The term “peace officer” describes police officers, sheriff’s deputies and in outstate Minnesota, State Troopers. It does not adequately describe more specialized law enforcement positions. They are focused almost exclusively on investigations, not generally upon keeping the peace within a community. Examples include the FBI, DEA, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Postal Inspectors and Secret Service, to name just a few.
A peace officer is someone that does many things. They perform duties that keep the peace in the community and promote safety. This includes resolving disputes, traffic direction, searching for lost people, responding to traffic accidents and a whole host of things that those in specialized law enforcement positions do not routinely do. Peace officers also investigate all sorts of crimes from simple thefts to drunk driving to assaults and murder.
Peace officers spend most of their time helping. There is a statutory mandate to enforce the law but there is no mandate to help people. Peace officers do so and people expect this. For example, officers respond to most medical emergencies, help people whose cars have broken down, return stray pets to their owners and even help new parents install infant seats in their cars.
Some criticize peace officers for doing what the private sector could be doing. Should government be providing services that can be provided by the private sector? As a young officer, I used to ask myself, “Why are we doing this? Is this really our job?”
Some of this thinking was warranted. The sprawling town I once worked in had only one bank. This bank had the main bank located downtown and a satellite branch out by the interstate. Every day we were required go to the main bank and drive the teller with her pouch of cash to the satellite branch and back. We didn’t do this for other businesses in town. Banks historically hired armored car services to do this. When a second bank moved into town, that was the end of that practice. Now that I think of it, this was the same town where part of our nightly duties was to lock the local post office.
Some of this thinking was not warranted. There are private companies that provide funeral escort services, typically escorting the procession of vehicles from the church or funeral home to the cemetery. I used to question why the police department would provide this service. That is until one day I received a call of a medical emergency. An older man who I had known for years had fallen and fractured his hip. I comforted him and helped load him into the ambulance. A day later, I learned that he had died in surgery. Here it was a few days after that and I was preparing to lead the funeral procession in my police car. Then I knew. This was the final piece of respect that I could give to my friend. Shouldn’t I be doing the same for everyone? I realized that this is a service that a peace officer should be proud to perform.
Sometimes public versus private delivery of service becomes a bit gray. There are locksmith services in most towns. For a fee, a private locksmith company will come out and unlock your car if you should accidentally lock your keys inside. Yet, this is a common service provided by local police departments.
In most Minnesota cities, squad cars are equipped with a special set of tools that officers can use to try to gain entry into the car. There is always the risk of damaging the vehicle and normally the officer will inform the owner of this. Last week, Assistant Chief Schaar received a call from a woman saying, “I locked my keys in my car. I called an officer and he was able to get into the car but the tool hit my windshield as he was doing so and placed a small crack in it. I want the City to buy me a new windshield.”
I guess sometimes, you just can’t win.