A simple badge and gun does not a copper make

This post is by former Ipswich police chief Gavin Keenan.

Gavin Keenan
Gavin Keenan

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting some retired Ipswich Police Department friends at a late summer cookout. It was a magical evening of story-telling, catching up on family happenings and just being comfortable with people that I had worked so closely with for many years. Later, when I looked at the group photo that one of our wives had taken, I was grateful we had all made it to the other side relatively unscathed, and I realized once again how fortunate I was to have been broken in by such a group of experienced and savvy cops.

It is the lucky young rookie indeed who begins a career with such a reliable and steady group of senior officers willing to invest their time and energy to point out the correct way to do things. These were men of high integrity who did not take themselves too seriously, but understood the seriousness of the work they did. As I moved along through those early years, I came to appreciate that although there was perhaps more than one right way to do the job, there was definitely a wrong way too.

My impression is that we appeared different than the cops of today. No buzz cuts, bulging biceps or stone faces obscured by darkly tinted cruiser windshields and sunglasses. Out of uniform we looked like anyone else on the street. Policing is an isolating occupation, and I think that we all struggled to maintain some sense of the everyman and a connection to the outside world. Living in the same town where we worked made us acutely aware that our conduct and reputation were subject to constant public scrutiny. It was life in a fishbowl, and we were the goldfish.

In my early years, policing in Ipswich was largely a peace-keeping job. Although a far cry from the craziness of the 1970’s, the Ipswich of the 1980’s remained an active, sometimes wild beat. On warm summer nights the downtown would be swarmed with young people bouncing around in search of some action to break the routine of small town life. The clubs were buzzing right up to the one a.m. closing time, disgorging dozens of saturated patrons onto the sidewalk to plan their next move. Street corners were impassable, alleyways became crowded thoroughfares, and when we shined our lights into the cloistered darkness of the backside of the downtown block, anything could pop into view.

Gavin Keenan, early in his career with the Ipswich Police Department.
Gavin Keenan, early in his career with the Ipswich Police Department.

This activity was not exclusive to the downtown. Patrols covering the north side of town responded to fights at the clubs on Route One, parties at Hood’s Pond, and car wrecks on Linebrook Road. The south side cruiser bounced from local beer blasts at Pavilion Beach, to multi-town blow outs at the wide open Crane Beach parking lot, (Yes, you were there, weren’t you?) Rowdies and free-lance party animals roamed the streets looking for house gatherings and free love. At times it seemed like the Age of Aquarius on steroids.

We were fewer then, and often worked short-handed. Arrests were made judiciously, mostly due to our being outnumbered and the knowledge that making a pinch took an officer off the street for an hour or more to book and process the prisoner. Transgressors truly needed arresting to “Make the Team” then. We were more likely to give someone a ride home with a stern warning and a promise that there were no second chances. Sometimes they listened; sometimes they didn’t and ultimately wound up facing the judge on Thursday morning. Most of these were twenty-something white males not much younger than myself. They were fired up on testosterone and alcohol. I just wanted to survive and get home at nine a.m.

This environment provided an excellent training ground for learning the art of reasonable, measured, order-maintenance style policing. With help, I gradually learned the importance of rapidly assessing what I was faced with, how to de-escalate a tense or tumultuous situation, and when to take decisive action. It was all part of the peace-keeping process, and existed decades before the rubric of Community Policing entered common discourse.

Community Policing was all the rage in the mid to late 1990’s. Essentially an academic theory wedding statistical analysis to good, old fashioned cop-sense, it provided the police a direction in which to engage the community in the common effort to address issues of public disorder and fear of crime. The central idea was to lessen the perceived level of fear by seeking out and attending to the many little things that create it. And although we had been doing this stuff in fits and starts for decades, there were always pieces missing. To remedy this, monies were allocated, programs developed and more police were hired for the street. Crime rates plummeted, and an era of peace and sense that we had somehow turned a corner prevailed. Some skeptics rightly observed that the falling crime rate was as much a function of demographics as effective policing. However, it was real, and the police lined up to take the credit. Sadly, we saw this crumble away in the post 911 security craze, and now it seems just a distant, fuzzy interlude of artificial good feeling.

Today, the notion of promoting community well-being and lessening fear has given way to the fostering of doubt, suspicion and insecurity. Police are now more frequently viewed as apart from the community, rather than part of the community. The future of this honorable calling seems to be inching away from its roots in peace keeping and community caretaking, to a more regimented, militaristic model that responds to perceived threats and potential dangers with overwhelming force and weaponry. Rather than problem solvers, the police are often seen as soldiers in the war on crime, drugs, terrorism, etc., etc. The police often endorse this view, which of course goes hand in hand with the notion that our world is a dangerous place, with threats lurking around every corner. This fear is continually promoted by our government, the media and those who profit from insecurity. It is a powerful feeling, not easily dismissed, and unfortunately is reinforced to us with each new incident of public disorder or shocking criminality.

My perspectives here leave me slightly pessimistic about the future of this noble and honorable calling. Pluralistic democracies such as ours must have faith and trust in the governments that serve them and the police who protect them. To maintain this trust requires a reservoir of good will between the police and the public that promotes understanding, tolerance and a willingness to forgive occasional well-intended mistakes. This is essential now, as the police have a more challenging task than at any time in our history. They are often the only public agency to respond to our seemingly intractable social problems associated with poverty, drug abuse and hopelessness. Yet we provide the police scant direction, options and resources to deal with them. A rigid, militaristic model of zero-tolerance and punishment has not worked, and has only exacerbated the problems and distanced the police from the society they serve.

No less a figure than Sir Robert Peel, founder of Scotland Yard and a man considered the father of modern policing clearly understood this. He coined the term “The Golden Thread,” to illustrate the essential connection between the people and their police. The police are responsible for creating and maintaining this tenuous bond, and should avoid severance at all costs. For without the nurturing of this partnership, the police jeopardize invalidating the very difficult and often dangerous work that they do each day, and risk being seen as a burdensome impediment to the civil liberties we all cherish.

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