Is the Police Department a Typical Government Agency?


The author, who works many hours per week as a volunteer in his local Police Department, argues that, unlike virtually every other government agency (except the military), the Police are actually discharging appropriate constitutional duties — and doing so in a responsible manner.


Thanks to the never-ending series of Republican presidential candidate debates, the American people are being exposed to a hearty dose of skepticism about the role of government in society. Nevertheless, I believe all would agree that a proper and fundamental governmental role is the protection of the people and the homeland. At the national level, this of course involves the military and at the local level, the Police. It is the latter that I will address here. I will suggest, based on personal anecdotal evidence, that the answer to the question posed in the title is no.

When I retired a little over two years ago (from a university faculty position), I began volunteering in my county’s Police Department. I have spent up to four half-days per week working in three different units in the Department. Having had (fortunately) almost nothing to do with law enforcement throughout my life – other than some cursory interactions with the Campus Police during my time as an academic administrator – I bring an objective and dispassionate eye to an assessment of the Police Department.

I live in Montgomery County (in Maryland, just outside Washington, DC), which has a population of roughly one million people. The county Police Department – or MCPD, as it is universally known and referred to – has approximately 1150 sworn officers and 400 non-sworn employees. While not comparable to New York or Chicago in numbers, MCPD still represents a major police force in size, scope and operation. Incidentally, the ratio of officers to residents is rather low compared to most jurisdictions. This reflects both the socio-economic nature of the county as well as the fine job that MCPD is doing. In fact, I believe that MCPD is indeed doing an excellent job. But before I try to justify that assessment – as well as to highlight a few areas in which improvements could be implemented – let me describe a terrific feature of MCPD as well as offer a comment on the nature of its senior personnel and their attitude toward their role.

I have been fortunate to have received assignments in three high profile units within MCPD: Media Services, Major Crimes and Special Investigations. Oh don’t mistake me, the cops have not entrusted this sexagenarian volunteer with any dangerous responsibilities. Rather I have been involved mainly in document preparation and database maintenance. But in principle, my efforts free up the time of police officers – and that is the point of the program under whose rubric I serve: using the talents of volunteers and interns to enable sworn officers to devote more time to the most crucial aspects of their job.

My association with MCPD began with an 18-week course in its Citizen Academy (one night per week for three hours). The course is open not only to volunteers and interns, but in fact to any citizen of the county who wishes to familiarize himself with the workings of the Police Department. The course was phenomenal. Each week we had an in-depth introduction to one of the units of MCPD. The presentations – by sworn officers, some at very high rank – were thoroughly prepared, professionally delivered and mesmerizingly interesting. They were also very hands-on. In particular, I: spent a Saturday evening in a police cruiser while the officer patrolled the county streets (I wound up directing traffic as she dealt with an accident); sat in at a 911 call center; went behind bars at the County Detention Center; participated in a mock trial at the County Courthouse; witnessed a mock suspect apprehension; fired a Glock at the county range; engaged in an electronically simulated shoot-don’t shoot exercise; and observed a canine unit training session. I have since learned that the thoroughness, imagination and professionalism that characterized the Citizen Academy are representative of the operation of MCPD as a whole.

I have been fortunate to get to know quite a few of MCPD’s senior officers (Captains and Lieutenants). And most interestingly, because of a geographical accident and a special visitor, I have made the acquaintance of the Chief. The Chief is an amazing fellow – a local boy who rose through the ranks (of neighboring jurisdictions) to assume the top spot. Like many who rise to the leadership of a big organization, the Chief is intelligent, self-confident and incredibly charming. But I also sense a deep commitment to MCPD, to the public he serves and most of all to the men and women under his command who risk their lives to keep our streets safe. This attitude permeates down and is reflected in the senior personnel who lead the various Departmental units.

Here are a few more concrete features that illustrate the excellent job MCPD does:

  • Whether they are responding to a citizen’s plea for help, a criminal incident on the streets, a reporter’s request for information or a sister agency’s query about a suspect, the response is prompt, courteous and appropriate. I am always amazed, when working in Media Services, by the ability of the personnel there to formulate public information in the most useful way without divulging sensitive information on suspects or victims.
  • The above represents only one aspect of the interaction with the public. From traffic stops to victim assistance to criminal pursuit, our officers never lose sight of who it is that they are sworn to protect – and they do so diligently, professionally and in the glare of the public spotlight.
  • MCPD appreciates that the events which draw its attention are often played out over an extended period. I am impressed by the persistence and doggedness that is evident in MCPD’s approach to complicated crimes that are not quickly adjudicated.
  • Police officers are engaged in dangerous work. One of the quivers in their arsenal is superior training. From the incredibly rigorous requirements of the Police Academy to the ongoing insistence on weapons and personal training, our officers must meet a high standard. Obviously, this serves them and the public well as they pursue their hazardous tasks.
  • Finally, the methods and gadgets that our Department deploys are among the finest. Budget constraints are a problem, but it is reassuring to see state of the art crime labs, computer systems and police vehicles.

Admittedly, all of the above is anecdotal – determined by personal impressions. In fact, there is ample data on crime rates on MCPD’s web site to corroborate the impressions. Next, a few observations on personnel:

  • I find the detectives the most interesting group of people among police personnel. They bear some resemblance to the characters who portray them on TV. Not only are they dogged and fearless, but their sense of humor is fantastic. Perhaps it’s a requisite of the job because of the slime they encounter on a regular basis – murder and mayhem require a high level of emotional detachment in order to survive. The cavalier way that they refer to perps and cadavers takes some getting used to, but they are a fun bunch to hang around with.
  • There is an esprit de corps among the non-sworn personnel that is palpable. Actually in some ways, these folks remind me of the non-academic staff at the University. Most are dedicated to the mission of MCPD, take pride in having a job at a critical public institution and provide excellent support for the sworn personnel.
  • Finally, there is the cop in the cruiser. Keeping her eye on the street, manipulating that complicated computer at her fingertips, staying in close contact with home base, never knowing whether the next public interaction will be mundane or murderous, boring or brutal, routine or riotous. It’s exciting, challenging and dangerous, and it requires a level of expertise that gives new meaning to the phrase “people skills.” From what I’ve seen of it, our guys and gals do a great job.

There are a few warts of course. Let me just mention three – and I would say that all of them arise as a consequence of the fact that the Police Department is a government agency and that police personnel are unionized government employees.

  1. As in any government agency, there are employees who behave badly: shave work hours; manifest laziness and inattention to detail; worry more about their breaks, lunch hours and quitting time than about doing their job conscientiously; become disgruntled when their step pay increases don’t match their expectations and consequently adopt poor work habits that inhibit their chances of promotion; lose sight of the fact that theirs is a service position; complain incessantly, cast aspersions on the work ethic of their more diligent colleagues and count the years until early retirement. Fortunately, this is not the typical employee.
  2. Again, as in every government agency whose priorities and policies are set by politicians, there is a painfully evident problem of PC – political correctness, that is. There is too much pandering to minorities, coddling of illegal immigrants, genuflecting to “environmental concerns” and searching for ‘hate crimes.” Actually, it was much worse at the University.
  3. I won’t belabor this, but there is too much waste. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, as with any government agency, those responsible for budgets are not spending their own money. Waste is inevitable.

Well, despite the aforementioned three, overall I would give my Police Department high grades for the honor and faithfulness with which it discharges its duties. To get a sense of what an achievement that actually is, allow me to quote from my speech as the class representative at the Citizen Academy graduation:

If you, as a member of the general public, are interacting with a police officer, you are probably not having a good day. You are a suspect, a victim or a witness and in any of these roles, dealing with a police officer was not high on your priority list when you arose that morning. Moreover, when the police officer looks at you, he or she likely sees someone who is injured, indignant, potentially or actually violent, frightened, confused or suspicious, and perhaps some or all of these simultaneously. In the face of such overwhelmingly negative a priori conditions, it is the police officer’s job to be professional, polite, thorough, forceful when appropriate and mindful of the myriad laws and regulations that govern his or her interaction with you. It seems to me an incredibly challenging job and one of my main motivations in taking the course was to try to get a sense of how our police officers meet and surmount that challenge. I am pleased to say that 18 weeks in the Academy have reassured me that the vast majority of our police officers are doing an excellent job in meeting that challenge.

More generally, it is my assessment that my Police Department, MCPD, is doing a first-rate job of meeting its Constitutional responsibility to protect the public. National and local polls reveal that the public rarely reaches a similar conclusion about almost any other government agency, save the military.