Vargas: Ferguson more damaging to police reputation than Rodney King


As I write this column, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has declared a state of emergency. The entire country is awaiting the findings of the grand jury empaneled to review the shooting of Michael Brown. The state of emergency allows the governor to activate the National Guard to assist law enforcement if needed.

Given the past demonstrations and emotions associated with the case it is probably a very wise thing to do. I want to believe the public won’t go nuts, but emotions run very strong in this case.

Joe Vargas

Joe Vargas

I can’t predict what the grand jury will decide. I haven’t heard all the evidence. Apparently a lot of people have already decided Officer Darren Wilson is guilty of murder. But there is one thing I am certain of: The reputation of law enforcement has been severely damaged by this single incident.

You would be hard pressed to find a police officer in the country that has not had to address in one way or another the impact of the Ferguson incident and civil disturbances that occurred after.

Whether with members of the community, family or friends, everyone has had questions or opinions about what occurred and its aftermath. Every police officer I know has his or her well-thought-out set of responses.

The reality is no matter what the grand jury decides, law enforcement has lost a lot. The loss of trust, reputation and social capital has been great. The impact of Ferguson has been worse than even the Rodney King incident back in the ’90s. Back then, we didn’t have the social media environment we do today.

It seems as of late that mainstream media and social media have focused on law enforcement as a punching bag. Given the plethora of negative stories you see on the news you would believe that every police officer is a racist thug waiting for an opportunity to kill, beat or maim.

And it’s not just the stories that are troubling, but how many members of the public now appear to share these beliefs.

Law enforcement leaders now bear the brunt of digging the profession out of a hole. Rebuilding reputations takes time. But most of all it will take a deliberate effort on the part of everyone in the profession to be diligent in performance and conduct.

From the way dispatchers answer the phone to patrol officers responding to a call, there is no longer much room for error. There has to be a sense of urgency on the part of everybody to restore trust. The collective reputation of law enforcement depends on it.

I know police officers do amazing things every day across this country but now those positive stories have to be told and shared over and over again.

My hope is that in time, everyone will know what I have known most of my life: Police officers really are the good guys.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at

Photo courtesy of Light Brigading.