The Fine Line Between Law and Order

When your grown son asks you for career advice, you drop what you’re doing. Several years ago, my younger son thought he might like to become a police officer. He’d already established himself as an effective problem-solver and all Kahle boys are adrenaline junkies. He liked staying physically fit, so he thought it might be a good job for him.

As it happens, a local police officer owed me a favor. He had listed me as one of his job references. I’ve done hundreds of job reference interviews over my career, but this one was by far the most thorough. His recruiter interviewed me for 45 minutes. In turn, my friend gave my son double that.

He asked my son what attracted him to police work. “I think I’d enjoy the physical challenge,” my son replied, “and I really like helping people.”

“Then you should be a fireman,” was my friend’s surprising reply. “Everybody’s glad to see a fire truck. But when a squad car pulls up, it’s never good news.” My son and I were both taken aback, but as he filled in the picture, it made more and more sense.

Plenty of important police work is quite mundane — filling out incident reports, building relationships, learning who on the street owes what to whom. A good day for a police officer is a day when they succeeded in preventing something that will now never happen. Trouble is, no one knows when that has occurred, including the officer.

Meanwhile, bad stuff keeps happening, and it’s only natural to wonder whether something could have been done earlier to prevent it. It’s a game you’ll never completely win, and the losses are often quite severe. That conversation turned my son in a different direction, but I would have been better equipped to support him if it hadn’t.

Last week’s headlines out of Dallas reminded me of the lessons I learned that afternoon. After a gunman picked off policemen lined up like a carnival game, we reeled in horror as a nation. “Never again” collided against “Never before.”

We think of ourselves as a contentious nation, boisterous in our competing beliefs, but it’s mostly been good clean fun. We fight one another, but when the bell rings, we stop. Cops can’t make the same comforting assumptions. I learned that from one of Eugene’s police chiefs.

I’ve attended hundreds of City Club presentations in Eugene, but one stands out from the rest. It was another police officer telling hard truths to a mostly dismayed audience. We didn’t learn until a month later that Eugene Police Chief Leonard Cooke had been secretly fired by then Eugene City Manager Vicki Elmer. Elmer gave Cooke two weeks to manage his affairs before the separation was made public.

He could have canceled his planned City Club presentation that week, and lesser leaders would have. Instead, he gave all of us his public exit interview, even if we didn’t know yet why. He spoke with bracing frankness about the difficulty of policing Eugene. He summed up the difficulty this way: “There is not wide consensus in Eugene about what constitutes acceptable behavior.”

In other words, police have to be on guard in every direction, because the protesters are often perceived to be the good guys. If the protest turns violent, cops can’t assume that bystanders will side with law and order. As events accelerate, they become more chaotic. And dangerous.

That’s where we are today. Accelerated, chaotic, dangerous. The scene in Dallas was horrific, but the lines of order formed quickly, even if it took a robot bomb to stop the spinning.

Meanwhile, “what constitutes acceptable behavior” is under daily siege.

Should a presidential candidate accuse a sitting judge of prejudice, based on the judge’s ethnic heritage? Should an ex-president intercept the U.S. attorney general for a private tarmac conversation while his wife is under investigation? Should the FBI director hold a press conference to detail wrongdoings that his agency recommends shouldn’t be prosecuted? Should a sitting Supreme Court justice take sides in the presidential campaign?

“Never before” — but that’s not much help.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.