The night begins with a traffic stop.
It’s a warm evening in late May, and Corpus Christi police officer Skyler Barker spots a car with a license plate that is too dirty to be read. It’s a minor violation in Texas, but no ticket is produced. One of the passengers, like Officer Barker, is a veteran, and the two instead chat about their shared back pain.
Minutes later, Barker is outside a house speaking with a woman whose elementary-school-age grandson has run away. Four other grandchildren wander the quiet street as he takes down the boy’s description. Before he has time to radio the description out, however, the boy reappears.
Barker calls him over.
“It’s OK to get mad,” he says, “but you’ve got to stay at home. You can’t run away, especially at night.” The boy nods a few times, staring at his shoes. They part ways as the family thanks him.
Barker, a square-jawed Marine Corps veteran from Longview, Wash., says he is still as enthusiastic about the job as he was the day he started. But he, along with eight other current and former rank-and-file officers around the country interviewed by the Monitor, believe that the daily personal and professional strains on individual officers are frustratingly overlooked amid strong criticism of police conduct – particularly concerning use of lethal force – from some corners.
President Trump, since his time as a candidate, has sought to correct that by showering rank-and-file officers with effusive praise and arguing that they should face fewer restrictions in performing their duties.
Joe Gomez, a sergeant in a suburban New York City police department, has felt a morale boost in his agency with Trump’s election. He says he knows officers in his department who have got Twitter accounts just so they can see Mr. Trump’s tweets.
In fact, Sergeant Gomez – who asked to be quoted with a pseudonym so he could speak candidly – thinks rank-and-file officers have been hoping for a president like Trump since as early as 2009, when then-President Obama criticized a Cambridge, Mass., police officer for arresting Harvard University Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr., who was trying to get into his own home.
“A lot of police officers thought, ‘There hasn’t been investigation into this, how can the president speak on these matters?’ ” says Gomez. “That really set the emotional stage for Trump.”
Trump reiterated that campaign rhetoric by telling a group of law enforcement officers to “please don’t be too nice” with arrestees in a speech on New York’s Long Island Friday – and again provoked concerns that his seemingly unconditional support could encourage more aggressive, perhaps unnecessarily lethal, behavior from cops.
While they are heartened to have a vocal advocate in the White House, however, officers say they see it as only a minor benefit for people in a profession that is both intensely local and becoming increasingly complex. None of the officers who spoke with The Monitor, all of whom were interviewed before Friday’s speech, were advocating for license to abuse their power. Police chiefs across the country also quickly pushed back against Trump’s comments, which appeared to condone police brutality.
“Ultimately it’s going to come down to state and local government,” says Frank Tona, an officer in a Maryland sheriff’s department. What he’s hoping Trump can do, he says, is “influence some of these state governments and local governments.”
Policing is also a profession in the midst of a jarring transition. What was once a life-long career passed from one generation to the next, allowing people to earn a middle-class living (and pension) without an advanced education, is becoming a high-pressure, highly technical, and complex job that may burn officers out in a matter of years and enable tragic mistakes.
Furthermore, there seems to be a gulf between officers and the public they protect when it comes to the changing realities of police work. A Pew survey from January found that 86 percent of police officers think the public doesn’t understand the risks and challenges they face too well or at all. A similar percentage of the public, meanwhile thinks they do, the survey found.
“You’re working odd shift hours, and overtime and doing these things that run kind of counter to the way regular people live their lives,” says Gomez. “I just don’t see there being a lot of contact between police and average citizens.”
The job has always been dangerous, officers say, but now it comes with almost unprecedented public scrutiny as well. And while their salaries are typically above the state median, the job is also getting more difficult, as officers are being asked to wear more and more hats – from lawyer, to warrior, to social worker, to therapist.
Wanted: Rookies with veteran instincts
Getting the right kinds of cops on the street could go a long way toward restoring public confidence in police, some officers believe. Conversely, some fear a feedback loop developing where cops ill-suited for the job create negative press, which scares away better-suited recruits.
“We need good, qualified folks who are motivated,” says Travis Vernier, who spent two years as patrol officer in the Oklahoma City Police Department before becoming a public information officer. “I just don’t want us to reach a position where policing has been so disparaged that nobody wants to go into police work, or the only people who want to be police officers actually match the [negative] labels that are being cast.”
Barker could be considered one of the prototypes for those needed officers. He was named the CCPD’s “Officer of the Year” last year. And departments around the country are currently exploring new recruitment and training practices. But those young-but-experienced, alert-but-calm, patient-but-decisive recruits are understandably hard to find.
Take the Minneapolis Police Department, which has been using a fast-track program for college graduates to enter the agency to help boost its experiential diversity. One of the program’s graduates, Mohamed Noor, is now on administrative leave after fatally shooting an Australian woman who had called 911 to report a possible sexual assault.
So what does that ideal officer look like? According to Dan Coleman, a former cop who now heads the special investigations unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, it’s a “young police officer [with] the wisdom of 20-year veteran.” According to Gomez, it’s someone who “has book smarts and street smarts.”
“You need someone who is friendly [and] willing to do those community-help functions,” adds Gomez, “but at the same time can kind of sniff out when something’s not right, and are going to have that sense that something’s about to go down.”
And no matter who signs up to be a cop these days, the odds are they won’t be in uniform as long as their predecessors.
Mr. Coleman followed in his father’s footsteps in becoming a cop, and spent 30 years in the Boston Police Department. He thinks the profession has changed so much in that period that decades-long careers like his will soon be unheard of.
“It’s probably a young person’s job, for the energy and fitness required to do it effectively and safely,” he says. “But ironically it probably requires the wisdom of being a little bit older to recognize what’s most important about it.”
Like Officer Vernier, what Coleman is worried about is the kind of person who will want to be a cop in the future.
“If your motivations are to come in and play cops and robbers or go grab the bad guys, it’s more than that,” he adds. “Are we attracting the right people who are motivated for the right reasons, to get into policing with a customer service, compassionate [approach] for serving people? Because that’s what’s needed right now.”
Needed: 'A lot, a lot of patience'
Working a night shift as a cop these days appears to be as much about words as it is about actions. And a prolonged career in law enforcement seems to depend as much on managing your home life as it does your work life.
In his four years as a patrol officer in Corpus Christi, Barker has developed a number of habits for himself on and off the job to help manage the stress and scrutiny that is being a modern-day police officer.
“Nine out of 10 traffic stops,” won’t result in a ticket, Barker says, no matter how abusive the driver may get. He doesn’t want to let the behavior of others influence his decision-making, he says, fearing “a slippery slope” that could lead him to abuse his power.
But he will always take the same cautious, wide-angle approach to the car, one hand aiming a flashlight at the window, the other resting on his holstered handgun. In quiet moments, he walks through hypothetical scenarios in his head to refresh his memory of training. He is continuously studying body language to distinguish, as he describes it, “I’m-getting-pulled-over nervous” from “I-have-drugs-in-my-car nervous.
Clocking out around dawn each morning, he doesn’t let himself go to sleep until 1 p.m. (unless it’s been an especially hard shift). He tries to do something with his wife, or surf the Internet – anything to ensure all his waking hours aren’t spent on duty. He tries to maintain friendships outside the Corpus Christi Police Department. He makes time to go fishing, bike riding, and on trips with his wife.
On that 9 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift in late May, Barker’s tasks do run the gamut.
After speaking with the runaway boy, there’s a report of an assault, but another car responds first. Not long after comes a reported suicide attempt. Once again outside a house on a quiet street, Barker and his partner Mike Munoz converse softly with a young woman and her family, trying to convince her to go to a mental health facility for a few days.
“These calls take a lot, a lot, a lot of patience,” Barker says.
Over the course of the night he only uses his handcuffs a few times, and he doesn’t arrest anyone. He never unholsters his gun.
The cost of hypervigilance
There is always the potential that the gun will need to be unholstered, however. So every cop spends each shift in a state of “hypervigilance,” whether something dramatic happens or not, says Gomez.
Major incidents like shootings, armed robberies and are “really not the majority of the job,” he adds, but “you’re constantly on the lookout for threats.”
Spending an entire shift in a state of high alertness often means cops enter a depressive state when they get home, according to Kevin Gilmartin, author of the book “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement.” That can mean cops stop exercising and socializing, they can put on weight and become clinically depressed.
Cops “don’t survive by trust, they survive by distrust,” says Dr. Gilmartin, who spent 20 years in law enforcement. “They view the world as one long felony in progress.”
“Then they get off duty and go into that collapsed state,” he continues. “Police officers detach from society.”
This detachment can sometimes end with tragic consequences. Officer suicides took more lives than gunfire and traffic accidents combined in 2016], and Barker goes to great lengths to prevent that kind of detachment.
“Camaraderie is important, but you’ve got to try to do things with people outside of work,” he says. “There are lots of ‘I used to’ people. I don’t want to be an ‘I used to’ guy.”
Officers will talk about how they used to go fishing, used to ride their motorcycle – “ ‘I used to do this and that, and I’ve stopped doing it,’ ” as Barker describes. “They get so used to being a cop that they stop being themselves.”
Gulf in understanding
This detachment may contribute to the gulf in understanding between cops and civilians when it comes to policing. It's a gap, officers say, that's exacerbated when they and their peers around the country are tarred by the bad actions of a few. While ideal officers may be rare, good cops far outnumber the bad ones, officers say.
“I don’t really see so much of maybe what was going on in Ferguson, [Mo.] – traffic tickets as means of revenue generation,” says Gomez. “What I see around me is pretty good policing.”
Indeed, while Barker admits that cops “should be held to a much, much higher standard” in their jobs than other professionals, given the power they have, he doesn’t see “a huge epidemic of officers using excessive force.”
What he does see are the daily stresses and strains of police work, and it’s something he thinks should get more attention.
“As a whole, people have no idea what we do on a night-to-night basis,” Barker says, “which is part of why they’re so quick to armchair quarterback it.”