California has one of the highest, hiring and training standards for police officers in America

By Scot Smithee

Scot Smithee

Thirty-six years ago when I first put on the Gilroy police officer uniform my goal was to make a positive difference in the lives of others and make Gilroy a safer place.  I never imagined there would come a time in my career when the actions of a police officer across the country could have a direct impact on policing locally.

California has one of, if not the highest, hiring and training standards in the country. If you start out hiring the right people for the job and follow up with high quality, relevant training you avoid many of the problems that can plaque a profession. I certainly don’t think it is fair or accurate to categorize everyone in a profession negatively based on the actions of a few. You do not see this in any other profession.

For instance, there are cases of doctors making significant mistakes that result in people losing their lives every year, but never has there been a nationwide movement against all doctors in the country. There are a few bad apples in every profession who do horrible things, but when they involve a law enforcement officer the profession gets scrutinized at a national level.

There are lots of proposals made by non-law enforcement people who have become self-proclaimed experts on the changes that need to be made to reform the law enforcement profession.  Some of this comes from assumptions that are neither evidence based nor data driven. There are plenty of studies out there. For instance, have you read the studies on police use of force and racial disparity completed by prestigious educational institutions?  They include Yale, Harvard and more recently the University of Maryland and Michigan State.

Despite these scientific studies being completed with definitive data driven analysis, I have never seen their results mentioned in the mainstream media. It may surprise you that the results of such studies tell a very different story from some of the messaging being repeated over and over on national platforms.

Does this mean law enforcement is perfect and we don’t need to consider reforms in how we conduct business? Absolutely not. Police officers are not superhuman characters from a movie who are flawless. We are human, we are fallible and sometimes we make mistakes. Reasonable laws, practices, policies and procedures are implemented and continually updated to minimize those mistakes wherever possible. When you deal with complex, dynamic and rapidly evolving, sometimes life-threatening situations, you cannot expect perfection 100 percent of the time.

One of my biggest fears with the onslaught of new legislation and proposals to further regulate law enforcement is the end result for our community. If the expectation is perfection, which I think we can all agree is not attainable in any profession, and consequences are too severe for not being perfect, what is the outcome? I believe the answer involves some level of fear on the part of officers to confront potentially dangerous or violent situations. Fear of being perceived as not having acted appropriately in the eyes of less-informed critics and in the court of public opinion.

Creating fear in good officers who have dedicated their lives to making our communities safer is not only wrong, it is dangerous. A failure to act on the part of the officer in such situations puts citizens at risk and potentially increases victimization. The ultimate goal of the Gilroy Police Department is to provide the highest level of service we can with the resources allocated. Over the years those levels have decreased as more of society’s issues are passed down to the police while legal requirements eat away at available time to be proactive. If you never have cause to call the police this gradual degradation in response times and proactive law enforcement is not likely to affect your daily life. A person calling 911 for an emergency, however, has an expectation of immediate service.

Your police department and the services we provide are an extension of what the community expects and deserves. Ultimately a police department is held accountable by their city council who are elected by community members to represent their best interests.  I am immensely proud of my 36 years of service. I love our community and believe the southern Santa Clara Valley is a very special place. The community support has been second to none and I encourage you to look for ways to engage others to make a positive difference.

A safe and healthy community is not solely the responsibility of law enforcement. It takes all of us working together, developing relationships and creating positive change.

Scot Smithee is the Gilroy Police Chief who recently announced his retirement. He wrote this column for Morgan Hill Life.

Guest Column