When I started as a police officer in 1998, I remember senior officers telling me not to carry my baton because of the backlash against batons after the Rodney King incident. While that incident occurred in 1991, the effects could still be felt in Sacramento, seven years later and 400 miles away. Police incidents around the nation are constantly molding our departments, their policies and the way we do our job. As law enforcement officers, the effect of societal pressures on our occupation often lands at our feet in the form of changes to our role as an officer, the rules or policies we are governed by and the tools we are given to do our job.
Changes seem to come in bursts, and there was a large burst that came at the beginning of my career. I remember being questioned back in 1998 by senior officers who were curious about why anyone would want to be an officer anymore, considering all the changes that were occurring in police work. As a new rookie officer, I was happy to be an officer, and I did not see any of the changes as obstacles.
Constant change has been a hallmark of my career as a law enforcement officer. In my first five years on the job, I experienced many changes. Our cars were equipped with in-car cameras (of the VHS tape type), we were required to collect traffic stop data on scantron forms for a racial profiling study, our wood batons were replaced with less visible metal collapsible batons, and we were issued tasers. In addition to equipment changes, we saw changes to our department policies, including changes to the use-of-force policy and the force reporting process, as well as more stringent controls over vehicle pursuits. Most significantly, a civilian oversight monitor was added. While there was a lot of complaining and pushback by the senior officers of the time, I remember thinking that the changes we were experiencing would not affect my enthusiasm for my newly chosen career. As a young, new officer, I was flexible and not yet set in my ways. I was able to make the adjustments required to adapt to these changed policies and new equipment.
As my career advanced and I became more comfortable in my role as an officer, I also became more set in my ways and less flexible to change. The first time I remember feeling the desire to avoid a department change was when the department rolled out its computer-based report system. I had learned to write all my reports by hand, and I was not overly thrilled about writing reports on a computer. It was not an issue of computer literacy. It was about being told that I had to change something significant about my job. We write many reports, and I did not want to change something that I was comfortable with. Even after the change, I continued to write my reports by hand for another year until I was personally ordered by a supervisor to stop doing hand reports and use the electronic system.
As I have gotten older and more set in my ways, each new change has been more difficult for me to accept and adapt to. Now, after 22 years with the Sacramento Police Department, we have again seen incredibly significant changes to our department equipment and policies. Over the last few years, we have seen the addition of body cameras, less-lethal weapon systems and video releases, as well as changes to our oversite system and our use-of-force policies. I am now hearing again the same questions I was asked at the beginning of my career. The difference now is that it is my generation of officers asking our new officers why anyone would want to be an officer anymore, considering all the changes that are occurring in police work. I’m sure this generation’s answer is just like mine was 22 years ago. They are here to serve the community the best they can.
Change has always been a consistent process in our careers. We have evolved from the gumdrop lights on the top of the 1950s police car to the LED strobe light of our modern cars. We have evolved from call boxes to GPS-enabled digital radios and computerized dispatch. The roles, rules and tools of our profession will always be evolving, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but always forward. One thing is for sure — things will always change. We have the ability to adapt to these changes, but it is through our commitment to serving our communities that we will get there.