It's A Gray Area: In appreciation of police officers

One of the most noble public servants in our society is a police officer. These men and women have often-difficult jobs, and frequently do not get the credit and appreciation they deserve.

When I was a child, my parents drummed into me that "if I was lost I should find a policeman, because they are my friends." I still believe that, but, unfortunately, we don't hear those sentiments too often these days.

Why is that? Well, for one, with the policy of drug prohibition, often the police are seen, at least in some neighborhoods, as an occupying force. Another reason is that, with many cities in such financial distress, the police are sometimes "strongly encouraged" by mayors and city managers to write more traffic citations. I view this as a corruption of our criminal justice system, which should never be seen as a revenue-gathering source.

In addition, while no one likes receiving a traffic ticket, most people will accept the situation if they believe they reasonably deserve it. But if the process is seen as arbitrary or unfair, most people will carry a prolonged grudge, which reduces the reservoir of good will for government in general. And that is not a good thing for any society.

In some ways all of us citizens can help the police. For example, if you are ever stopped for a traffic citation, remember to lower your car window, and then keep your hands in plain sight on the steering wheel. That will take away much of the stress for the officer, which should help everyone.

Furthermore, if/when you are asked for your driver's license, car registration and insurance information, remember to tell the officer where they are, and ask him or her if you may get them.

Tragically, many officers have been shot by drivers or passengers as they approached a car. Put yourself in their position The officers frequently have almost no idea who the drivers are, or what trouble or frame of mind they may be in. Therefore, the officers are frequently and understandably on guard.

No matter what the circumstances, we as citizens have a right to expect that our officers will act as trained professionals at all times. So even if some low-life people swear or even spit on them, the police simply cannot be allowed to overreact.

Of course, they can and should report those actions to prosecutors so that the perpetrators can be held accountable. But if the police take that punishment into their own hands, they should expect to be disciplined or even prosecuted themselves. If you think about it, there is no reasonable alternative.

Functional libertarians believe that people at all levels of society should and must be held responsible for their actions — and the higher the position of trust they hold, the higher the standards of behavior should be. For example, judges know and expect that we will be held to a higher level of conduct than the average person, which should apply to anyone in public office, including the police.

Because they have the authority to stop, detain and even arrest just about anyone under any circumstances, there must be consequences if that power is ever abused.

Nevertheless, during my many years as a federal prosecutor and a judge, I personally dealt with thousands of officers in almost any conceivable circumstance. And, with only rare exceptions, they made me proud. Yes, in hindsight, some things could have been done better. But most of them proved to me, time and again, that they were trained professionals and true public servants in the fullest sense of the word.

So please join me, whenever you have the chance, in expressing your appreciation to the police officers you encounter in your daily life. In almost every case, your appreciation will be richly deserved.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired Orange County Superior Court judge. He lives in Newport Beach. He can be contacted at

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