By David Daggett
Now the sun’s gone to hell And the moon’s riding high
Let me bid you farewell Every man has to die
But it’s written in the starlight And every line in your palm
We’re fools to make war On our brothers in arms
Brothers in Arms – Dire Straits
I have elected to forego the usual article in this space dedicated to traffic and criminal law related issues and instead focus on recent events that have severely shaken the criminal justice field.
The Maryland law enforcement community grieves the loss of Harford County Deputies Mark Logsdon and Patrick Daily, killed in the line of duty last week as they responded to a request for assistance from a citizen. In addition, Mesa County (Colorado) Deputy Derek Geer, Fargo, North Dakota Officer Jason Moszer, Tulare County (California) Deputy Scott Ballantyne and police pilot James Chavez were also recently killed in the line of duty. Along with the death of Montgomery County Police Officer Noah Leotta, who was run over two months ago while conducting a DUI investigation, these killings highlight the risk that officers face every time they put on a uniform and take to the roads to serve and protect the public.
Unfortunately, over the past couple of years, law enforcement has increasingly come under attack in the press, legislature and courts of public opinion. While sometimes legitimately so, a great percentage of these criticisms are unwarranted. The police certainly seem to be painted with a broad brush of negativity when it comes to reporting. As a career prosecutor of over 25 years, I can attest that the vast majority of police officers I’ve come into contact with are men and women of exemplary character and courage. Just like in any profession – including lawyers, believe it or not – there will be bad apples. But those are the exception to the rule. Of course, news outlets (radio, television, newspapers and the internet) would much rather focus on the negative. Bad cops, or should I say, perceived bad acts by cops, make for “better” press and more entertaining stories, attract more viewers and readers and sell more papers. Whether or not the story is fair or accurate seems to be beside the point.
Police officers work lousy hours, in lousy weather, and for the most part, with lousy compensation. But they perform a role in today’s society that cannot be overstated: They help keep us, and our children, safe. When our vehicles break down on the side of the road, they stop to assist, often in inclement weather.
In the 1960s and ’70s, as a backlash against the Vietnam war, many returning military veterans were treated with contempt and disdain, as if serving their country was something to be scorned. As the son of a career Navy officer, I knew better and never shared that belief. Having spent a number of years living on the island of Okinawa in the late ’60s, I observed firsthand the devastating injuries that could befall young soldiers fighting for their country. Thankfully, we have come full circle and military veterans are once again revered and treated with the respect they deserve.
Police officers faced much of the same derision over those two tumultuous decades while trying to maintain law and order during anti-war demonstrations on college campuses and other acts of civil unrest, particularly in our inner cities. In many ways, the current climate is very similar to that of the ’60s and ’70s, with police officers facing explosive situations similar to the ones confronting their military and police brethren two generations prior. The majority of police officers are out on the street, interacting with the general public. They are still tasked with maintaining law and order and are deserving of the same respect that is now showered upon military veterans. We often see people approaching those in military uniforms, thanking them for their service. It would be nice to see the same thing done for police officers. One only has to look at the courage and bravery displayed on September 11, 2001 to realize how dangerous their chosen profession can be. Actually, one can look closer to home at the everyday situations that confronted Deputies Logsdon, Daily, Geer, Ballantyne and Officers Leotta and Moszer on their last day on the job to understand the dangers they face on a daily basis. Law enforcement officers are oftentimes out on their own, outnumbered, in dark and secluded locations, confronting violent, dangerous individuals. It’s not an easy position to be in.
It can be so easy, in the comfort and safety of our own homes and offices, to condemn the actions of the entire law enforcement community for the acts of a few officers who might not comport themselves as we believe they should. I am not here to defend those few who may bend the law, apply excessive force, apply different standards based upon race or nationality, or willingly violate the Constitution. I am extolling the virtues of the vast majority of officers who do things “by the book,” and who face danger and extremely pressure-packed situations with grace and dignity. They are the ones who deserve our praise and respect and there are a lot of them.
Law enforcement officers have a higher rate of divorce than the general public. Depression, anxiety, alcoholism, stress, burn-out, back and foot issues later in life, and even suicide seem to come with the job. It is not a gig for the weak or faint of heart, but someone’s got to do it.
My thoughts and prayers (along with the thoughts and prayers of my brother and sister prosecutors) go out to the friends and families of the officers whose lives were lost last week. While I did not personally know any of the slain Maryland officers, in some way I feel like I did know them. The next time we hear about a tragic situation such as these, it could be any officer that you see or work with on a regular basis. It could be a friend. It could be a family member.
Law enforcement officers, the vast majority of the time, deserve our respect and admiration. Perhaps the next time you see an officer in a convenience store, you should thank them for their service and offer to pay for their coffee.
Keep up the good work, and in the immortal words of Sgt. Phil Esterhaus of Hill Street Blues, “Be careful out there.”