The Game of Policing

The Game of Policing

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

I recently watched my Denver Nuggets make an amazing effort to win some trophy or something like that. I am only a sports fan to the extent that I like having conversations with my sports-fanatic son, and as a social prompt to say “How ‘bout them (insert team name). I do get excited, as fair-weather fans do, when my home team is in some sort of play-off or finale, and I recognize that real sports fans detest lightweight fakers like me.

My blasé attitude for sports derives partly from being recognized at an early age as incompetent in team sports. Later I was able to prove myself incompetent in individual sports as well. It’s not that I didn’t try. I spent a couple of miserably hot Missouri summer afternoons playing auxiliary backup left field on some little league team organize by a supposedly benevolent youth organization that thought me and my ilk needed to build character.

I seldom got beyond first base, which was perfectly fine with me. Much less pressure. I wasn’t quite desperate enough to move in front of a pitch to take a base, but upon reflection, I may simply have not known that was a rule. In fact, the only rule I remember was “one base on an overthrow” which seemed to be announced to any runner I had the misfortune of trying to throw out. The highlight of my career was reaching third base which coincided with having downed two big sodas, wearing white uniform pants, and it being a dusty and windy day which created a clear outline of a pattern on my crotch that could not be explained away as my having spilled something. I don’t recall if I made it to home plate or not, being perpetually guilty of praying that my team would lose quickly and end the whole affair.

What little I have learned about sports (and I did try – I once read a book called “How to Throw a Football”), has made me reflect how patently unfair police work is in comparison. The finest athletes in the country (or imported from Serbia in some cases – go Nuggets) are highly rewarded whether in dollars, scholarships, or general privilege, and are highly regarded. They play by clearly defined rules that are enforced by specially trained observers.

Granted, they suffer the momentary disappointment of their fans when they should have done a thing that they failed to do, or did a thing the armchair observer watching the replay exclaims they should not have done. But a missed pass, a strike-out, a botched free-throw (I’m exhausting my sports vocabulary) is quickly forgiven even if written up on the sports page or retweeted a half-million times. Interestingly, although team affiliations might suffer, when a quarterback gets sacked, no one – I mean no one – exclaims “Those damned quarterbacks, they always get sacked, you just can’t trust ‘em”. No one.

The real nail-biting moments in sports come down to amazing performances of physical skill under the pressure of time. We can groan when it doesn’t work out, and celebrate gleefully when it does, but nobody dies on either side. Olympic athletes win or lose their medals by margins we couldn’t even measure until the digital age, and this is one endeavor where a participation trophy really means something.

A quarterback has as much as 7 seconds to decide what to do with the ball as he is being attacked by a horde of other large people. In a confrontation in the law enforcement world, 7 seconds is a very long time. A batter has about a third of a second before a typical pitch gets in range while the brain under the helmet takes a quarter second to tell his arm to move, leaving about a 10th of a second to make a decision about taking a chance on a swing. The average major league player is successful only one out of four times. In an armed confrontation, a police officer has a similar margin to make their life or death decision.

An armed adversary can easily pull their readied trigger and fire multiple shots before an officer can unholster and engage. That’s a decision that must be made while considering what’s downrange, often with poor lighting conditions and uneven surfaces, while trying to determine whether the object is a gun or cellphone and whether they will die or get sued as a result of that 10th of a second decision. The officer will fire fewer than three rounds on average, meaning that, except in the rare, protracted gun battle, the fateful event is over in less than the time that quarterback decides to throw or not.

And by the way, the adversary doesn’t play fair in law enforcement. They cheat. They fake. They use innocent people as shields. They don’t get called for foul moves or being out of bounds and there are no time-outs. We could use fewer Monday morning quarterbacks and a few more cheerleaders.