By Brian Thiem: I recently participated in a discussion with a group of active and retired Oakland PD officers where a few officers referred to themselves as “old guys.” They reminisced about the “poor youngsters” never knowing the fun their job once was.
Since the cops who considered themselves “old guys” were hired when I was a lieutenant, I wonder what that makes me. I still think of them as youngsters—the twenty-something rookies I knew them as. It got me thinking about how policing changes from one generation of cops to the next, and how our perspectives change as we transition in our careers.
In society at large, a generation is considered to last about thirty years. We think of our parents as the older generation and our children as the younger generation. But police generations are much shorter, maybe half that length.
When I came on in 1980, the old-timers were rookies in the tumultuous 60’s, the days of Vietnam War protests, the SLA, and the Black Panthers (Oakland was their birthplace). Law enforcement changed radically in the late 60s and 70s, as did the rest of American. When I was a rookie, the old-timers reminisced about those good old days.
I remember the ten and twenty-year veteran police officers chastising me for choosing policing as a career when I came on because politicians and courts were tying our hands so we could no longer do our job. They were sure criminals would soon rule the streets because bad guys would get away since police could no longer shoot fleeing felons. When they became cops, it was legal and acceptable to yell, “Police—Stop” to a burglar that was running down the street with a stolen TV and shoot him in the back when he didn’t. Police and citizens alike are horrified at that today.
These old timers also ridiculed court decisions that required them to advise suspects of the right to remain silent before interrogating them, and were incensed that the Supreme Court demanded officers have an articulable reasonable suspicion a person was involved in criminal activity before they could stop and detain them.
It seemed I was still a youngster to many in my department when I transferred to Homicide as a sergeant with eight years on. But when I came out six years later and became a patrol sergeant, there was no doubt I was now an old-timer in my new job. I was assigned to the rookie squad, full of officers in their early twenties, who saw me as closer to their parents’ age (I was 39), than their own. As any police sergeant knows, supervising a squad full of rookies is similar to parenting a bunch of kids. I constantly worried about them getting hurt or caught up in serious misconduct, and wondered if they would ever grow up and mature. They did…and now consider themselves old-timers.
By the time I made lieutenant in my early 40s, I really was the parents’ age of many of the rookies on my watch, and even some of my younger sergeants viewed me as belonging to an earlier generation of policing.
These young sergeants came on when the department was evolving into Community Policing, which we old timers silently believed to be just a fad that would soon die. We saw it as little more than a formalized “beat health,” philosophy, which we had embraced as beat cops, taking responsibility for the citizens and everything else on our beats.
Then came OPD’s version of CompStat—computers spitting out crime data, which directed where and how we policed the city. It transformed policing into a top-to-bottom-driven organization. When I came on, beat cops knew where the crime was occurring and who was doing it on their beats and handled it. Now, captains and deputy chiefs directed beat officers’ priorities based on crime statistics. Once again, many of us old-timers figured it was a fad that would soon disappear. It didn’t.
In the discussion I referred to at the beginning of this piece, a few of these officers who were considering themselves old-timers defined old-school cops as those who had never made an arrest without a BWC (body-worn camera). I retired long before body cams became part of OPD’s uniform.
However, I have trouble seeing pre-body cams as the dividing line for “old-school.” I think of old-school cops as those officers who carried six-shot revolvers, wrote reports on paper, and drove marked police cars with a rotating “cherry” on the roof.
Law enforcement is a reflection of society. It changes and evolves with it. The new officers today cannot imagine policing without the scrutiny of body cams, computer generated report writing, and restrictive rules on use of force. These young officers don’t see me as merely an old-school cop. They see me my generation as dinosaurs.
As new generations of police officers take over the profession, some things will remain the same. Cops will remember their early days on the street as the good old days, they’ll be certain new laws and rules will destroy the profession, and they will be unable to fathom why a young man or woman would want to pin on a badge today.