For more than two decades, Doug Bristol has donned the police uniform of Mountain Lake, a small town of just 2,000 in the southwestern ankle of Minnesota. He's the top cop, supervising just a handful of officers.
Watching the intense, nationwide fixation on policing over the past five years, he's been disturbed by the direction things seem to be going. The growing overtone that there must be something fundamentally wrong with the profession -- or with the types of people entering it -- doesn't match his experience. Over 20 years, Bristol says he's met just two guys that clearly should not have been cops, either because they couldn't follow directions, or they were too thin-skinned.
There are a myriad of differences between policing in small towns and large cities, chief among them the personal toll it takes to arrest people you know for hurting each other. Bristol would count among his close acquaintances perhaps half the town. It wears on a cop to walk up to familiar houses, day after day.
"It doesn't happen right away, but over 15, 20 years, you get some of these officers that are really hardened, and have no compassion whatsoever," he says. "And people don't like those cops."
They're the ones who hold up a finger to frantic crime victims and admonish, "Please, just the facts." In other words: "I don't care how you feel about it, or how it's affecting you. Just give me what I need to deal with it."
Everybody does that, Bristol says. There is a time and place for it, but it's a sad thing when officers completely lose the ability to emotionally connect with their communities.
From his humble small town perspective, the chief doesn't think he'd succeed in a big city department. In Mountain Lake, there is always time to go back to a house where a crime was committed and see if there's more to the story than could be gleaned in a moment of crisis. He'd be bothered by the call stacking that takes place in Minneapolis or St. Paul, the constant urgency to show up, take care of a problem, then rush off to the next in a big pile of cries for help.
"It takes away conversations with people, building rapport with people, and throwing some resources at them," Bristol says. It's sitting down with a recurring victim of domestic violence and talking about how to end a years-long relationship, so someone doesn't have to get dragged off to jail every two weeks.
"That doesn't happen the first time."
Bristol believes the impersonality of overworked officers makes them unrelatable in times of great tension. When people hear about disputed shootings, they think back to the time their kid's bike was stolen and they were told, "Tough shit."
"What they do is these block parties, and these funny videos of officers singing in the cars and stuff, which are cool and nice. But it's the actual one-on-one contact, where you're actually helping people, and they feel like they're being helped, and they feel like you care," he says.
With the demands of a city, he's not sure how a cop would go about fostering relationships.
"That's a culture and an environment that gets skewed over the years, and I don't know how to fix that. Because then it becomes 'us versus them,' and that's all you're worried about."
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