Boiling Point: The state of public opinion and how to deal with it

Working as a corrections officer, you may have heard of an expression called the “pendulum analogy". It is meant to explain how the pendulum of public perception is constantly swinging back and forth from a “pro-law enforcement” point of view to an “anti-law enforcement” point of view. When anti-law enforcement policies and procedures are set into place by our government, you can often hear the old-timers mumbling, “Don’t worry; the pendulum will swing back.”

Never before has this term been more relevant to corrections than right now. Consider the circumstances: We are suffering budget losses, pay reductions, layoffs and cuts in areas like training and equipment. It seems that every day the courts make a decision supporting more inmate rights while further tying our hands as officers. Inmates are being released or simply turned away from our nation’s jails and prisons because there just isn’t room or money to take them.

The pendulum has swung so far to one side that it has hit us on the head. Officers are being assaulted at a rate higher than any before, while simply being told to “deal with it.”

Our nation’s prisons are at a boiling point. A point we have not seen since the 1970’s; and we all know how that ended. Worse still, we are all caught right in the middle.

So, other than smash our collective heads against the wall, what can we do?

Looking to the past for answers in the future

In the early 1990’s, our nation’s police departments faced a similar problem to the one facing corrections right now. Public opinion saw the police force as corrupt. As a result, many officers were undertrained, departments were underfunded, and the officer death rate was on the rise.

So what turned it all around?

In March 1987, FOX aired the first episode of a new show called “COPS”. Their mission was to bring the experience of the everyday police officer to the public eye. Somewhat unexpectedly, the show blew up in popularity and by the early 1990’s it was a huge success.

It seemed everyone was watching. From the seediest of bars to the cleanest of living rooms, America was riveted by what it saw. Most people, it became clear, had no idea what officers dealt with on a daily basis. Cheers of support were suddenly heard across the nation, even when otherwise untrained civilians watched officers make (often violent) preemptive moves that 5 years beforehand would have led them to raise questions of excessive force. It seemed the people understood, somewhat, why officers had to be proactive. The nation rallied behind our police force like never before.

In 1991, after a young suspect by the name of Rodney King was stopped after a long car chase, the pendulum swung back to hit the LAPD in the face. The media, now aware that people were infatuated with police work, turned the tide against law enforcement.

After the officers were acquitted, you could almost hear the debates sparking around the country: The dividing line often lay between those who watched police shows and, in turn, sympathized with the officers, and those who didn’t watch the shows and couldn’t understand.

Through it all, “COPS” continued to gain in popularity. It seemed that even through the worst of drama and bad press, people – more than ever - wanted to see how officers worked, as if attracted to a core, innate desire to see the good guys win.

So here we are, feeling much like our street counterparts felt in the early 1990’s. Underserved and underappreciated, the pendulum has hit us in the face.

What now?

It is time to dust ourselves off, put a piece of steak on that pendulum-blasted eye, and return to the fight.

Think about people’s reactions when they see a prison riot on television. Think about the fact that the popularity of prison shows such as “American Jail,” “Gangland,” and “Lockup” is on the rise. People in America are starting to become uneasy when they hear how restricted the courts are making us. The tide is starting to turn.

Imagine a world where people actually thanked you for doing your job, a world where you didn’t have to hide your profession. We are almost there. We just need to keep our heads up.

I was reading through some blogs recently and noticed that some of the posts were extremely negative. Officers feel as though they can’t even do their jobs without being persecuted. Others feel like the entire system is about to collapse and are looking for new jobs. I can understand this frustration, but we need to realize that this is the time for change. How that change will take shape is up to us.

It is time to get back to the basics. Amid all the duties we are given, we still have three main tasks that we are sworn to perform: keep the inmates where they belong, make sure they stay alive, and keep the public safe. Everything we do is centered on these principles. It is easy to let this slide away from us as we deal with seemingly ridiculous policy changes. Yet, unless the policy completely stops you from performing your essential tasks, you must learn to work around it for now. Remember, policies are constantly changing, and the weak ones will disappear as the pendulum swings back.

With this in mind, evaluate your daily routine and see if you are still upholding these essential duties. Have you slipped away from them to please an ineffective supervisor? Perhaps you have forgotten about them as more and more tasks were heaped on your daily schedule?

Here is my litmus test. Have you ever:

1.) Not performed a cell search because you were busy with some other menial task?
2.) Not written up an inmate because the paperwork would take too long and you knew that he wouldn’t be found guilty anyway?
3.) Overlooked small violations of security to make “the program” run faster?
4.) Skipped searching an inmate because you were in a hurry?

If you have, you are not alone. I, too, have taken shortcuts and been disgruntled. We all, at one time or another, get caught up in things like laundry exchange, mail call, chow, education, etc, and this can lead to us forgetting the basics.

Those of you that read my articles enough know that, above all else, I stress the basics. I do this because it works.

How does this relate to the “boiling point?”

If we successfully complete our core, essential tasks, we will keep our promise to society. Our promise was to protect them, and this is silently still appreciated.

This was true for the officers in the early 1990, too. They went back to the basics. They fought hard not to be distracted by crazy policy changes. They kept doing their jobs. Even when our jobs aren’t pretty, we can take faith in that the pendulum will swing. America will cheer us on once again.

We get ourselves in trouble when we skip the basics. This is when inmates escape, officers and inmates get killed, and the community loses their faith in us.

The average person already agrees that inmates have too many privileges. The public shakes its head with us when a stupid decision gives inmates new privileges that most free citizens don’t even have. Deep down, the public is already on our side; now it’s time to make sure we keep our promise to society and continue to draw more public support.

What do you think will make us stronger and encourage support? Do you think it will be an officer openly complaining and chastising a poor court decision? Or do when we stop an escape, quell a deadly riot or uncover a plot?

The answer is obvious: Keep doing your job, evaluate yourself and make sure you are supporting the core functions of our profession. The rest will fall into place. It may not happen today, or even tomorrow, but as the public watches us on their favorite programs, and they hear positive things about us on the news, it will happen.

Do you have some other ideas? Leave them here, or come join me at the CorrectionsNation blog. This new blog really lets you say what is on your mind. It is a great place to draw from if you need help. Visit us today at

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