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  • A Challenge to Civilians
    Posted On: Sep 24, 2018

       A Challenge to Civilians

          By Jerry Lieb, Field Supervisor - Monday, September 24, 2018


    Unfortunately, many citizens have a bias against police officers. Whether it’s due to a bad experience with the police after being issued a citation, or the influence of negative and false narratives of police brutality, bias exists.

                The purpose of this article is to provide a challenge to civilians like a challenge presented to Dr. George Kirkham, a criminology professor at the University of Florida, which led to him publishing his experience in a 1976 book titled “Signal Zero.” The following are excerpts from that book.

    Professor Kirkham studied under his mentor Professor Thorton at USC where he received his PhD. His mentor had developed anti-police theories that he referred to as the “Police Personality”. Professor Kirkham began his first class by introducing himself and announcing to the class “I want to begin our discussion of the police and society by examining a most important topic, one that will occupy our attention in lectures and reading throughout much of the quarter. I am referring to the subject of “police personality.”

                Professor Kirkham then presented his outline of the police personality:

    1. Authoritarianism
    2. Chronic suspiciousness
    3. Pessimism-cynicism
    4. Hostility-extra punitiveness
    5. Personal insecurity
    6. Physically aggressive reactions to stress stimuli
    7. Political conservatism
    8. Prejudice-racism

    He then asked the class if anyone had an opinion on this point. A student who appeared to be older than the average student in the class responded by stating that the police personality, to the extent that it exists, has to be explained in terms of the kinds of things a policeman’s work involved.

          As Professor Kirkham examined the student responding to him he noticed a long 2” scar on his right cheek.  Further along in the discussion, Kirkham discovered that the student debating the authenticity of his “police personality” list was a police officer on educational leave to complete his degree. The professor also discovered that the scar on the officer’s cheek came from a call he handled in his jurisdiction’s toughest beat.

          During the term of the course, the Professor and police officer continued a friendly debate, many times over pizza and a beer. The police officer then challenged the professor stating that he had no business judging police officers from his “Ivory Tower” without really knowing what it was like to be a police officer on the beat. The professor responded with the statement that the police would never allow a true scientist inside to study them.

          The police officer graduated and upon return to his department, he met with his chief and related his discussion with Professor Kirkham. The chief responded by advising the officer that if the professor put himself through the police academy he would assign him to a car in their worst beat. The officer extended the challenge which was accepted by the professor and after completing the police academy course, the professor joined the department and was assigned to a car in their worst neighborhood.

          Dr. Kirkham brought to the job his learned theories that if you just talked to people you would settle issues without violence. The professor was fearful of carrying a gun and subscribed to his mentor’s theory if you did the job right you wouldn’t need one. His mentor was promoting the theory of an unarmed police like England thinking that would reduce violence in America.

          What he discovered during his experience riding with a partner was that policemen were human, they talked about their families and kids and got scared like everyone else. He discovered that officers didn’t relish the violence or look forward to shooting people. He saw the emotional impact these situations had on the officers.

    Dr. Kirkham said, “and almost always the calls would come without the precious luxury of time. Time. I had come to take it for granted in my life as a university professor. Time to think situations through, time to analyze them, dissect them. Time to weigh the desirability of different courses of action.”

          Dr. Kirkham realized how unfair it was for people to judge officer’s actions who had seconds to make a decision when the individuals judging them had the benefit of reading all the reports in addition to weeks and months with a law library to research and second guess those decisions. Dr. Kirkham learned that in order to fairly judge the actions of police officers, one must consider the exact circumstances presented to the officer at the scene.

          Dr. Kirkham transitioned his thinking as he went through real-life situations that cops face daily. He was dispatched to a suicide call and found the apartment door locked and thought they needed to get some authority to get the door opened. His partner kicked the door, making his split-second decision and found a man with his head in a gas oven unconscious. They saved his life. As the ambulance pulled away, the spectators began to drift off. Dr. Kirkham thought, “We just saved a man’s life. Wasn’t someone… anyone going to say something? It seemed as if someone should say something to us.”

          From that suicide call they were dispatched to an accident scene.  When he issued a citation to the man who caused the accident the motorist said to him, “If you guys would spend a little more time worrying about crime and a little less time making your ticket quotas, this city might be a decent place to live.” The motorist went on to say, “No wonder people don’t respect the police.” Dr. Kirkham said, “Yessir” and thought after hearing this, just who does this jerk think he’s talking to? Then I thought, to a man in a police uniform, that’s who, as I answered my own question. I wasn’t used to being talked down to like a lacky. I didn’t like it.”

          Interestingly, after completing the suicide call, and feeling pretty good about himself, the sergeant came up to Dr. Kirkham and his partner and chewed them out for being out of the car without their hats on,  in violation of policy. When the sergeant left, Dr. Kirkham let loose with a commentary about the sergeant. The partner told Kirkham he found it interesting that he had less than two weeks on the job and was starting to sound like a real cop!

          One of the theories Dr. Kirkham brought to the police job, as mentioned earlier, was that there was no reason for violence if you just talked to the suspects and gave them a chance to explain. Dr. Kirkham’s partner decided he was comfortable with him and allowed him to drive the squad car. Dr. Kirkham was feeling very proud when the radio blared “Signal Zero”, an officer needs assistance.

          Kirkham’s partner screamed at the radio, “where damnit?” and yelled at Kirkham to floor the car and get going, constantly yelling “faster” at Kirkham. They were the first to arrive at the scene and observed two guys smashing a motorcycle officer’s head into their car. The partner jumped out and tackled one of the guys while Kirkham grabbed the metal flashlight and went after the guy who was still bashing the officer’s head into the car. Dr. Kirkham swung the flashlight to strike the big suspect on the arm when the motorcycle officer managed to push the suspect up. Dr. Kirkham’s flashlight blow came down on the top of the suspect’s head, destroying the flashlight and dropping the suspect.

          As the squad cars began arriving at the scene, Dr. Kirkham looked around at the crowd watching the officer get assaulted.  Most were white, male and young. Not one of them tried to help the officer. Kirkham heard himself say, “What the hell is wrong with you people?”, as they began to walk away. “Us. That was the way it was most of the time”, he would soon learn. “I would come to realize that we really had only one another to depend on, only one another to call on in time of trouble.”

          After they arrested the two suspects, his partner stated, “Jesus, Doc, I’m afraid this is serious, that light you just busted is city property the sergeant will want a form 10 explaining what happened to it.  You might wind up having to pay for it!” Kirkham’s partner then told him he would have to meet with Internal Affairs over the use of force but not to worry that he and the other officer saw the whole thing and would support him.

          When Dr. Kirkham published his book about the months he spent as a policeman, he wrote the following note to the reader:

    “This book is the story of a university professor who left his campus for several months to work as a street patrolman in a large American city. It is my story. I do not pretend that what follows is an objective book about either the police or crime in our society. This could never have been such a work, although in the beginning, I had thought that it might be. But what happened to me in those months made it impossible for me ever again to view a policeman’s world from the detached perspective of a social scientist. I realize that now.

          What follows is an account of the things I saw, felt and did during the time worked behind a badge and uniform. It is neither a polemic written on behalf of the police nor a diatribe against them. It is simply the story of a group of remarkably ordinary men whose unfortunate distinction is that they must regularly function in the face of extraordinary human stress, and sometimes in the face of indescribable human tragedy.

          The identity of the actual police department and city in which this drama unfolded is not important. The fact that it happened is. I have changed the sequence and some details of certain events, and have altered the names, descriptions and physical characteristics of all persons and places involved in them, in order to protect the privacy of those who made this book possible. Beyond that, I have tried in writing it to honor a promise I once made,
    tell it like it is.”

          This article does not encompass all the experiences Dr. Kirkham faced but the value of his experience should not be lost. What most people don’t understand is that we are victims of our own bias. As anthropologist Ruth Benedict pointed out in her book, “Patterns of Culture”, when you judge societies other than your own, you judge them based on your cultural bias.

          This concept is supported by Dr. Kirkham’s experience. His views were very biased by the concepts he was taught by his professor at USC and he believed in them to the point he was utilizing those concepts and passing that bias on to his students. When he accepted his student police officer’s challenge to ride with police officers as an officer he learned the fallacy of the theories he was taught and changed his thoughts in regard to police officers.

    This article is not intended to portray officers as never making mistakes, but the general citizen concept of police officers comes from television cops that can chase a suspect for a mile, pull out a snub nose revolver and wing him in the leg at a 100 yards. There are citizens that believe police officers should shoot to wound offenders with no clue of the training or the emotions and stress and how this impacts officers in shootouts.

    So, the challenge is if you truly want to fairly judge police officer’s actions, take a page from Dr. Kirkham’s book and spend some time with a police officer in the roughest district and experience the fear and danger our police officers face on a daily basis. Understand how this fear and stress is passed on to their families, knowing that every day when their police officer husband or wife leaves the house for work it may be the last time they ever see him/her again.


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