Sep. 8, 2002: Cops Have Most Thankless Jobs

There is one trait common to all humankind. No matter our age, IQ or political leanings, we all secretly consider ourselves experts when it comes to the other person’s job. It doesn’t matter if we aren’t competent at our own work. We watch what other people do and know in our hearts we could do it better.

One of the toughest and most thankless jobs in America is law enforcement. There is no way I could ever be a police officer and, I suspect, neither could most of the rest of us. But we sure as hell can second-guess everything the police do, forgetting that sometimes they have a split-second to make a decision and we have weeks to critique their actions from the safety of the sidelines.

Law enforcement is equal parts mind-numbing tedium and mind-blowing terror. When an officer leaves for work, his or her family has no way of knowing if there will be a next meal together. A couple of weeks ago, a Carroll County deputy sheriff got up from the dinner table to assist in the chase of an arson suspect. He was shot to death for his efforts.

We don’t care about the police until we need them. If we find ourselves threatened we want them to protect us, no matter what the risks. Other than that, leave us alone. We resent being told what to do. It impinges on our personal liberty. Let us speed, run red lights and tailgate while we yak away on our car phones. If we are stopped, give us the opportunity to lie or cajole our way out of a traffic citation so that we can laugh about the experience to our friends and then burn up the roads again. Otherwise, we may get downright hostile.

When I lived in East Point, the local judge received a call from an irate citizen who had been stopped for running a red light and wanted to complain about the officer’s curt manner. “Do you know where he had been before he stopped you?” the judge asked. “He had just told a family their child had been killed after running a stop sign. Maybe this officer saved your life.”

A South Georgia sheriff recently told me about a prominent citizen who was livid over the attitude of the deputy that had stopped her for a moving violation. What she didn’t know was that the officer’s car had a video camera. A review of the tape showed that the deputy had handled the stop exactly as he was supposed to do, including showing her more courtesy than she had shown him. Last I heard, the sheriff was trying to get the complainant and her husband to review the tape with him and point out the source of their complaint. Good for him.

Are there bad police officers? Absolutely. Are there police officers that abuse their authority? Certainly. There are also bad teachers and preachers and doctors and lawyers. And don’t forget the CEOs and accountants that abused their authority and ruined the lives of a lot of people in the process.

The truth is that police officers are no worse than the rest of society and probably better than most of it. It continues to amaze me that we can find people willing to put up with all the verbal and physical abuse, the criticism, a lack of appreciation for what they do and the very real possibility that somebody may kill them before they can ever collect their meager pension.

I have never gotten a ticket in the half century I have had a driver’s license. That doesn’t guarantee that I won’t get one in the future. The most likely opportunity will be when I haul a tailgating truck driver out of his cab and kick his rear end into the next time zone. I know that is wrong, but so is tailgating.

No doubt I will huff and puff and wonder why the police couldn’t better spend their time stopping all the crazy drivers on the road, instead of upstanding citizens like me. If I do, I should re-read this column, particularly the part about the East Point judge, and understand that some unappreciated souls may have saved my life, whether I wanted them to or not. I just hope I remember to thank them.