What happens to America when the job isn’t fun anymore?
Another Officer murdered, this time in Arkansas. The immediate and law enforcement families in shock. A few days ago I watched the press conference held by Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck of the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office as he described the events leading up to the Deputy’s death. I listened as he struggled to be strong not only for the reporters in the room, but for his department and community. I listened to the emotion and compassion in his voice and while admiring how strong he appeared, I was thankfully relieved it was not me standing there.
So what do I mean by fun? As I sat in the Civic Center in Fort Smith and listened to the Sheriff, Chaplain, and Governor Hutchinson during the funeral of Sebastian County Deputy Bill Cooper, I reflected on my years in law enforcement. When I began my career more than 28 years ago I was excited. Over the years I grew to love my job -- simply put, I could not wait to put the uniform on because it was fun to go to work. Looking around that auditorium, I would dare say that 99% of those in attendance, hundreds and hundreds of officers feel the same way. They love their job. They love what they do because they love helping people in their communities. Sure they know they are putting their lives in danger every day and most do if for low pay and little recognition, but they kiss their loved ones goodbye and walk out that door knowing they make a difference. They are the thin blue line that keeps our communities safe. They know that without police, we would live in a lawless society where fear would run rampant. They know their loved ones worry every minute of the day, but they do it anyway. Why? Because they love what they do.
At the cemetery I listened to the prayers, the bagpipes, the 21-gun salute and the playing of taps. I fought back the tears and struggled with a lump in my throat as I watched the folding of the American Flag and then watched Sheriff Hollenbeck do what has always been the hardest thing for me to do, get on one knee and present the folded flag to Deputy Cooper’s widow. I watched the tears flow down the faces of so many of the officers and mine as the police radio and dispatcher did the ‘last call’ of Deputy 34 -- knowing that he would never answer that call again.
During the four-hour trip back, I had time to reflect and honestly ask myself what I suspect many other cops have been asking themselves. Is this job still fun? The thin blue line is under attack. There are Officers killed almost daily across this county; many of them through targeted attacks and ambushes.
While we are very fortunate to have strong support of law enforcement by our Governor, Attorney General and other State Leaders in Arkansas, in many states and nationally those officers who were justified in using deadly force are persecuted by their leaders, and in some cases prosecuted with no justification. It has happened time and again where our National Leaders have jumped to conclusions before all of the facts were out and then refuse to apologize and admit they were wrong when the facts proved otherwise. Officers have encounters with the public millions of times each year and the thin blue line gets it right 99+% of the time. But, the national media chooses to focus only on the occasional misconduct by a few. There is no doubt that law enforcement should be held accountable for their actions, but let’s be fair and balanced. What other profession requiring split second, life and death decisions has the same or better results?
It’s not just the deadly attacks that are affecting the thin blue line -- it is the daily struggle with low pay and bad equipment. Baxter County ranks high in wealth; however, we are the lowest taxed county in the state of Arkansas. The limited tax base means our deputies are paid 20-25% less than surrounding agencies and 40-50% than officers in other parts of our state. Most of them work second jobs and some are even eligible for government assistance even they the refuse to take it. Many of our deputies are wearing outdated ballistic vests, their cars are falling apart with tow trucks and repair shops a regular occurrence. Investigators work long hours and there is little money for overtime, meaning cuts elsewhere in the budget. Our secretarial staff is tremendously overworked and typically receives lower pay than many fast food restaurant employees. Our jail is full, under-staffed and the jailers are underpaid. The State puts their overflow prisoners in our County Jails and their short-term answer to the overcrowding is to let inmates out earlier and earlier on parole, no matter how many times they reoffend or have been to prison. Sadly, this results in more harm to our communities in the long run.
In my opinion, the most disturbing result of this trend of deadly attacks, lack of support from leadership and limited funds is where it will put us in the future. I am witnessing more and more passionate law enforcement officers who love their jobs, retire early or leave the profession altogether. My fear is not only the exodus of our current law enforcement officers, but also the lack of high quality applicants in the future. The law enforcement officer was once revered and respected, making up for the long hours and bad working conditions. That is slowly slipping away. We need good, caring intelligent men and women who have a passion for helping people. We need those who care about their community and who are willing to do the job of law enforcement for the love of the job -- not the paycheck.
I have loved law enforcement since the first time I sat in a patrol car more than 28 years ago. The overwhelming outpouring of love and support from the citizens of Baxter County shown to me and my Officers, has been tremendous during these trying times. I still love going to work and I can honestly say I love my job, (well, at least 95% of the time). At the same time, I worry. I worry about the increasing lack of respect for authority. I worry about what seems like an increase of calls for service and then the ambush of the officer. I worry about my deputies when they go to work, every call they answer, every traffic stop they make and now even when they go home. I worry about our ability to recruit highly qualified people to fill the shoes of those who retire in our department and all across America. I worry about what happens when the job is no longer fun and our officers finally say enough is enough and walk out the door. I worry about what that will do to the thin blue line. I worry about America...
Sheriff John Montgomery