Reflections on the Eve of My Retirement: A Letter from the Future

This was published in a book produced by the Dept of Justice’s Office of Community Policing with essays about the future of community policing as written by 20 different leaders in Community Policing around the US. We were proud that this essay was chosen as the final essay  to end the book. 

By Chris Cognac

I think back to the days when I started working as a rookie street cop in 1992. The trust in the police was at an all time low; the riots that resulted from the Rodney King beating verdict had just ended. Crack cocaine was invading the streets and housing projects of America’s inner cities. Police departments were engaged in a full on battle for the streets against the gangs that killed and intimidated those who opposed them.

The gangs were bold; attacks on police officers and even on police stations themselves skyrocketed. Officers were forced to put up bullet proof glass in the station lobbies, purchase armored vehicles to serve warrants, and retreat to the relative safety of the police car. It was “us vs. them,” and we determined to take everyone we could to jail and to “win” no matter what the cost.

Then there was a new trend called the “Internet,” and everyone was on it. People were communicating with other people all around the world in chat rooms and bulletin boards. Cellular phones became affordable and now include cameras on every phone. People began to use cell phone cameras to record the police whenever they could, hoping to catch a rogue officer so they could send it to the media. Special interest groups and people with hidden agenda’s began to set up officers by using hidden video cameras and microphones, hoping to create an incident in which they could file a lawsuit to further their cause. Once these videos that were often edited to fit the needs of a group were made public, it further drove a wedge between the police and the community. Where once the public trusted the word of individual police officers, there was now suspicion and the thought of deception on the part of the police. The police in general were still stuck in the 1980s and took the defensive posture of “no comment.”

Entering the second decade of the new millennium, the police as a whole began to examine how they could do things better and how they could become more approachable and trusted using the new technology available to them, such as social media like Facebook and YouTube. Individual officers and units began to reach out to the public and educate them about crime prevention, disaster preparedness, and even how to organize a neighborhood watch group using a new thing called Twitter. Speaking of Twitter, soon police began to use it as a way to instantly notify the local community of breaking issues, such as street closures or major crime trends and suspect descriptions. This resulted in building trust within the community, as it empowered the ordinary citizen to help fight crime. All of a sudden, the long-lost bonds between the police and community were being re-established after many years of neglect and mistrust. The era of crime fighting and “force multiplying” through social media was upon us.

The one constant that had not changed was the police car. The traditional police vehicle was a big Ford or Chevy V-8 loaded with so much equipment that just getting in and out of one for years was causing a multitude of work-related back injuries for officers around the country. Gasoline was $4.50 a gallon and not getting any cheaper, and the cost of replacing a vehicle was approaching $60,000 by the middle part of the decade. Something needed to change.

A few forward-thinking police departments had teamed up with electric vehicle manufacturers, such as Segway, Tesla, and Brammo, to help design the future of transportation for police. The transition from gasoline to electric-powered vehicles was not an easy one. In the beginning, many officers were reluctant to break away from the safety of what they had always known and were used to. The electric motorcycles looked different; they were not as cool as the Harley-Davidsons or BMWs that motor officers had ridden since the advent of the modern motor officer. The Tesla electric vehicles used to be able to go only 150 miles on a charge and barley went 100 mph, which is why they were phased into unmarked detective units for the first few years. It took a few years, but the cost savings in fuel and maintenance alone prompted the remaining police agencies to give up gasoline vehicles and not only go green for the environment but also go green for budgets!

In the third decade of my career I observed that officers were being required to carry more and more equipment to include a multitude of less-lethal options, audio as well as video recording devices, and handheld electronic devices in place of the traditional mobile data terminal that went away with the gasoline vehicles. The workplace injuries began to increase due to the amount of equipment carried and the no-place-to-carry-it problem of the traditional Sam Browne belt.

The police uniform as we knew it was no longer practical, so, like with the switch to electric vehicles, we switched to a more functional uniform for patrol officers (while still keeping tradition alive in the dress uniform). Gone was the 30 pounds of gear around the waistline of an officer, replaced by the external ballistic vest with load-distributing technology that allowed officers more freedom of movement and reduced injuries (on a drastic scale as we now know). The vest was fitted with the appropriate electronic equipment, and the firearm and holster moved from the “hip placement” to a more ergonomically friendly thigh holster.

The smart gun started to be implemented across the nation. The guns use a fingerprint-recognition safety system that allows the officer to fire the weapon only when the gun recognizing the officer’s fingerprints. I am proud to say that since this has been implemented, no officer has been killed in the line of duty with his or her own weapon. I understand that the next generation of firearms will have a built-in less-lethal option, but I won’t be around to test that one (although it is sure to impress).

I have seen a lot of things change in my 30 years on the job. I went from a young rookie with just a badge and a gun. It was “us vs. them;” take ’em to jail and go home was the motto. Now in 2022, I am seasoned and, so I like to think, a wise veteran cop who realizes that the police need to think outside the box, partner with the people they serve, and look for better ways to do things, as there is always room for improvement.

I think of the grizzled crusty street cops I looked up to when I was 24 and working the night shift. We thought they knew it all (and so did they). I wonder what the 24–year-old rookie thinks of me and my peers now? Do they think we know it all? I know that we are quite aware we don’t!

When those kids are my age, what will they be like in 2052? Will they fly hover cars and use laser beams? It’s possible, that’s one thing I know for sure, cause if you would have told a 24-year-old me what kind of technology and equipment the 54-year-old me is using, I never would have believed you.

Be safe, and don’t forget the old retired guys like me!

Sergeant Chris Cognac is a 20-year veteran of the Hawthorne (California) Police Department. He is currently assigned to the Community Affairs Unit but has served in numerous capacities from uniform patrol, to sexual assault and crimes against children detective, to cooperative resource unit, to aviation bureau, to undercover narcotics supervisor. Cognac is a true believer in the ability of individual officers making a difference in the communities they serve. He uses his networking and communication skills as a force multiplier, putting people who want to help the community with those in need of an opportunity. Most recently, he has begun to take the simple concept of “Coffee with a Cop” nationwide. He has assisted officers and police departments across the country in implementing their own events that aim to build good communications and trust within those communities. Cognac is a graduate of the Delinquency Control Institute at the University of Southern California. In his spare time, he is a food and travel writer for magazines and newspapers and develops new food television concepts. He also hosted his own Food Network TV show, The Hungry Detective.  He can be reached by email here.