Perception is Reality

How many times have we heard the phrase “perception is reality” when people talk about policing in this country? Well, perception is OUR reality, too. And right now, our perception is that the people we serve do not have our backs. But we must ask ourselves, “Is that reality or a skewed perception”?
Perception is OUR reality, too. And we can change it.

In police stations, sector offices, squad cars, and hometown dinner spots across the country, many law enforcement officers are having similar conversations. “Why put myself in harm’s way if nobody appreciates it?” “Why risk my career and my financial future for people who don’t even want me in their neighborhood?” “What’s the easiest way to avoid media scrutiny?” “If I slow down my work effort and do the minimum, will anyone even care?”

In my 18 years of service to the residents of Evansville, Indiana, I have never seen our officers question their place in our community the way they are doing right now. I have never known them to question the amount of support and respect the residents have for us. We always believed that as long as we were arresting criminals and doing community outreach, the public would support us. That belief is being tested in agencies all around the country.

The amount of negative coverage by media outlets and social media posts critical of law enforcement has left us with a perception that we are alone. We feel alone in our efforts to prevent crime, reduce victimization, and improve quality of life in our communities. We now find ourselves questioning whether our efforts are appreciated. We keep asking ourselves and our peers if anything we do will make a difference in public opinion. In the hearts and minds of many cops, the answer is “No” to both. That’s OUR perception. That’s OUR reality.

However, we can change our perception by seeking out the truth that is reality. I am talking about the truth and reality that lets us know our communities have never turned against us. They have always “had our six” and always will. As the Public Information Officer for my agency, I am on social media both for the department and personally. I see a lot of stuff that would lead me to question the support for cops. But here is what I have learned along the way: Our biggest supporters are not the folks who constantly take to the computer to communicate their thoughts and ideas about policing. It is easy to lob insults, hate, and misinformation from the comfort of home. It is easy for people to yell profanities at cops when they are surrounded by a large group of people who are acting the same way. The ones who believe that yelling anything loudly and repeatedly will somehow make it the truth are underestimating the rest of the voices in our country. There are many voices that relay their support far from the criticism that TV cameras and chaos often bring.

Our supporters have always been willing to approach us with a handshake and words of gratitude. They are the ones who have our back and have not wavered. They, like us, realize we are not immune from bad decisions, bad outcomes, and misconduct. But they also realize that we are not the enemy. They know that the vast majority of us serve with pride, integrity, compassion, and a desire to make our communities safe for everyone.

While these impromptu meetings are great, we need to continue to create positive interactions. While well-known events like Coffee with a Cop and National Night Out help bring cops and community members together, we must make sure we continue to do the smaller things that foster good will and open the door for the positive feedback. Whether you spend a few minutes chatting with families in a park, doing a walkthrough at a school, attending a neighborhood meeting or block party, or getting out of the car while patrolling your beat just to talk to people about life in their neighborhood—any of these things will show us that we are not alone. This is where we will find the answers to our troubling questions. And we will get those answers again and again.

Knowing that we are supported and appreciated is important to our well-being. Everyone wants to feel appreciated. Cops are no different. When we know we are wanted and needed, we will continue to train and ensure we can answer the call when we are asked to put ourselves in harm’s way. When we continue to train and keep our mind in the right place, it will have a positive impact on our officer safety.
We have our communities 24–7. And believe me, they have our six!

Jason Cullum
Law Enforcement Fellow
The COPS Office

Back to top

Community Policing Dispatch Photo Contest Winner: Jefferson County (Colorado) Sheriff's Office | COPS Office Director's Letter on SROs | Improving Officer Resiliency to Stress and Associated Health Outcomes | Perception is Reality | Some Solutions to the Reputation Crisis Impacting Policing