“This could be our finest hour.” That real quote was used in the film “Apollo 13,” the story of a potential disaster that highlighted NASA’s strengths.
The line came to mind when I had the rare opportunity to ask Assistant Chiefs Slinkard and Vazquez and SRG’s Lt. Randy Upton about the stress of policing in a post-Ferguson climate. They couldn’t say enough about the “absolutely unbelievable professionalism” you, the officers on the front lines, have shown.
Because of the “training and proper response of all our officers and building of community trust over the years, ” Chief Slinkard said, “the protests have been relatively peaceful. We have had no injuries to officers and no widespread unrest.
There is danger on the streets, as the recent murders of Rafael Ramos, Wenjian Liu and three Paris police officers show. The unrest and heightened risk can also harm our troops by increasing the pressure on already-stressed-out officers.
The abuse from the crowds can be disturbing. Chief Vazquez feels that “there is no more insulting term you can call a police officer than ‘racist. ’ ” Like so many of you, he has spent his own money and donated his own time to help citizens in need regardless of their ethnicity. He sent me a post from Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew describing the “countless Mayberry moments” the public never sees, when cops “do compassionate, selfless and unrequired things” for others.
Cops of every color may feel they have to defend their work to family and friends who see the Department differently now. Those who think concerns about police conduct have some legitimacy may be reluctant to say so in front of colleagues who find the idea ridiculous.
The Long View
The community’s distrust takes a toll. As Chief Slinkard said, you signed up to serve and protect, so when the chanting and screaming targets officers, “you wonder how you got there. ” You still believe in HPD’s mission—but does the public believe in you? Without their respect the job can seem less rewarding and more difficult.
The veteran officers I spoke with asked you not to give up on Houstonians. Demonstrations and clashes with the police are nothing new. This stuff was standard during the civil rights era, they pointed out. Community support seems to decline at times, but it returns, and for some, it never wavers.
Keep it in perspective, the chiefs advised. The slurs hurled by today’s protesters may be the worst you’ve ever heard, but to quote an even higher authority, “There is nothing new under the sun. ”
When it seems that nobody supports you, your work is more important than ever. Chief Slinkard asks you to imagine “an America where people aren’t free to express themselves and don’t have the blessings we have—no officer in his right mind can imagine that. ” When you ensure that citizens can safely express unpopular or even abhorrent views, you are fighting to preserve the rights this country stands for, the same rights that most of you would lay down your lives for. ”
What’s more, he said, “Policing sometimes grows and grows better” from the more reasoned dialogue that follows the uproar of the crowds.
Chief Vazquez observed that just as the Vietnam War was the first to be shown on America’s television sets, this is the first police-citizen conflict we can all watch live on our phones. Anything and everything can be instantly recorded, uploaded and criticized. Cameras, all three men felt, will change police work forever, more than advances in training, tactics, weaponry or any other new technology.
But just because we can watch 24-7 doesn’t mean we should. Both chiefs recommended “unplugging yourself” from time to time—an excellent suggestion. Limit your media exposure. If you are bothered by thoughts like “people don’t value us, ” there’s no reason to look for confirmation of that online.
Blue Lives Matter
Above all, “officer safety is paramount. ” The Department will help if an officer is personally threatened, as some have been. Consider requesting that your county tax office keep your address confidential, Lt. Upton said. You may want to delete your social media profile, as he did, so that people don’t identify you as an officer. “Fly under the radar, ” Chief Vazquez suggested, with privacy settings or a pseudonym.
Of course, no one wants to hide who they are. Feeling compelled to do so is unsettling in itself—but you do what you need to do.
When stress goes up, so should your efforts to take care of yourself, we all agreed. Try to leave the mess behind when you take your uniform off. Go home and hug your loved ones. Distract yourself in fun, safe ways. And, as the New York Times said at the beginning of the year, “We should all eat more vegetables, exercise more often, tweet or text a little less and pray a little more. ”
You can impact the national conversation on law enforcement by encouraging people you know to take part in pro-police rallies. Call the Union for more information on the next one. (The last one took place on Jan. 24). The HPD wife organizing these says she’ll hold one a month “until people realize cops are the good guys. ”
If you need to vent, call us or contact the Houston Officers Peer Assistance Team. And the leaders I talked to ask you to consider rotating away from this type of duty if you feel you might lose it with protesters. One ill-considered reaction could have serious consequences.
Chief Vazquez had to do that in Desert Storm. He was an air traffic controller on the busiest evening shift, and after a while, “every time I closed my eyes the only thing I could see was airplanes and helicopters. ” He switched to a less demanding shift in order to remain an effective part of his team.
Initially, he was reluctant to make the switch for fear it would be viewed as taking the easy way out. Instead, other controllers followed his lead. Rotating shifts were established that reduced the stress on everyone.
Your team—our Department—has been a force for good in this combustible climate. From a civilian, thank you, and from Chief Slinkard and his colleagues, “The job is still as righteous as it ever was. The Department’s proud of you. ”