, and disinformation have created rising crime throughout our communities and pushing back has begun. When the war with the greatest military force in existence at the time seemed daunting and the future looked dark, the result was worth all that Thomas Paine and our nation’s other founders went through to achieve success. Just as then, if law enforcement leaders will do their part and engage in active efforts to support community efforts to push back, the results will also be worth it. But, while doing so, souls will be tried.
Randy Watt is a retired Chief of the Ogden, Utah, Police Department, with 37 years of service. He holds a Bachelor of Police Science Degree, a MBA, and a Master’s Degree in Strategic Studies. He is a graduate of Session 191 of the FBI National Academy. Watt is also a retired Colonel, Utah Army National Guard, and is a combat veteran with 34 years total Army service.
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