By Dan Campana
The public hates you.
The media is out to scrutinize your every move, which makes you second-guess your training and instincts.
The ordinary and mundane parts of the job simply aren’t that anymore. There is no such thing as a basic traffic stop.
To suggest being a police officer in 2015 is a challenge would fall short of recognizing how deeply those perceptions of law enforcement mix with the today’s undeniable realities of what’s changed about the job in recent years. It also doesn’t take into account how officers themselves view their role in society and are assessing their work while battling the natural cynicism that comes with the territory of being a cop.
Add into the mix the strain brought on by department funding and staffing constraints and the stress factors impressing on police officers appear to approach a near critical level.
“I think the pressure is a lot greater now,” Illinois State Police Chaplain Friar JohnPaul Cafiero said, noting the inherent risks involved with the job have grown given the rash of “assassination” type shootings of police officer recently.
A page of Cafiero’s website is dedicated to the ultimate price many officers have paid amid this turbulent era for law enforcement. Photos of 11 officers who have died on the job, the most recent being Fox Lake Lieutenant Charles Joseph Gliniewicz, are scattered across the page. The state of law enforcement even has Cafiero, who drives a marked response SUV, occasionally pondering the worst that could occur while doing things as simple as stopping for gas.
“It’s in the back of your mind,” he said.
Cafiero hears and sees a lot from those he works with in his role with District Chicago, District 15 and the state’s Protective Services Unit based downtown, and among his other law enforcement connections. What he’s found in the wake of events such as Ferguson and Baltimore – among a string of high-profile police incidents magnified to an international level – is both weariness and resolve.
“They feel like they’re getting beat up on all sides,” Cafiero described. “They’re still dedicated. They’re still committed to making a difference. They’re still doing the best they can.”
But, sometimes, officers doing their best isn’t enough for some.
“Everybody is expecting the police to know everything and do everything,” Palatine Police Chief Alan Stoeckel, a 30-year veteran, said. “Last time I pulled my shirt off and checked, there is not a big ‘S’ on there for Superman.”
Police officers and those who work closely with law enforcement agree there is no one fundamental answer to the question of what it takes to be a cop in 2015, although certain themes emerge: Self-awareness for safety and procedure; thick skin; confidence in training and support within the department; and, perhaps most important, a balanced life that goes beyond the badge and into other parts of an officer’s personal world.
Conversation or confrontation
It usually starts with an officer’s actions in what might initially feel like a mundane interaction with a driver during a traffic stop or someone on the street. Words are exchanged, emotions grow tense. The officer reads the situation and reacts based on what has been taught.
Those moments don’t happen in a vacuum anymore. Dashboard and smartphone video have created a greater watchdog on the everyday world of police work. When something goes wrong, those videos are the first place department officials, lawyers, the media and other organizations go to see what happened.
“There’s an added level of stress. The patrol officers are more on guard and cognizant.” Streamwood Deputy Chief Ed Valente said of traffic stops. “It is part of the everyday conversation.”
Stoeckel added: “Everybody understands. No matter where you are, everything is being videotaped. That is a given. When you start – again, it’s not a law to have in-car cameras – when you start mandating these different things, it tells me as an officer … we’re getting away from trust. Society as a whole, everybody is looking to blame somebody.”
At the core, training is where everyone turns to figure out how and why officers do what they do. Don Milazzo, who spent 24 years in law enforcement and now works with police officers as a licensed counselor, believes training is “flawed” because it preaches engagement with no guidance about how to de-escalate situations.
“We’re taught to always stay in control,” Milazzo explained.
But, the definition of control has shifted.
“It’s about having the mental stability to handle the pressures of the job as far as how the public perceives you, how does your department perceive you and how your peers perceive you and how you do your job,” said Sean White, who works for a suburban Chicago police department. “It’s not just about chasing down bad guys anymore.”
Stoeckel suggests officers need to recognize not only how problems can begin, but also how to end them.
“We’ve always taught our young cops … you can have a conversation or you can have a confrontation. You determine how it’s going to start,” Stoeckel, Palatine’s chief for the last year and a half, said.
He encourages officers to give people their say and offer them the opportunity to speak with someone further up the chain.
“Let the supervisor handle it,” he continued. “Nothing will get settled out on the street when tempers are flaring.”
That statement aligns with White’s point about the growing need to maintain professionalism in heat of the moment, which isn’t easy because officers are supposed to act quickly and decisively. Cafiero and Milazzo agree that tentativeness is a growing concern.
In one recent example that made some headlines, an officer in Alabama acknowledged he held off on firing his weapon while under attack during a traffic stop because of how his actions might be construed after the fact. That decision left the officer battered and bloody.
“It’s the second-guessing that’s affecting these officers,” Cafiero said.
Valente, who has been with Streamwood for a quarter century, submits that reassurance from leadership can help give officers confidence.
“As long as they’re doing the right thing, we’ve got your back,” Valente said, noting the department has 58 officers.
Verifying whether an officer acted properly is part of the body camera movement, which was bolstered in Illinois with the passage of recent legislation that, in part, tacks $5 onto traffic and criminal convictions to help pay for the equipment.
However, video interpretation without context can be problematic. Stoeckel believes not enough attention is given to what a person does toward an officer before the officer decides to take some type of action, including using force.
“In the heat of a battle, things get complicated … and people don’t understand the pressures of being a police officer. They wonder why did you have to shoot that guy,” White explained. “They only see the end result. They don’t see everything that led up to the account.”
Building a community dialogue, through things such as a citizen’s police academy or training sessions for elected officials, can help break down some misconceptions, according to Stoeckel.
“I think that is a great idea. Go out and let people know why we do what we do,” he said.
The need to keep balance
Cafiero gets it more than most might assume because before he became a Franciscan priest, he spent five years as a New York City police officer. He left the job after the murder of his partner.
“It was one of those wake up moments,” he said, noting his new path involved earning multiple degrees in psychology and his entry into the priesthood.
At the urging of NYPD chaplain Mychal Judge, who later died in the 9-11 attack, Cafiero went on a retreat where he encountered Franciscan friars and decided on a change.
He joined the Illinois State Police 15 years ago as part of a first-response team. He offers support to troopers and their families, while also assisting with death notifications after fatal crashes.
All of that puts him on the front line of the daily stress and rigors police face, and that includes personal struggles. Departments dealing the staffing issues might need officers to pick up extra hours, or a cop might agree to do it to bring a little more money in for the family. Yet, the additional time at work can strain marriages or other personal relationships. This perfect storm puts additional strains on an officer’s ability to do the job properly.
“People who can be overworked or under stress” don’t perform at their best, Cafiero explained.
In Milazzo’s practice, he’s found an increase in cynicism and questions about the value of being a police officer at a time when the community, those who depend on your protection, can be the biggest critics.
“Right now, frustration is the main thing. What we’re seeing is empathy burnout,” he explained. “(Being a police officer) used to be a calling.”
Now, more than ever, cops have to have passion and thick skin to keep a constant focus on helping people, and that by doing so, you’re impacting your life and your family.
“Personally, as it goes in the direction it is going, I’d question why somebody would want to be a police officer,” Stoeckel added. “That right there is what scares me. A lot of this has happened in the past six years and I know we can turn this ship around.”
Although Stoeckel said new leadership and new laws can help lead that change, Cafiero believes improvement can come from the community and by officers having balance in their own lives. Mendota Police Chief Thomas Smith, who agrees that public perception is the biggest problem with police work these days, is happy to say the support of local residents comes from the fact that most officers live in town.
“(Officers) do interact with the community,” said Smith who has served as chief the past 18 years. “(Residents) know you as a person more than just a uniform.”
And, that’s Cafiero’s point – police officers have to be more than what they do.
“The key for me is that they need to have balance,” he shared. “It can’t just be about the job. (Officers) have to learn how to step out of it – you need it for your sanity.”
Cafiero suggests physical, emotional and spiritual health as important parts of self-preservation during a difficult time when a lot of police officers are “in defense mode” because of the constant bombardment of negativity toward the profession.
White said he’s altered his approach.
“I think this year and the last couple of years I’ve taken more vacations. Not just mini-vacations, but a week away from the job so I could come back refreshed and ready to do it,” he explained. “It’s very important as police officers to get away from the job so we’re not always in it. I still love the job (but) I have a different respect for the job. I’m no longer the rookie on the run-and-gun. I’m doing the job, going call to call and providing service to the individual.”
Maybe that’s what it takes to be a cop in 2015. Take it one call at a time. Serve and protect. Breathe in and breathe out. Call for back-up. And get home safe.