*Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News on November 4, 2012.
American journalist Hunter Thompson said that we cannot expect people to have respect for law and order until we teach respect to those we have entrusted to enforce those laws.
When I read those words I couldn’t help but think of the citizen complaints I’ve taken as a supervisor where the origin of the complaint was that the citizen felt “disrespected” by the officer. Respect is a powerful thing. Even though many people cannot define it they know when it is not existent.
California Sheriff Deputy Elton Simmons has been a motorcycle cop since 1992. In 20 years and with over 25,000 traffic stops, he has not received a single complaint. You might assume that he doesn’t write a lot of tickets, hence the lack of complaints. Actually, he believes tickets save lives and is unforgiving to those who break the law and offer phony excuses for doing so.
After learning about Simmons, CBS affiliates trailed him one day during his shift. They learned very quickly that Deputy Simmons “has the pitch-perfect mix of authority and diplomacy with none of the attitude that sometimes comes with a cop.” During his interview, Simmons said that one thing he hates is to be looked down upon. “I can’t stand it – so I’m not going to look down at you” he said.
That is the essence of unconditional respect— to see and value others as people.
It means not violating or disregarding another’s personhood. That means that a president of a university and a homeless person on the street deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion despite the disparity of their lots in life. We must remember that each life unravels differently and where people are is not always an indication of who they are.
Police officers have a tendency to live in an “us versus them” mindset. Because we interact with people who break the law and are conscious of those violent criminals who wish to do us harm, the lens for which we see the world becomes skewed. The fact is that humans are neither all good nor all bad (psychopaths being an exception). J.K. Rowling said, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”
When we see those we arrest as all bad, we determine that they don’t deserve our respect because they have disrespected the law and society. This doesn’t mean that we have to trust them, but we should respect them. Those things are not mutually exclusive.
Respect can still be given to those who disregard the law. In fact, I find that the most successful police officers are those who understand on a deeper level the concept of respect. When a police officer treats a person in handcuffs with empathy and compassion, I know that they are operating on a higher plane and using their influence rather than relying solely on their power and authority. If they have to apply physical force, they do so with restraint and necessity and not for the sake of exuding power.
One might think that being respectful to all people is a sign of weakness and I disagree vehemently. The interesting part about respect is that the more you give away, the more you get.
It takes great courage to show compassion and respect to all human beings – especially to those who look, think, and behave differently than us. We are all equal in the fact that we are all different. We are all the same in the fact that we will never be the same.
I think Deputy Simmons has the right idea. When we stop looking up to people or looking down at people, we will start to respect all people.