POLICE IN THE USA
Militia and police: what is the difference? Skeptics in Russia say that the difference is in name only. On the request of the editorial staff, I secured an interview with police department officials of a US city in order to learn about how law enforcement works in their country. The difference between militia in Russia and police in the United States was visible the moment I entered the police department offices. I, a Russian journalist, was not asked for any document even though my pocket was full of many forms of identification. I was greeted by the opening remark, “Welcome to Port Angeles”. I was surprised to learn that a policeman could be a Christian believer who attends church. What surprised me even more was that the city police chief routinely hosts foreign students in his home, year after year, including Russian and Moldovian students.
Brian Smith, the deputy police chief of the Port Angeles Police Department, agreed to answer my questions.
– Brian, what education level is required in order to become a police officer?
– It depends on the agency. In the Port Angeles department, we require 90 college credits to qualify. You need to have 90 credit hours or what we call an associates degree. We have 33 sworn officers.. Four of our officers have master’s degrees. We have 80% who have either a master’s or bachelor’s degree. In the United States, the minimal typical requirement is a high school diploma. There are a couple of organizations that advocate educational standards be increased. In Port Angeles, we look for education when we hire, plus the minimum requirements of state and local agencies. Federal agencies quite often require a college degree; the FBI requires a college degree. As job placement becomes more competitive, candidates have a higher level of education entering the police service. Better educated people do better in this profession.
– In order to be taken to law enforcement education and training, is it necessary for the applicant to present any characteristics proving that he does not have criminal background?
– We do a background investigation and screen all applicants. This state has standards of practice that we follow. They are consistent across the board with state and local agencies in Washington. They include a background investigation as far as character, history, where you have lived, your employment, and any prior arrests. I can’t relate them all here, but we have standards that are pretty strict. If you don’t meet the standards, then you don’t meet the minumum. We do a polygraph examination on everybody; a device that hooks up and measures your sympathetic nervous system. Everybody gets a psychological exam, as well as an oral interview. This is a multi-step process. After the initial written application process, we have an extensive background application that you fill out exploring a lot of information about yourself. Then our detectives do a background investigation on what you wrote, in addition to their independent findings. We are very successful at getting people of very high character and very high values to work for us.
– What are the divisions and structures of police in the USA?
– The division of structure of police in the USA is the same as the governmental structure in this country. We have a federal government that has limited powers established by law in the Constitution. Then there are departments in government like the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Within those departments of government, which are like the Cabinet that are appointed by the President, there are different bureaus. The FBI is a bureau inside the Justice Department. It is a federal agency that has specific laws they enforce nationwide, but there is no nationwide police in the US. The US Border Patrol, here on the border, is a part of Homeland Security. Border Patrol officers enforce laws related to customs, smuggling, immigration, and drugs. In state government, you have the state highway patrol, or state police, depending on the state. Everywhere in the US, you have counties which are unincorporated areas except for the city land. Some counties have a sheriff that is elected and some counties have county police appointed. Cities within the counties, like Port Angeles, are incorporated areas that ususally have a police department lead by the police chief who is appointed or hired by a city manager. Some cities, especially small ones, contract with the county sheriff’s department for police service. In areas where you are not in an incorporated town, the sheriff’s department enforces the law excepting a few areas of the US. Connecticut has a state police. They do policing in unincorporated areas. Hawaii doesn’t have a state police; they only have island police. The structure of government in the US is federal, state, and local. Policing is structured in the same way. There are overlapping responsibilities, but much less than maybe in Europe where they can have national police. The principle here, in the US, is for all responsibility in government to be moved to the local level to the extent possible. That is the nature of our structure, even though you think we have a big federal government. Actually, most law enforcement in the US is performed by local and county agencies. In Washington State, there is the State Patrol which is focused on highway patrol and special investigations. The sheriff’s department works in the county, and local city police serve in incorporated cities.
– Please describe your thoughts about police work being very dangerous.
– Very dangerous is relative to where you work and what you do. It is dangerous all over the world, depending on the circumstances. Everything is about risk management. So, in the US, police officers are very well trained. The better you are trained and the better equipped, the less dangerous the job becomes statistically. In the US, 200 officers a year lose their life in the line of duty; more or less. Half of those are killed in accidents of some kind. The others are killed related to violence. Of the officers who are killed in violence, 40% are not wearing any body armor like I am wearing. The most predictable risks are preventable risks. We relate how we train and operate upon if a risk is predictable, to how the risk is preventable. You see screens in the back of our cars to separate the front from the back. You see us wearing intermediate weapons; tazers and other different devices. Predictable risks become preventable. There is an element of danger in the job everyday. But the danger and the risk are managable with good police practices.
– Is this profession well-paid in the USA?
– Yes, I believe police work is well paid considering what you have to do to get it. Obviously, the higher up you are in management and the higher up you are in the profession, the better you get paid. The more education you need for a particular job, graduate degree, the larger size of the department, but police officers and firefighters in the US are paid reasonably to allow them to live in a way that they don’t have to worry about supporting their families. It is an attractive profession that pays well.
– What is the social attitude toward policemen? What do you think influences respect, disrespect, and many attitudes in between?
– It depends upon where you live, where you work, and your agency, but in general, respect is pretty good. Have you noticed when an officer is murdered in the line of duty, there’s a large memorial preceded by an overwhelming procession of policemen, firemen, and the public. People come out, stand on the street and salute. Does that happen in Russia? In Lakewood, last year, four officers were murdered. In the US, we live in a free country. In this freedom of thought, there are a small percentage of people who don’t respect law enforcement and this can result in violent confrontations. When an officer is murdered like Chris Fairbanks, a US Forest Service law enforcement officer who was gunned down two and a half years ago in this county, about 5,000 people came to the memorial service in Port Angeles. Basically a quarter of the size of the city made a procession that was probably ten miles long. People came out to the edge of the street with flags, standing at attention as the procession went by them. This kind of loss and remembrance is a very moving experience. It is sad and this response makes a point of people demonstrating that they care about the officer, their family, and all who serve the public, that they are valuable.
– What was your personal motivation to become a police officer?
– Challenge, job satisfaction, and interest in law enforcement, in general, drew me into this profession. I find the work desirable, interesting, challenging, and rewarding.
– Aren’t you disappointed?
– No, not at all.
– Can you please describe the advantages and disadvantages of working in law enforcement?
– The most stressful job in the US is law enforcement. I think air traffic control and law enforcement are tied. So the disadvantage is that you are entering a profession that, by definition, is the most stressful. The toll that it has on you physically, personally, your family, shift work, working holidays, odd hours, and the things you get exposed to can create a lot of wear and tear on you. Those are some of the disadvantages. To me the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. In the US, police work is looked at as a very desirable profession. It is a hard job to get. The percentage of the applicants who get a position depends on the agency. Very few people who apply overall, whether it’s federal, state, or local achieve a position in law enforcement. Out of one hundred appliclants, maybe one gets the job. They have to meet all of these standards: physical, psychological, mental, moral, ethical background, and education. It all needs to be a good fit.
– What issues are the most challenging in maintaining social order?
– Law enforcement serves to maintain quality of life. Where do you live right now? You live in the city. Our job is to make your perception a reality that Port Angeles is a safe and secure place to live, learn, recreate, play, and visit. That’s our job. It’s for you. If you feel that it is safe and secure to live, learn, recreate, play, and visit, then we are doing our job right. So that’s a challenge when people are burglarizing houses; that’s a big deal for us. Drunk driving where people get hurt; that’s a big deal for us. The most violent crimes that happen here are amongst people who know each other, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t a problem. Very little violent crime in Port Angeles happens between people who don’t know each other. In big cities, violent crimes happen approximately equally between strangers and people who know each other. Obviously the violent crime that happens when you don’t know the person is scarier to the public than the violent crime that happens between family members. Still, it’s just as bad. Our goal here is to preserve the quality of life.
– What if a police officer exceeds his power?
– What do you mean exceeds power?
– For example, he uses his job positon for his own purpose or he takes bribes to release a criminal, etc.
– In America, there are very few places where you can find modern law enforcement involved in taking bribes. It would be very hard to find it here. There is policy, there are laws, and there are standards. I look at misdeeds in light of ethics. Did somebody do something that they knew was wrong, on purpose, or did the person just make a mistake. In the US, we have high standards in officers. We hire officers who know what the standards are from the beginning. It’s rare in Port Angeles that an officer does something wrong on purpose. We have a mechanism to deal with a problem and to find out if it is really true. We have a policy to do internal investigations on ourselves. Breaking the law is breaking the law. A police officer in the US cannot purposely break the law. It actually cannot happen. Acts like taking bribes and such, do not work. It isn’t a part of what people expect here.
– Are there volunteers in police work?
– Yes, we have volunteers here.
– And what can they do?
– Volunteers can do things that don’t require special training or equipment; basically, jobs that support the rest of the officers. The sheriff’s department has them. We have them. Things like deploying traffic devices, assisting us with crowd work, and parades. We have some volunteer reserve officers who are trained. They are allowed to be an adjunct, a secondary person, but the majority of our work is done by non-volunteers; by regular full-time people.
– Law enforcement in the USA is known to be one of the best functioning police systems in the world. What does this high level depend upon?
– Checks and balances. It is fundamental to the US government. We’re a country of checks and balances. Nobody has any power that can’t be checked and balanced by someone else. The police in the US are accountable to legislative bodies, to executives, and to citizens. There are all sorts of ways that we are accountable through our legal system. The internal checks and balances are more complicated in the US. Canada’s government system works the same way. I would say that the UK is similar, as is much of Europe. It is an American tradition that no one entity has absolute power. So police never have absolute power in any situation that there is not a check and balance. We don’t have a national police which is a check and balance. Law enforcement has to work together and cooperate or they can’t succeed. The FBI is not a national police force. In the US, it has always been debated whether we should or shouldn’t have national police. You go to Mexico and you can find a couple of different versions of national police. We have another principle called the rule of law. It holds law enforcement to a standard. If we can’t meet the standard throughout the process, to make a criminal case, it is looked at from a number of directions to see if we followed the rule of law; to see if we did what we were supposed to do. It can be frustrating, but it also requires you to satisfy people throughout the process, who aren’t vested in what you’ve done, in order to complete the right conclusion.
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