Why are law enforcement officers currently under the gun of criticism while firefighters are viewed as heroes? Both police and firefighters’ jobs are to protect and save lives and property. Both risk their lives as part of their jobs. What’s the difference in the public’s perception between the two?
For firefighters, the issue goes back to 9/11 and the bravery shown by those members of NYFD who risked their lives in the World Trade Center fires and who saw 341 of their peers die in the attempt. That residual respect and admiration is perhaps the biggest reason firefighters are esteemed so highly in the public eye today.
The issue with the police really hinges mainly on the Fourth Amendment. This amendment protects the public from unreasonable searches and seizures and deals with probable cause and search warrants.
All of these issues touch a sensitive chord because law enforcement officers are the ones who have to deal with the very difficult tension between protecting society and guaranteeing individual rights under the Constitution. Police have to decide in a split second whether to shoot or not shoot. If they hesitate, even for a second, they put their own lives in jeopardy.
Police also have to have a level of flexibility where they are able and willing to kill someone and at the same time be courteous, thoughtful and caring. There are not many of us who can do both. It’s a stretch for all of us and requires a special kind of person.
The Supreme Court understands this desire of the police to protect society, even if it means breaking the law to apprehend a criminal. The court created what is called the exclusionary rule after a 1914 Supreme Court decision in the Weeks v. United States case.
This decision came as a result of police officers obtaining evidence from the defendant’s home without a warrant. In other words, officers had broken the law in order to obtain evidence to put someone involved in criminal activity behind bars.
To prevent this from happening, the Court told law enforcement officers that illegally-gained evidence could not be used in court (excluded). The courts have argued that this is the most effective way to prevent violations of individual rights during arrests, interrogations, searches and seizures.
The exclusionary rule was expanded after the 1961 Supreme Court ruling in the case called Mapp v. Ohio. Dollree Mapp was at home when police knocked on her door while searching for a fugitive they believed was hiding there. Mapp called her attorney and he told her not to allow them to enter.
The police came back several hours later waving a piece of paper they said was a search warrant. Police searched the house and while they didn’t find the fugitive, they did find pornography. Mapp was accused of having obscene material in her possession and was arrested, tried and convicted with a punishment of one to seven years in prison.
She appealed and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. She never served a day of her sentence. The court ruled 6-3 in favor of Mapp because no search warrant was ever offered as evidence. The police cried that their hands were being tied by the decision.
Other, later decisions have modified Mapp v. Ohio to make it easier for police to use evidence in a search. One example is that in a search of a house, if they discover evidence as a “routine matter,” that evidence is admissible in court.
This is an example of the difficult decisions law enforcement must make as part of their jobs. They are trying to serve and protect the public and yet they must exercise restraint so as not to violate the rights of the accused.
Having to make these tough decisions are what have helped the police become less popular than firefighters who don’t have to face the same life and death, freedom or imprisonment choices.
Some police I have talked to are frustrated that they are not as popular as firefighters, especially since their lives are put at risk at a far higher rate. That frustration is valid, but comes in part because enforcing the law is a much more difficult and demanding task due to the Fourth Amendment than putting out fires and saving lives.