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The Role Sheriffs Play in the Reforming of our Laws and Law Enforcement

April 22, 2015

Recently, I read an article titled the Myth of Police Reform which appeared in The Atlantic. In the article, the writers contend society has thrown all of its failures at the police. They go on to say when society is not able to address a complex social issue, which reaches a crisis point, it often resorts to criminalizing the issue to regain control. Further they point out turning the matter over to the police is often not the best solution to every ill in society.

I see the writer's point, to a degree. It is true law enforcement officers are the most visible part of government. Law enforcement officers are on duty around the clock and often the first to arrive at the scene of a crisis and expected to take action to resolve the matter. The decisions made by law enforcement officers to take action, or not take action, can and will be second guessed by many in society. This is why law enforcement officers in our society are constantly assailed on every front and are always in the news. 

Americans have always been skeptical of government and those who have authority and power, and in the past we have had some good reasons to be. In fact, had we not been we probably would not be in America today. In our nation, citizens are elected to write the laws, the police enforce the laws and the courts rule on the process. Our system of laws is based on voluntary compliance. Legislators know a small fraction of the population will not comply with the laws they pass and they want these violators to pay the price for refusing to comply. Otherwise you end up with a law that has no teeth. To remedy, this criminal sanctions are applied and enforcement provisions are written into the law.

In general, the public supports the police when they are going after the BAD guys (but this is a relative term) but a percentage of the public will begin to abandon the police when special interest groups challenge the laws and the process. Today, some argue the move to criminalize what should be a civil matter has placed a tremendous burden on the criminal justice system over the years. 

Common sense would seem to dictate we only take someone's freedom away as a last resort. Does it make sense to book someone for failing to pay traffic citations or have an expired tag or license? Maybe. Does it make sense to book someone who fails to pay taxes on cigarettes or alcohol? Maybe, maybe not. Does it make sense to book someone who is fishing without a license or is in possession of too many fish? That depends. But who is to say what should be criminal versus civil? Ultimately, it's the people via their elected representatives. The truth is the police don't get to decide and have little input into the decision.

In the high profile cases we see playing out across the nation over the past few years, we see a common theme of people refusing to comply with the law and the orders they are given by the police. This decision often puts the officer into a position where he or she has to use force and this can quickly escalate into a very dangerous situation for the officer, the individual and innocent bystanders. While the particular law the officer is enforcing may not be a serious violation, it is still the law and must be adhered to.

As members of democratic society, we cannot adopt a position that we only comply with the laws if we agree with them. If we do, we set the stage for social unrest and the demise of our society. If we disagree with the law or feel that reform is needed, there is a process that must be followed to change it, but violations of the law cannot be ignored by law enforcement. In this situation, law enforcement is not the problem. If the law needs to be changed, the law is the problem.

To address the current situation, we will need to do at least three things:

First, our laws must be reviewed and clear standards regarding what is civil versus criminal must be applied. 

Second, law enforcement officers must be given better tools and training to understand how to deescalate volatile situations and use appropriate discretion. 

Third, citizens must to understand that when a law enforcement officer tells them they are being detained or under arrest they have to comply with the orders they are given. These are orders, not casual suggestions.

Citizens must respect their own laws and those who enforce them should not be assaulted for merely doing their job. Each year, I attend a law enforcement memorial where I meet with the families of the law enforcement officers who have died upholding our laws. My heart goes out to these families. The sacrifice made by these officers and their families to ensure our laws are safeguarded is immense. Our laws are not just words, they underpin our values as a society and every citizen has an obligation to uphold and support them.

The sheriffs in our state are well positioned to understand our laws better than anyone else because they occupy all of the essential roles within the system (i.e., citizen, elected official and law enforcement official) at the same time. Because of this they have the insight to ensure our system of government works properly. That is why I am proud to support them in their work on legislative issues year after year. Because they do see and understand the big picture and their voice cannot be silenced, positive change occurs and our system of laws is constantly being reformed and improved. In addition, they understand the stress and strain their officers experience while enforcing the law and work to assist them so they can carry out their duties in a safe, effective and efficient manner. Finally, they interact with the citizens, like you and me, who elected them into office to ensure our laws are meeting the needs of the community. 

So the next time you read an article or hear someone being critical of the police and making it appear they are the cause of all the ills in our society, ask yourself, “Was the law enforcement officer doing his or her job of enforcing the law?” Then ask yourself, “Who wrote the law and does it need to be reformed?” If you think it does, then as a citizen speak out and call for change. In the meanwhile, our law enforcement officers will continue to carry out their duties and enforce our laws and for that they deserve our respect.