Originally appeared in America's 1st Freedom magazine, March 2015.
Every time a law enforcement officer is killed in the line of duty, every cop in America feels it personally. In fact, a little bit of each of us dies with them.
My heart, my thoughts and my prayers are with the New York Police Department (NYPD) during this very difficult time. The trouble is, many of us saw attacks on random police officers coming. When the president of the United States, his attorney general and the mayor of New York City all wagged their political fingers at police officers before all the facts were clear, and in already racially charged circumstances, they emboldened those few true cop haters—those anarchists who usually have to hide in the sewers of society. These lowlifes felt as if they had been given license by top political figures to loot, burn and even murder in the name of justice.
This is where we have found ourselves because of the irresponsible political opportunism of President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. When these men had a chance to extol the virtues of our law enforcement officers—their bravery, their courage, their integrity, their commitment, their sacrifices—they instead chose a twisted brand of political opportunism to score points with certain constituencies.
This disappoints, shocks and outrages me. I expect such rhetoric from charlatans like Al Sharpton, but not from leaders who should know better. This could have been Obama’s “Gettysburg Address” moment. He could have brought the country back together and tried to create some healing. Instead, he poured salt on a wound.
So what do we do now? How do we stop this demagoguery and move forward toward real solutions? In my decades as a law enforcement officer, I have come to a few conclusions that I think can help.
Realize Who Police Officers Are
I faced my first tragic struggle with the loss of a friend and fellow officer a couple of years after we graduated from the academy (what we call “recruit school”) and joined the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) in 1978. He and another officer were pursuing a hold-up suspect on foot after dark on the streets of Milwaukee. The officers who were killed were young cops, just like me. We’d graduated the same year. The suspect ambushed them in an alley. I responded to that call for backup. It could have been me. It could have been any of us. That’s why I say a part of us dies every time we lose an officer.
These officers died trying to protect the community. It could have been me. It could have been any of us. That’s why I say a part of us dies every time we lose an officer. The officer in my recruit class, John Machajewski, left behind a wife who was three months pregnant. Because he was killed, a family was robbed of their husband and father. We caught the culprit, but the wound he opened can never be healed.
In the decades since, I’ve lost other friends who accepted the responsibility and risks of being a police officer. In 2013, I visited the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., during an annual ceremony that honors our fallen police officers—our too-often-unsung heroes. I went because I’d lost another officer in 2012. Everyone should witness this moving ceremony. The names of the fallen are read as families and police officers from across the nation light candles in the dark.
I became a detective with the MPD in 1989, and nine months later was selected for the specialized Homicide Division. There, I was part of a team that investigated more than 400 homicides in a four-year period. In that time, I learned how important it is for citizens to utilize their constitutional rights to protect themselves. I also learned, night after night, what police officers do for all of us. And I learned who they are. They are our neighbors, our brothers and our sisters. They are us. We don’t live in a police state. We are a free people who ask only a small percentage of our finest citizens to serve—to protect us.
In 1996, I was promoted to MPD’s command staff as captain of police, and soon became commander of the department’s First District. In March 2002, Gov. Scott McCallum appointed me sheriff. Eight months later I was elected to my first four-year term. I’ve won re-election three times since. As my experience has taught me how fundamental a law-abiding citizen’s right to own and carry firearms is to our free society, I have broadcast that message on radio and television. As a result of this stance, in my last primary, I was challenged by out-of-state money from anti-freedom people such as Michael Bloomberg. Still, the people voted for me. They appreciate that I tell it like it is and that I stand behind my words with action. I tell you this simply to point out that I am not an exception. The vast majority of your police officers are honorable, humble and heroic people.
Hold Officers To A High Standard
Police officers aren’t perfect. We are human beings. We make mistakes. Sometimes we have to act under duress. We have to make split-second decisions that could take someone’s life, or could get us killed.
Still, we are the best our communities have to offer. We go out every day and put our best foot forward, often under very difficult circumstances. Sometimes things go wrong. But because mistakes sometimes occur doesn’t mean we should condemn an entire profession. As a sheriff, I strongly advocate public outreach for my deputies. I want them out in the community.
Holder has said we in law enforcement engage in systematic racial profiling, yet he won’t even define what “racial profiling” is. He says that changes need to be made, and that America’s police officers are at fault. I reject that narrative. I believe America’s police officers represent what is best about this country.
As a sheriff, I strongly advocate public outreach for my deputies. I want them out in the community. You shouldn’t only see them when something bad happens or when you’ve broken a traffic law. You should see them in the community and know them as people—as partners in keeping America safe.
When I was first elected sheriff of Milwaukee County, I learned that we didn’t have a code of ethics citizens could read and use to hold us accountable. I adopted a code and had it tacked up around our office and around the communities we serve. Members of my department know this code, and I also encourage people throughout our county to read it and hold the officers they see and pay accountable to it.
Our “Law Enforcement Code of Conduct” includes language on integrity, confidentiality and the use of force. It says, “The use of force should be used only with the greatest restraint and only after discussion, negotiation and persuasion have been found to be inappropriate or ineffective.” Our actions show we stand behind these words.
Our code also says, “A police officer shall perform all duties impartially, without favor of affection or ill will and without regard to status, sex, race, religion, political belief or aspiration.” No, this isn’t idealism. I expect this code to be upheld, and I expect our citizens to demand that we honor every word of this code of conduct. Our police officers need to be accountable. All of them need to be iconic figures who represent all that is best about us and our way of life. I truly believe most are, but tragically, not enough people are willing to say as much.
Stand With Police Officers
Not all police officers are perfect, but we should hold ourselves up to a perfect standard. That is why painting what happened last year in Ferguson, Mo., and in other places with the broad brush of racism is dishonest, unfair and counterproductive. Each of these situations must be looked at honestly and according to the law. That means waiting for all the facts, and using those facts to get to the truth. Instead, too many are quick to blame law enforcement for some undefined type of racism, without facts to back up that charge.
I believe now is the time for Obama, Holder and de Blasio to acknowledge publicly that what they did and said after recent high-profile police activities was irresponsible. They should announce that they didn’t intend to create this furor of cop-hating that seems to be spreading across our country. Many individuals currently causing mayhem feel justified now because of the actions of these politicians. We need to debunk the lies and distortions being said about our nation’s law enforcement officers. Once we do that, I believe the individuals responsible for vandalism, arson and worse will go back where they came from.
When protestors use vile language—some even calling for cops to be murdered in cold blood—many people are quick to say that what these protestors are saying is protected speech. Conversely, when law enforcement officers like those in New York City express their First Amendment freedoms by turning their backs on a mayor who has slandered them, some people suggest they need to more responsible. It would be more beneficial if, at the same time that we protect free speech, we point out what is right and wrong, and what goes way too far—as calling for cops to be shot certainly does. Maybe if we do this, more protestors will do and say things that are more socially responsible. Perhaps then they can help America advance our society toward fairness and justice.
I believe if we would wait until facts are available in high-profile cases, more people will find this isn’t about race at all. David Klinger, a criminologist with the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a former police officer, found that of the 1,265 people killed in St. Louis between 2003 and 2012, a total of 1,138 of them (almost 90 percent) were black, yet 90 percent of those were killed by other blacks. His research found that 32 of those people were killed by police officers, of which 22 of those killed were white. That means that less than 2 percent of the blacks killed in that time period were shot by white police officers. These statistics match my experience.By blaming cops, people are avoiding an important discussion that could lead to real solutions.
I believe that what we really have here are too many young black males without fathers—without positive male authority figures in their lives. Without launching into a deep sociological discussion, I’ll just say these facts show that it is dishonest and counterproductive to blame cops for systemic problems in high-crime areas. By blaming cops, people are avoiding an important discussion that could lead to real solutions.
Fox News host Neil Cavuto asked me about this topic. He said: “Sheriff, I don’t want to be shallow about this, but how are you treated, and what kind of reaction do you get among those in the African-American community, many of whom email me—many praising you I should stress, in fact, most praising you—but many with the ‘Uncle Tom’ comments, and many with the ‘Oh, he isn’t really one of us’ comments. How do you react to that?”
I replied: “I’ve been facing that for a long time. Life is too short to get worried about that. And also I remind myself every day that this isn’t about me. This is about the message that I have. I get tremendous support in the black community here in Milwaukee and across the nation because my message is reasonable. And that’s really all people expect. They may disagree with me on some points, but they know my heart is in the right place. I’m going to continue to protect the honor, the dignity and character of our nation’s law enforcement officers as they go out in these American ghettos under some very difficult circumstances, put their best foot forward and do the best they can to make it a better place for everyone, including black people.”
I believe that we really share many of the same values. I believe we all have to stand up for those American values. I’m asking you to stand with me and with the rest of our nation’s law enforcement community in that effort.