How it feels these days to be a cop: The view from a suburban detective

  • Naperville Police Detective John Reed is president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 42.

    Naperville Police Detective John Reed is president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 42. Courtesy of Naperville police

 
 
Posted7/18/2020 3:00 PM
John Reed is a violent crimes detective in the Naperville Police Department and president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 42. He has received dozens of commendations and no disciplinary action in a nearly 20-year career. This essay, as told to Daily Herald Staff Writer Marie Wilson, is his reflection on policing in a time of widespread protests and calls for reform following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man killed by Minneapolis police on May 25.

The one thing that stays the same with police work is that everything is always changing.

I've been a police officer in Naperville for nearly 20 years, and I can tell you that those of us in the field have our eyes and hearts open. We are always looking to do things better.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Whenever someone asks police officers, 'Why did you get into this line of work?' they will say it's because they want to help people. But that's because it sounds nice, and it doesn't sound strange.

The reality is every officer gets into the job because we love people.

We want to save lives. We want to stop bad guys and we want to stop bad things from happening.

You'd better believe me, we want to make things better.

Policing is a vocation. With everything we do, how we speak to people, how we write reports, how we do field sobriety tests, how we tell someone they're under arrest -- it's almost like an art form. We're always trying to adapt to achieve the best product and result.

But from A to Z there are so many things officers have to do to perfection: make arrests, talk down people who are suicidal, interview armed robbery suspects. To be able to bring someone down, to de-escalate with some measure of skill, is something we cannot simply train for; we have to learn on the job.

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Then there is the rule of expertise. Across the spectrum of officers, we have people who are normal or average at some of these skills and good or the best at others. Over time as an officer, we lose track of the number of calls or arrests we've been involved in. For some officers, it's a few hundred; for others, it's tens of thousands.

In my career, I've arrested over 1,000 people; I feel like I know how to arrest someone. But am I an expert? No way. Like everyone else, I'm learning as I go.

We -- the public -- seemingly want officers to be robots when we want them to be perfect administrators of law enforcement and when they respond to resistance or use force. We want Officer Friendly when we want Officer Friendly, or we want Officer Cuddles, someone charming for our public community events. Or when we've been victimized and our crime is being investigated, we want a nuanced artist of interview and interrogation.

But when it's our child's school being attacked by militants, we want and expect that same officer to transform yet again into a Navy SEAL/Arnold Schwarzenegger-type, not only to terminate the life-threatening behavior as quickly as possible, but to render aid to the bad guy as well, and all in such a manner so as to not offend anyone and so no one gets sued, so everything looks right, perfectly dotting the i's and crossing the t's.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It's dizzying to the initiated, let alone the uninitiated. It's amazing anyone can do this competently, let alone the 800,000 officers across the country who do this daily.

You don't hear about officers not showing up to emergency calls because they're terrified. Those officers don't exist. But you do hear about the few who make a mistake, be it by accident, negligence or perhaps even recklessness, as they immediately become household names.

There is very little mitigating information spread publicly about the totality of the circumstances in these cases or the day-to-day operations of the police department.

Our training follows department policies and procedures, state and federal mandates and case law, which changes every year. Often when a policy changes, we'll be notified on the fly.

What most people don't understand is there are always new laws, orders, directions and guidelines to follow or adapt to.

When I was hired, the mandate then outlawed chokeholds -- it already seemed like common sense. You would never need to do that. I can hardly think of a scenario when you would, except maybe if someone was strangling you. Even then, however, there are usually more effective ways to defeat an offender than counter-strangling them.

We are open and amenable to anything anyone thinks we can do better, as long as the people seeking to make change have some fundamental understanding of how we do our work.

If you want to make a change, I advise you -- implore you -- to show up at the police department, ask us questions about what we're doing, ask us how we feel about video and audio recording. Because making one change or another is not always that simple.

Audio recording often gives people stage fright. It divides your attention and adds stress, knowing that everything is on video. But with everything on audio/video, officers also know that usually helps by strengthening the evidence of the case, and also helps in the courtroom.

It's heartbreaking to be in court and have your work questioned, to have it be the officer's word against the offender's. You feel like, "How can my word not be good?"

It frightens officers to be on the stand and fills them with anxiety, with everyone hanging on every word. They have to be exactly perfect and credible. And the other person has everything to gain by outwitting or beating the officer. The officer, however, has everything to lose.

But policing, at its heart, is imperfect people enforcing the law on other imperfect people. It's a lifetime of training, on-the-job experience and even trauma.

The average person sees or undergoes approximately four traumas in their life -- things like holding someone's hand while they die or experiencing a car accident. The average police officer experiences approximately 125. I learned this at a Fratenal Order of Police convention during a presentation by Sheriff Timothy Whitcomb of the Cattaraugus Sheriff's Department in eastern New York state. He called it "PTSD in Law Enforcement: To Protect and Serve Those Who Protect and Serve."

We're imperfect beings, and we, like everyone else, bring the totality of our life experiences to every encounter.

Considering the number of deadly, dangerous encounters that occur every minute of every day. It's remarkable there aren't more tragedies. Any use of force needs to be perfect or it can, at best, not look right or even become botched completely. Or it can be deadly.

The officer can be in trouble, or sued, or on the news. Or worst, the person can die.

And oftentimes -- almost every time -- that officer's only crime was one of imperfection.

The mantra we're hearing over and over today that "all cops aren't bad" is a complete undercutting of police. There are few things more disturbing or grating to a police officer than that. The very essence of that comment suggests the opposite, that good police officers are the minority.

On the job, we learn, there are few bad people, even among those we arrest for bad things. When I'm driving around with people I've arrested in the back of my car, I usually learn there are common factors in many of their lives: They have no father, no mother; they've grown up in or experienced poverty or are currently suffering from chemical dependence.

Usually whatever happened has been going on their whole life, and you try to help. Officers find they're in the middle with these people they've arrested, trying to help stop them from putting their life on a total crash course to oblivion.

The people I've arrested who were belligerent and "bad" have been few and far between. But even when you break down those cases, most were not totally unredeemable. When you find out their back stories, it often involves abuse, and does that mean they're really a bad person then or merely that they've been molded by generations of trauma and neglect?

Everything becomes more complex the more you understand. We want people to understand how much more complex the role of a police officer is.

It's dangerous for police to be shut down and fearful of doing their jobs. But in this climate, officers are dialing it back, whether intentionally or subconsciously. When officers back off proactive policing strategies, crime goes up.

It's self-preservation kicking in. But the vocation of policing at its core runs counter to the concept of self-preservation.

To get ready for work, we put on a vest so the bullets won't go through us. We know there is a higher divorce rate and suicide rate and a lower life expectancy for police officers.

The purpose of life is to find a balance of meaning and peace. We as police officers sacrifice a lot of peace, but we make up for it in meaning -- at least we hope to.

Calls for bettering the police will never end. I just wish the world would look in the mirror, ask themselves what they think a world without police would look like, and hopefully come to an understanding of how we already help communities dealing with unemployment, poverty, drug abuse, single parenthood and deteriorating value systems -- all of the circumstances that lead to a higher likelihood of crime.

We're already there on the front lines helping people, and what we'd like everyone to understand is that yes -- absolutely yes, however possible -- we would all love to help even more.

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