Vargas: High-profile cases corroding public trust


The announcement that six Baltimore police officers were charged with crimes ranging from murder to false arrest in the death of Freddie Gray shouldn’t surprise anybody.

The public wants and deserves an explanation.

Across the country, prosecutors in a series of incidents that range from questionable-to-outrageous will be asking juries to decide whether police officers committed crimes.

In Albuquerque, two officers await trial for the caught-on-video shooting of a transient.

In Tulsa, a reserve sheriff’s deputy is awaiting trial in a case where the officer thought he reaching for his Taser, but instead shot the suspect in the back.

In North Charleston, South Carolina, a police officer shot a fleeing man in the back, and then appears to plant his Taser on him. It is one of the most troubling videos I’ve ever seen.

In New York, an officer was recently charged with manslaughter after shooting an unarmed suspect. The case has sparked rallies in support of the officer.

It’s not just police shootings making national news.

There are several other recent examples of alleged misconduct.

In Saratoga, New York a police sergeant slapped a kid on the back of the head for not giving consent to search his vehicle.

In Florida, a deputy is being prosecuted for slapping an intoxicated, uncooperative transient who didn’t comply with his demands to leave a bus station.

In San Bernardino, several deputies were caught on video beating a suspect who, riding a stolen horse, led them on a pursuit. After being hit with a Taser, the suspect put his hands behind his back, appearing to give up. That’s when the pummeling began. No charges have been filed.


Police apologists, like me, attempt to explain that given the number of police contacts that take place every day in the U.S., the percentage that end badly – or where misconduct – particularly criminal misconduct – is involved – is extremely rare.

And that is true.

In 2011, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 62.9 million people had at least one contact with police.

But rational explanations don’t mean much when the images on the front pages of the newspaper and top stories of television news are so emotionally charged and powerful.

For police executives, managers and supervisors it has become clear that the public doesn’t clearly enough understand what we do or who we are.

Body cameras will help, but it will be some time before they are fully deployed across the country.

In the meantime, police leaders must take steps to ensure the expectations for performance and behavior are consistent with what is being actually being practiced on the streets.

I recently had a conversation with a police academy commander about a recent use of force captured by cameras and broadcast over the media. “That’s not what they’re (police recruits) being trained to do,” he said. The expectation and training were inconsistent with the performance and behavior.

Most police officers I know are frustrated, disappointed and infuriated by the behavior we’re witnessing on these viral videos. I’m hearing the phrase, “What were they thinking?” more than ever.

Every police officer must maintain the highest standard of conduct and behavior at all times.

From your words to your actions, everything you do has an impact on your agency and the profession.

Bring your “A” game every day.

The profession expects it, and the public demands it.

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