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"Ferguson" doesn't represent most law officers

Letter to the Editor

 


A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a group of teenagers who were part of a scouting organization. The first question I asked was, “What do you think of when you think of the police?” A 17-year-old boy raised his hand and said, “Ferguson.” I was hoping to hear something about the police helping and protecting people. It hit me that now would be a good time to recognize the elephant in the room. Because of events (or perception of events) in the state and nationwide, law enforcement has received a black eye. For some people, the image of the police as guardians has been tarnished. For these people, the police are abusers to be feared and despised.

Let me say first that law enforcement officials can make mistakes. Of these mistakes, some are grievous, but vast majorities are not. The profession in this state goes to great lengths to make sure those chosen to be our guardians are worthy to wear the badge and are unlikely to make mistakes that violate the public trust. For those who want to be in law enforcement, the process is arduous and long. First, applicants must take a written test to ensure their mental acuity and a fitness test to make sure they are physically capable of doing the job. The applicants are ranked based on their test scores. In our county, the top three candidates are forwarded to the Sheriff’s Office for an interview. Usually the interviews are conducted by a panel of agency personnel. Some departments even include a representative from the community. The person then is required to take a polygraph test (lie detector) a psychological test, and a medical physical.

A background investigation is done, usually by a detective. The investigator checks criminal and driving history, and contacts former employers, family, and references. Social media is also looked at to make sure there are no indicators of possible problems. We look at credit history to make sure there are no financial burdens that might affect work and decision making. After that, the chief or Sheriff selects the candidate he or she feels is the best fit for the community. The newly hired officer then attends a five-month police academy. Washington has an academy in Seattle and another in Spokane. The curriculum is standardized and administered by the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. The cadet must pass tests in all facets of law enforcement, including criminal law, case law, emergency vehicle operation, firearms, decision making, and ethics. Failing any portion can mean removal from the academy and termination. The graduate then goes back to their home agency for three months of field training where they are mentored by tenured and specially trained training officers. If the officer does not meet standards, they are terminated. Finally, the new officer or deputy is on probation for one year past their academy graduation date. During probation, the officer can be removed at the discretion of the agency head.

Law enforcement officers are human and, therefore, always capable of human frailty. We respond to that either by remedial training and/or discipline up to and including termination. In my experience this is an extremely rare occasion, yet sometimes magnified. I am very proud of the men and women on my team, and we are all proud of the service we provide. It is my hope that citizens will feel confident in our ability to be their guardians and know we willingly go into harm’s way on their behalf.

Douglas County Sheriff Harvey Gjesdal

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