The police culture is sometimes a strange and seductive thing. Men and women who join law enforcement typically come from middle and lower middle class backgrounds and, consequently, they've never had much power or influence over other people. Then they put on the uniform, strap on the gun and pin the badge on their chest and, in a heartbeat, they have ultimate control over practically everyone. This is a heady experience. Some handle it okay, some don't.
I was aware of the tremendous power and authority I had over others when I was a police officer in Tulsa and was determined not to present an authoritarian attitude to the people I worked for which of course is the law abiding public. When I was serving in uniform, I didn't write many traffic tickets since I was assigned to the patrol division but when I did, I always tried to do it in a way that would leave a positive impression of the Tulsa police department in the violator's mind because that's who I represented. I wasn't Mike the police officer; I was a Tulsa police officer because that's how the public saw me and every other officer in uniform. They saw us as a group, rather than individuals and it was important to me for them to see me in a positive light. My goal was to do my job in such a way that it would leave a good impression on the violator, even though they were in a bad spot at the time, because I represented not only the police department but the city of Tulsa as well. I doubt that it worked all the time because nobody likes to get a ticket but from time to time, a violator would thank me for my courtesy and my professionalism and that was always my goal.
Not all my fellow officers were like that though. Many of them really liked the power and authority they had over others and enjoyed exerting is as often as they could. That's why, in spite of the intensive background checks law enforcement agencies make on their applicants, we still have far too many examples of abuse and corruption because the one thing a background check CAN'T reveal is the change in personality a person undergoes when they put on the badge, the gun and the uniform for the first time. I saw people's behavior and personality turn on a dime when they were in uniform as opposed to being out of uniform. It was literally a Superman transition except they went to the dark side.
Not much has changed in the years since. We still have some officers who are friendly, courteous and respectful and others who love the power they have over you and don't mind showing it. They are surly, macho, and authoritarian and somehow forget that they are ambassadors for the city, county, or state they work for and when the public sees their bad side, they also see a bad side to the agency they represent.
One of the traps of law enforcement is segmenting the population into only two kinds of people; the good guys and the bad guys. Unfortunately, in police work, the good guys are cops and their families and the bad guys are everyone else. There's an old adage that says there's two kinds of motorcycle riders; those who have had a wreck and those who are going to. Some law enforcement officers believe there's only two kinds of people who aren't connected to law enforcement; those who have broken the law and been caught and those who have broken the law and haven't been caught. Those who believe this present the wrong image to the public through their attitude and demeanor because they distrust everyone. One of the first things we learned in the academy was that the public trust was crucial if law enforcement was going to be effective and efficient in its mission. A lot of that public trust is lost when the officer presents the wrong attitude and demeanor to the people who pay his or her salary.
Good public relations goes a long way in gaining the admiration and respect law enforcement so desperately needs.