When you go to work today, the odds are slim that someone high on drugs will try to kill you. Chances are crime won't affect you today. You are, after all, likely educated, successful, living in a stable home and working in a secure environment where private security ensures that people out to do you harm are kept safely away.
When police officers go to work today, every person they encounter could do them harm. In fact, many are setting out to do just that. When an officer pulls over a car, history tells us there’s a chance – small, but real – that the driver could try to speed off, potentially harming people simply going about their day. Or, worst of all, that driver could try to put a bullet through the officer’s skull. It’s why I always laugh at the ignorance of the phrase “routine traffic stop.” There is nothing routine in law enforcement.
Yet, lately, there's an effort to paint police as racists with a badge who callously decide which civil rights to violate in every radio call. Some activists are riling up the mob, with the biggest fools even calling for physical harm to police officers.
The overwhelming majority of citizens in this country don’t buy into that talk. After all, most interactions between police and citizens are peaceful and professional. Yet, increasingly, the ignorant anti-cop rhetoric is showing up in the business community. And it’s the responsibility of business leaders – entrepreneurs, C-level executives and managers of all levels – to put a stop to rampant disrespect for law enforcement by ensuring every member of their organizations respects the work and sacrifice made every minute of every day by police and other first responders.
Just look at what is happening in companies that should know better. This week, two officers in Texas walked into a Whataburger restaurant and were told, “We don’t serve police officers.” Whataburger, officially, said it was “appalled” by the incident and fired the employee, but the damage was done. An employee of the company decided to take his or her wrongheaded political agenda and represent it as a core value for the company’s brand. "I don't like you" is a personal belief. “We won’t serve you” is a brand statement.
This kind of antagonism toward police is happening all over the country. Last week in Florida, Sgt. Jennifer Martin went to an Arby’s drive-in, dressed in uniform and driving her patrol car, and was told the restaurant doesn’t serve police officers. A Redrock Canyon Grill in Tulsa, Okla., refused service to a police officer because he was in uniform and had his service weapon. The same type of incident happened last month at a Chuck E. Cheese in Kentucky.
This week, in Philadelphia, a barista at Starbucks denied an officer the use of the restroom, saying it was for paying customers only. But, judging by the officer’s account, there was clear delight in the power this barista seemed to wield over the cop. Starbucks apologized.
Business leaders have to see these kinds of interactions by their employees is a failure of their own leadership. CEOs need to reinforce the positive role law enforcement plays in society, not be silent about it. Silence in the face of all the criticism police officers are enduring nowadays could rightfully be construed as corporate indifference. And that indifference gives license to low-level employees to express whatever views they choose.
You cannot blame an employee for not knowing enough to respect law enforcement on behalf of your brand. That is the responsibility of company leadership. That means training. That means teaching core corporate values. That means creating programs specifically designed to honor the work of first responders. Written policies. Visible programs. Action.
Sadly, even some of the highest-profile business leaders don’t seem to get it. It's not that corporations don't take action to support causes they feel are meaningful. The irony of the Starbucks incident is that, if the officer had gone in to talk about race, the barista might have let him pee, and made an effort to spell his name right on the cup.
Being positive takes an intention by leaders to think beyond the latest social-media cause celebre and get involved. Take Mark Zuckerberg's response to Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old Texas student who was arrested when he brought what was thought to be a bomb, but turned out to be a clock, to school. The arrest caused outrage – and its modern demon spawn: a hashtag – over issues like racial profiling and Islamophobia. Zuckerberg went so far as to tell Mohamed to visit Facebook's headquarters. "Ahmed, if you ever want to come by Facebook, I'd love to meet you. Keep building," he wrote. Thumbs up, all around.
Meanwhile, while Zuckerberg, President Obama and all sorts of entrepreneurs were falling over themselves to praise Mohamed, a team of police officers in Saugerties, N.Y., whose names we don't know, was called to an apartment where a contractor found a device with a note saying it was a pressure-sensitive bomb. Risking their own lives, several of them donned 75-pount kevlar suits and removed it from its location. Just to the south in New Jersey, police officers responded to a backpack with wires hanging out of it left on a bus. The Bergen County Bomb Squad and N.J. Transit police secured it and assured the safety of everyone around them. Neither incident, thankfully, turned out to contain a functioning bomb.
The actions of these officers yesterday took selflessness, teamwork and the engineering know-how to identify a real bomb and, better, save lives by disarming it. Those are qualities all companies, from Facebook down to a corner dry cleaner, should want in their employees. But Zuckerberg didn’t offer those officers a job or a visit to his headquarters. He probably didn’t even think to, instead opting to celebrate a kid without even knowing whether the clock he made worked right. Why the snub to the bravery of law enforcement? Because those officers didn't have a hashtag.
Truth is, those officers probably wouldn’t have taken a job at Facebook because it isn’t meaningful enough. Almost every cop has his or her priorities straight. They know their role, and they know their work matters. They know the risks, and they love what they do.
I'm sure most business leaders don't want to actively disrespect cops. Zuckerberg, for one, wasn't saying the police who responded to the incident were somehow racist or anti-innovation. He just didn't think that their priorities -- ensuring the safety of schoolchildren in the face of a potential and believable threat -- outweighed the inconvenience suffered by a kid who built an ugly clock that, to reasonable people, looked suspect. Zuckerberg simply fell into the trap of an anti-law-enforcement microaggression, I suppose.
We are a nation of laws because laws ensure that we have a safe and secure society in which markets can flourish, businesses can be built, people can be hired and capital and opportunities can be created. Those laws are enforced by people who embrace the role, despite the physical, emotional and psychological harm their work endures. They don't need a fast-food cashier moralizing to them. They deserve way more than that.
All CEOs should recognize the erosion of respect faced by first responders and police in particular. And they should do something about it. Pro-police policies -- simply written reminders that businesses want to support the work of law enforcement -- go a long way toward recognizing that their vigilance is appreciated.