Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Make a gift to NHPR and have a Valentine's message to a loved one read on air!

2014 A Tumultuous Year For Police Officers


For police in this country, 2014 was tumultuous. Protests over the deaths of unarmed black men in New York City and Ferguson, Missouri, spread around the country. Officers saw themselves portrayed as violent racists. NPR's Martin Kaste spoke to a few cops about what it felt like to wear a badge this year.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: In the decade that followed 9/11, police were hailed as heroes, especially in New York where cops got used to having the public's respect. But then in 2014, the public seemed to change its tune.


CROWD: Hey, hey, ho, ho. These racist cops have got to go.

KASTE: Police officers felt the shift even in places that didn't see big protests. Dawn Layman is a major with the police department in Lenexa, outside Kansas City.

MAJOR DAWN LAYMAN: I mean, I think when you have people that are, you know, taking random shots at officers, obviously something has changed.

KASTE: Fifty officers were shot to death in the U.S. this year. That's up from 32 last year. But it's still well below the average for recent decades. The killing of the two officers in New York before Christmas heightened the sense of many that they've been treated unfairly this year by protesters and the media. Even some black cops feel this way. Noel Leader is a retired NYPD sergeant who cofounded the group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care.

NOEL LEADER: There are a number of black police officers who also feel that the protesters are unfair, that maybe, you know, the present climate makes our job much more difficult.

KASTE: Though Leader believes that most protesters have been civil, and he says the department does have a racism problem. Across the country in San Francisco, Sergeant Adam Plantinga is less convinced that something fundamental changed for police this year.

SERGEANT ADAM PLANTINGA: I mean, I think for a cop right now, it's - I mean, you certainly have those incidents on your mind, but you're still - in a sense it's still business as usual. I think it's maybe safe to say - and this is nothing to take away from the tragedies in Ferguson in New York - but there's always going to be a Ferguson. It's a volatile business, and you have to make a lot of real split-second decisions, and sometimes things go wrong.

KASTE: At the same time, Plantinga says 2014 did teach police that they need to make more of an effort to explain their actions, even to random witnesses.

PLANTINGA: So say you jump on that dangerous parolee, and there's little bit of a scuffle. And he gets led away in handcuffs, and there's passersby who are saying, hey, you beat that guy up for no reason. You know? Why not take a second to say, look, he's dangerous, the last time I met with him, we got in a fight. Just explaining a few words can go a long ways because otherwise, they're going to get an inaccurate picture of what's going on.

KASTE: Or worse, they could post a video of that scuffle without the context. And that may be the biggest shift that cops saw in 2014. They don't think that people are giving them the benefit of the doubt anymore. When the public seems eager to pass judgment, it's only human for officers to respond with resentment. And that resentment has erupted on anonymous police blogs and comment boards around the country.

LAYMAN: When these, you know, things come up, we need to address them. We can't just let them sit and fester.

KASTE: In Kansas, Police Major Dawn Layman agrees that police need to respond to this crisis in confidence by explaining themselves more. But she doesn't think we're headed back to the bad, old days of the '70s, when her father was an officer and police were often painted as thugs. For one thing, she says, police are different now. They tend to be more educated. She just finished a master's at the University of Kansas.

LAYMAN: Because it has become, what I would say, as a profession versus back in the '70s when, you know, it was just, you know, a job.

KASTE: Still, even most educated, professional-minded of police officers are surely glad to bring 2014 to a close. Martin Kaste NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.