The Police Pendulum

The Devolution of Law Enforcement in the 21st Century

            Every thirty to fifty years, there’s a shift between public-favored lawlessness and an anti-criminal sentiment.  The phenomenon of anti-law enforcement / pro-criminal sentiments is often referred to as, “cyclical” or even analogized as, “the pendulum.”  Both assume that this is only temporary and sooner or later, public favor will return to law enforcement and lawful behavior.  I’m not certain we will ever see that on a national level again.  The previous, “cycles” were around the 1880-90s, 1920-30s, 1960-70s.   Here’s why I think this time is different:    

The News Media

            Within the Fourth Estate, lies the most powerful force on the planet.  They have the ability to shape the beliefs of an entire culture.  People tend to believe what they see from them.  What they’ve seen over the last few decades is the vilification of law enforcement by an uninformed, irresponsible, and politically-motivated media.  Ferguson is the perfect example.  It’s widely known now that, “Hands up.  Don’t shoot,” was an out and out lie and the witnesses on the scene made no such statements – except for the accomplice to the robbery.  Criminals lie.  Weird, I know.  Still, they ran with that false aspect of the story and one particularly disdainful group of talking heads posed for a picture with their hands up.  Also, consider the pictures widely circulated by the media of who we now know was the aggressor in this encounter. The pictures looked like a very young boy; not of the eighteen-year-old 6’4”, 290 pounder who had just committed a strong-armed robbery and attacked the much smaller officer; attempting to take his gun.  Had the public had that information would there have been riots?  Maybe.  Criminals will tend to use any excuse to do crimes.  But, on that scale?  Certainly not.  Does anyone remember there being any retractions from the various media sources?    

            Ferguson is not an anomaly.  Time and again, reporters have leaned into bullshit narratives against law enforcement either due to their implicit bias against cops or their need for clicks; and therefore, advertising dollars.  The previous cycles I mentioned above were all spurred on gleefully by newspapers and what we would call dime novels in the modern era.  They generally romanticized outlaw life and even drew parallels to Robin Hood; a false parallel which at least a few armed robbers of the time thoroughly embraced.  There are many theories as to what ended that period of lawlessness.  One theory is that, the more often everyday citizens became victimized by thugs, the more they fought back.  Many bank robbers and thieves were strung up upon their capture by their victims and other vigilantes.  No matter the cause, when the public grew weary of the behavior, it all but stopped.  The media had no choice but to go along because word-of-mouth traveled faster than a daily or weekly news rag. 

            The media played the same role in every other pendulum swing.  Al Capone had no trouble getting the local Chicago newspapers to report almost anything he wanted, especially his purported acts of philanthropy.  He ran a soup kitchen and helped local families financially.  Whether it was true philanthropy or just public relations to win the hearts of potential witnesses has been debated, but it seems pretty obvious to me.  Again, when innocent people got caught up in the wheels of injustice, public favor swung against the criminals.  Again, the media could not outpace the information spread through simple conversation. 

TV and Movies

            I grew up on 80s cop shows and movies.  Anti-cop/pro-criminal garbage was rarer and we had the choice to not watch those shows.  That’s not the case anymore.  Even law enforcement and military-themed shows bash law enforcement and the military.  Today, between social media, agenda-driven television and movies and the 24-hour news cycle, disinformation and misinformation rules.  People are instantly and constantly inundated with whatever echo chamber newsfeed they choose and most of them are pro-criminal and anti-cop.  Common sense and the truth have no chance.              

Anti-Cop Politicians

            The 21st Century certainly has been an era of politicians propagating and perpetuating violence between citizens.  In the last few decades, dozens of politicians have employed overwrought and false narrative to the public of people being singled out and victimized by cops.  That’s a great way to gain an ignorant voter base of useful idiots who will act without much thought.  This is a slightly modified version of the Cloward-Piven political strategy.  If you’re unfamiliar, Cloward-Piven strategy’s purpose is to create derision between socioeconomic or ethnic groups and then, “solve” the problem for them when it reaches a chaotic level.  In this century, politicians from large municipalities all the way up to The White House have used this strategy to vilify cops and present themselves as the saviors to everyday Americans who will put an end to the blue scourge of tyranny.  Politicians have used this strategy against law enforcement in the past but never this blatantly or for this long of a period of time.  

            I was discussing this article with my friend and fellow writer, Mike Wood.  His thoughts mirror mine: “I’ve said it before, but the big difference between previous cycles and now, is that in the previous cycles, our civic, cultural, and business leaders all loved America, all agreed to the terms of the social contract, so they limited the damage from pro-criminal violence and helped us to recover. They held the pro-criminal radicals mostly at bay, and the radicals didn’t do as much damage as they wanted to, because they didn’t have the power.  This time, the radicals have co-opted the system. They ARE the system, and they control the levers of government, media, business, and culture. There are few adults left in these institutions to oppose and stop them, so the amount of damage they’ll do is incalculable.”   

The Worst Leadership in Law Enforcement History

            That’s a bold statement, isn’t it?  I believe we currently have the worst leadership in law enforcement history and I won’t back off from it (I’m an administrator, so I get to).  There are some great leaders in the profession for certain, but at this stage in our history, we should have the best leaders we’ve ever had.  The information and training are widely available but largely ignored by those who need it most.  The bar has been raised and our leadership has had every opportunity to grow and learn leadership principles from private business who have spent millions to learn what works and what doesn’t.  You see, you can’t run a police department out of business.  We are a monopoly. A private business must do the right things to survive.  We should be taking all of the pages out of all of their books.  An example is the general treatment of our cops.  The quasi-militaristic approach is not working anymore due to generational differences I’ll address later.  Internationally renowned leadership expert and motivation speaker Stephen Covey said, “Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers.” I would add, “Because they will.” We see it repeatedly in law enforcement. Cops who are treated with respect “at home” are more likely to treat the public with that same respect in the field.  We need to provide the best work environment possible for our cops.  That isn’t possible without intelligent, courageous servant leadership.  I’m proud to say my department doesn’t cave to political pressure yet, but almost every big city cop shop does.   

Servant Leadership

            In Leadership by the Book: Tools to Transform Your Workplace author Ken Blanchard states, “…the minute you think you work for the person above you in the hierarchy…you’re assuming that person – your boss – is responsible and your job is to be responsive to his or her whims and wishes. As a result, all the energy in the organization moves up the hierarchy and away from the customers…” That might be a big pill to swallow for cop bosses, but it’s hard to argue against the idea. Energy and employee engagement are finite resources. How much of those resources are wasted trying to please the administration rather than serve the public?  Any time something bad happens at a department, administrators want to do something to fix it.  That usually ends up with a new policy, procedure and/or a new form to fill out.  Again, the more energy going up, the less that goes out to the public.   

Different Folks

            Young folks are not beating down our door to become cops anymore for a lot of reasons.  Part of it is they don’t get much positivity about law enforcement from social media; which is the primary source of news for most people in their 20s and the indoctrination they get from college.  Another is the cultural difference between generations.  Work-life balance is more important 20-somethings today more than at any period of time before.  That’s not necessarily an insult.  We could probably all benefit from that mindset to some extent. Still, this work takes a lot of dedication and between the shift work and the emotional roller coaster, the home life suffers.  More and more we’re seeing that as a deal breaker for potential recruits and young officers.   

            Here’s another The line between on-duty and off-duty is becoming increasingly blurred.  Hate groups who see all LEO’s as the front line for government conspiracies and perceived oppression are stirring the fringe-dwelling individuals to commit violent acts against random good guys.  That’s not really news to Generation X and earlier cops.  However, this is a problem for younger people today. Imagine running into someone you arrested at the grocery store with no previous experience with violence.  That’s what these kids are facing.    My friend, John Hearne, who is one of the most prolific researchers of human behavior I’ve ever known asked me a question some years back.  He asked how many of my rookies had ever been in a fight.  I had no idea, so I started asking that question of all my rookie classes.  You can imagine the answers from generations growing up in zero-tolerance school policies about fighting.  Imagine never having been punched in the face and only having that experience for the first time as a cop.  What’s the solution?  We certainly don’t want kids fighting in school.  We can’t punch rookies in the face to inoculate them to violence.  We can try to give them a lot of realistic training but that only goes so far and administrations consistently cut training before anything else in the budget.  

            With all of this, it’s tough to hire new people to work weekends and nights for years at a stretch and keep them for any length of time; especially when we shortcut their training to handle serious situations.  Some of the plans we’ve explored include disregarding seniority and rotating shifts every so often.  Guess what the cops who are at retirement age do when that plan is implemented and they face the possibility of working a less-than-desirable shift or losing their weekends off?  They retire.  I’ve been pondering and discussing this aspect of the problem for several years.  I don’t see a solution to it.   


            Cops in all of these generations had war veterans training them.  There was an element of necessary callousness handed down by their trainers.  Nobody had to teach a war veteran about ambush tactics.  That’s not the case today.  Senior guys don’t want to be bothered with rookies.  Most every department I know of has three-year-cops training new guys and all of them are disconnected from the previous generations and their wealth of knowledge and experience.

            “I have seen the pendulum work in the past first hand as a cop. You won’t ever see a real fix or reverse swing in the Metropolitan cities. When they figure out defunding doesn’t work, the cops they hire to replace those who have left will be a nightmare. A ton of people will get cop jobs who should not ever have a badge.”-Darryl Bolke.  He was referring, at least in part, to the Rampart C.R.A.S.H. Scandal which occurred after a mass exodus of cops from LAPD after the LA Riots.  Rampart is not a historical anomaly.  After good cops are driven from the job or at least to other agencies, there is a vacuum.  Administrators feel pressure to fill those spots, so standards are relaxed and training is shortened to get warm bodies on the streets.  People who are not suited to the job are hired and trained through an abbreviated process.  The results are invariably bad and every municipality that has gone through massive hiring cycles of with relaxed standards has suffered for it.  Those negative results have further bolstered the anti-cop narrative in recent years.   

The Ratchet

            Again, I don’t believe the pendulum is swinging back in our direction any time soon and maybe not at all.  In the 1880s, public sentiment was enough.  In the 1920s and 1930s public sentiment was again enough with a little special federal law enforcement added to the mix.  In the 1970s and 80s, it took much more.  Equipment and training in the 70s and 80s plus public sentiment and a movie and television genre that popularized anti-criminal sentiment changed the tide.  Still, each of these “swings” never came back to where it was. 

            Another quote from Brother Mike: “…I don’t like the pendulum analogy so much, because a pendulum swings back nearly to its starting position, at the beginning of the cycle. Well, the law enforcement landscape has not been like that in America. We haven’t gone back to something close to our starting position each time—instead, we recover to a position that’s significantly displaced, and we start the next cycle from a place that’s significantly worse than before. It takes less time and energy to ramp up to the bad extreme, because we’re starting from a position that’s much closer to it.   In this sense, I think of it more like a ratchet. Every swing of the lever tightens us up a notch, and when the lever swings back the other way, we don’t get any relief from the pressure—we hold it there, and grit our teeth for the next round of tightening.”  I think that’s a much better analogy and another reason I believe things will not be getting better in the next few decades. 

            The current iteration of publicly-accepted criminality has nothing really working against it.  The most horrific of criminal acts are often buried by the news media; be they committed by the street thug or a member of the highest levels of government.  Speaking out means your voice is snuffed out by those I refer to as the Fifth Estate:  Social media company owners.  This is all being endured by the softest, least inoculated generation of cops in history.  Things will not be getting better anytime soon, if at all.   

  • Bio:  Warren Wilson is a lieutenant and training coordinator in a metropolitan police department in the southwest.  He’s been a full-time peace officer since 1996. 


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