We Were Lawmen Once, and Young

We Were Lawmen Once, and Young

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

I hope my gray hair doesn’t show through in my writing. I work hard to stay current on police matters and was still active on the front lines not too terribly long ago. But those social media reminders about boomers, Gen Xers, millennials, and Gen Z keep reminding me of my fading relevance.

I barely escaped the Vietnam era as a potential draftee but did not escape its influence. While today’s officers might work alongside a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan, my first combat vet colleagues had served in-country. Korea was 25 years ago, close enough to have served with vets from that conflict but never knowingly did. WW2 had been over for only 33 years, so some old dogs were still hefting a badge somewhere.

At 21, I was impatient to wear the badge. I was in the Army National Guard with MP training, having found out that age was no barrier to the MP armband, but policing my adopted town where I was a college student was a dream come true. If the reader hasn’t done the math, this means I was sworn in back in 1978.

But this column is not just a misty-eyed walk down memory lane to tell today’s young officers how we walked to work in the snow uphill both ways. While still surfing the shifting twin waves of police reform and defunding, as a profession we have been in a constant state of reinvention and examination as far back as I can remember.

While the late 1970s is still within the memory of many still serving or recently retired, the significance of that particular era was that truly old-school cops were still around when I was a rookie. I not only saw the profession move forward, I could look back from whence it came. I worked with guys who worked before Miranda, before Mapp, before the Warren Court dragged the 14th Amendment into the 20th century. Men who worked in towns and cities where “no coloreds allowed after dark” signs were posted at city limits. +When the Civil Rights movement brought black police officers into the ranks. When an interrogation might include a few “accidental” trips down the stairs. When alleys were locations for “attitude adjustments” of those who showed disrespect.

I remember working with the first female police officer in my agency. These ‘70s pioneers have not been given enough credit for the path they paved for today’s officers. My small agency and the public were accepting, even though our new police facility had no locker room for women, not having the slightest thought when it was constructed in 1972 that there might be women serving in police and fire service. Some agencies isolated women, harassed them, and failed to back them up so that they could either learn to be tough or give up and leave the job.

While management philosophy was the slowest aspect of policing to undergo change in the 70s and 80s, the acceptance of education, training, and technology was rapid and dramatic. Not everyone had a hand-held radio. Vehicle lighting moved from the bubblegum machine to the oval Visabar ® to the V-shaped Vector® with optional Arrowstick®. Speed measurement went from the time over distance calculators to tripod-mounted radar units to the Speedgun® hand-held units. Kevlar ® ballistic vests came on the scene (we had one in each trunk, and they were over an inch thick). Tear gas was replaced with the tactically superior pepper spray. 1979 saw the first in-car computer terminal systems, and dash cam technology was in its infancy.

With the advent of federal funding coming to fruition in the 70s, all states eventually established minimum basic training standards. As a hire in 1978 Missouri, I had zero requirements to attend a police academy. The law changed in 1979 and I was in the first mandated training academy under the new law. My three weeks of field training were thus supplemented with 120 hours of training!

Another 70s artifact is the cigarette brand marketed to women with the slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby!” We mustn’t forget, amid current challenges, that policing, too, has come a long way.