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Police perceptions caught in social media cross fire

I was pulled over a while back. Immediately I tried figuring out what I’d done wrong. I didn’t run a stop sign, wasn’t speeding, wasn’t tailgating To top things off, I was driving a big blue marked Tahoe with a red light on top and was on duty. More interestingly, the one pulling me over was driving a civilian SUV.

This doesn’t happen often but has a few times in the past. Usually, the person wants to make a complaint about something, has some crisis that needs attention, or the person is upset with something we did.

I pulled over, exited my patrol car, and cautiously approached the SUV, while also trying to rule out that this wasn’t some type of threat to me. A woman got out, met me halfway between the two vehicles, and extended her hand. I relaxed a little and shook her hand while she explained that she stopped me to just say “thank you” for what I and other police officers do. She said, “You guys (police) have had a rough time lately,” and she wanted to let us know that there still are people out here who appreciate and support us. I thanked the woman and assured her that I’d pass on her kind words to the other troopers.

It was a refreshing interaction, and I truly appreciated her contact. I did pass this on to the others.

A downside to our profession is the fact that a majority of our contacts with the public are negative or at least perceived as negative – being pulled over for a traffic violation, handling complaints where someone was victimized, responding to a medical emergency, etc. Some of these are negative just due to the circumstances themselves.

There are positive contacts as well, but it’s not nearly as often. Most citizens rarely or never have contact with the police. Some have more than their share.

In a previous article we mentioned the downside to social media and how it can negatively affect people if used recklessly. Unfortunately, this includes law enforcement as well and the perception the community has of us. For example, a citizen has one negative experience with a police officer and chooses to display their opinion across social media.

Keep in mind this contact may very well have been initiated by the citizen and/or their conduct in the first place. They may exaggerate the contact, leave out key elements or even be less than truthful. Their version is spread through social media, exaggerated more, things added, things deleted, etc., etc., and the latest version is usually way off from the actual event or the truth.

Others see it, believe it and choose to add fuel to it. It happens often, and we’ve experienced it many times.

One thing I’ve learned during my time in law enforcement is you can’t necessarily believe everything you hear from people. With that, it isn’t wise to make a quick assumption or decision based on one’s perceived version of events. There usually is another side to the story, and it may be best to get that before you act.

When people recklessly use social media in this manner, to generate negativity and hatred towards law enforcement, it ultimately damages and hurts all of us. It creates separation, distrust, and ultimately serves no one.

The national media has been having a field day sensationalizing police related incidents. Apparently it makes good news. Some reporters fail to publicize all of the facts due to “political correctness” or possibly other reasons. Many are quick to “armchair quarterback” as they analyze these incidents.

Whether they know the facts or not, vocal instigators are quick to jump on the bandwagon and place blame, accuse police of racism and spread distrust and hatred. Some in prominent political positions are doing the same thing. I think you get my point by now.

Police officers should be, and are, held to a higher standard and shouldn’t do things that erode the public’s trust. We are human though and sometimes officers make mistakes, use bad judgement, or fail to follow procedures and training.

In many instances officers are forced to act instantly or make split second decisions. These actions or decisions are then later judged by others over hours, weeks, or months.

Please keep in mind that a vast majority of these quick decisions and actions are correct and result in an acceptable outcome. We just don’t hear about these very often.

As in any profession, accountability is important and corrective action should be appropriate, given the circumstances. If any misconduct by a police officer is intentional, I have little sympathy for them and would rather not have them among our ranks. Many law enforcement officers share these feelings. The inappropriate actions of one officer can reflect on many of us and make our jobs even harder.

Your police officers are here to protect and serve the public. We live here, our families and friends live here, and we all want a safe and stable community. We are trusted by you to do our best to accomplish this, and we thank you for your support.

Matt Djerf is the community service trooper for the Michigan State Police-Calumet Post.