Every modern police officer has been there. I know I have. It seems like every other call for service I am dealing with it. You are interviewing a witness or suspect who is under the age of 30, and during the interview they are texting, or updating their Facebook or Twitter account incessantly. They might also show an extreme lack of respect for any authority, or worse they might show extreme and inappropriate empathy for someone that has committed a horrific crime. “Officer, I am sure that person that ….(robbed, beat, stabbed and or shot me) is a good person,” I have some say this before. Some, as I have seen, may even want to pose for a “selfie” near a crime scene. If this has happened to you on the job then you were most likely dealing with a millennial. There have been widely covered stories in the media that speak about dealing with millennials in the business environment. One recent New York Post article even mentioned how some millennials bring their mothers to job interviews, and ask for extended vacation leave soon after beginning employment. So here are a few things to remember the next time you as a police officer are required to interact with a millennial.
What is a millennial?
Modern sociologists disagree on exactly what is a millennial. Two sociologists, William Strauss and Neil Howe, are credited with inventing the term. In 1987, Strauss and Howe, in their groundbreaking work, “Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, wrote that a millennial is anyone born after 1982. Strauss and Howe, and other subsequent sociologists, believe that millennials have certain traits such as over-confidence, an over emphasis on tolerance and inclusion, narcissism, over-reliance on technology and having very liberal attitudes towards social and cultural norms.
The exact reasons for the behaviors exhibited by millennials are unclear and sociologists still debate this. Some reasons given include: the economy and the great recession of the 2000’s, technology and the birth of smartphones, and changing demographics in the United States. Regardless of the causes of their behaviors, millennials are here to stay and we, as law enforcement officers, must find better ways to interact with them.
Millennials use technology differently
I will never forget the first time a Law Enforcement colleague of mine, and close personal friend, told me he was “reading Twitter.” That Law Enforcement colleague is my age, in his late 30’s, and I was horrified. He is from Northern California, he is definitely not a true millennial, and is always trying to be hip and trendy. I teased him continuously for months after he said that statement. His excuse was that it is a good way to get the news, because everything is in such short sound bytes, or as they say “less than 140 characters.” Whatever his reason, the fact is that technology such as Twitter is here to stay, and there is a valid Law Enforcement application.
I believe the first true wide scale Law Enforcement application of millennials and modern technology was the Boston Marathon bombing. During this horrific terrorist attack, witnesses and victims of the tragedy were using Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms to send out information about the highly chaotic scene near the bombing. The Boston Police Department (BPD) used this information as a way to keep the public informed about the chaotic scene. Later BPD also used some of the social media information to help piece forensically piece the crime together along with other evidence.
I don’t use Twitter or Facebook, but I have been on calls for service where a victim uses their Facebook or Twitter page to show me a picture of a suspect, and sometimes even the location of the suspect. I stand there amazed and dumbfounded as a millennial will use their thumbs and fingers on their phones to scroll through dozens of profiles, pictures, and feeds until they find the one they were looking for. It takes them seconds. This sort of criminal social media intelligence would take me minutes if not hours to uncover and find. Millennials simply view modern technology, cell phones, social media etc.., as a part of life. They cannot remember the days before Iphones, Starbucks, or the Internet.
Technology, especially cell phones, has changed American policing forever. Police officers are trained now to assume that they are being filmed on every call for service. We should also assume that everything we do and say while in uniform is being captured on film. Whether police officers agree with this radical change in American life or not is irrelevant. Cell phones and cameras are here to stay. So when dealing with a millennial it is important to remember this: their first thought when witnessing a crime or seeing something they disagree with is to pull out their cell phone and start filming, and technology i.e., smartphones and social media are an important part of their life.
Millennials think differently: The Blank Slate
As mentioned above, sociologists believe that millennials on average have liberal views and attitudes on social issues. This isn’t about being democrat or a republican, who you voted for in the last Presidential election, or your stance on abortion or gay marriage. Millennials view the world and everyone in it as inherently good. They think that those that break the law, i.e., criminals, are simply the result of societal forces such as, income inequality, sexism or racism.
Millennials also don’t believe that people commit crimes because of criminal or evil intentions. They believe that people commit crimes because of their environment. This is the age old nature vs nurture argument which psychologist and sociologists have been debating for centuries. Famous philosopher John Locke argued in the 17th century that we are all born with a “blank slate.” He argued that our perception of everything, colors, shapes, even tastes, are the result of environment we are raised in.
Police Officers don’t care about any possible relationship between societal forces and criminal activity when they are responding to a call for service. Police officers respond to the call, make sure everyone and the scene is safe, gather the necessary information, and then send everyone on their way. Officers then, if it is a reportable crime, have to document the incident, i.e., write a report. Nowhere in the police report will it be mentioned: “John Doe Suspect grew up poor, had no family, and therefore is a criminal.” This information might matter to a criminologist, sociologist, or maybe to a judge and a defense attorney. But to a police officer on the scene of homicide, or theft, it matters little. This type of information about a suspect or victim might aid in providing perspective about the crime, victim, or suspect to the responding officer or a detective. But socioeconomic and race factors matter little to police officers.
This does not mean that officers can never be compassionate. I have witnessed officers do amazing acts of compassion. I have seen officers buy a homeless man lunch, or a cup of coffee, or give someone a ride home on a hot or cold day. Additionally, I often tell people that as a Police Officer, I am often required to be Dr Phil, Oprah, a Priest, and occasionally Judge Judy. Each of these roles requires me to listen and have compassion.
Having compassion and considering someone’s life circumstances, does not diminish violations of the law and the impacts of crime on victims. Police Officers often don’t have the luxury (or the time!!) to worry about the societal factors influencing criminal activity, especially on highly chaotic and dangerous calls for service. But most experienced officers, can and will, demonstrate compassion when needed on calls for service.
Millennials Often Feel Entitled
This is most likely the most talked about behavioral aspect of millennials. There are hysterical stories from human resources professionals and their interactions with millennials during job interviews. There are stories of millennials updating Facebook pages during interviews, and wearing casual clothes to interviews. And yes, there are stories about millennials involving mom in the job-hunting process, either by bringing mom to the interview, or mom calling to snag the interview. For further evidence of this, and for a few laughs, read this story.
There is a lot of debate among sociologists about why some millennials feel this way. Some say millennials feel this way because of helicopter parenting. Some argue that it is the result of technology and that millennials have cell phones and the Internet and don’t have to actually think or act for themselves due to information being widely available instantaneously. I can remember having to go to the library and using the Dewey Decimal system to do research. It is doubtful that some millennials even know what the Dewey Decimal system is. They can just do research on their smartphone and have the answers to their questions in seconds.
A 2011 American Physiological Association report argues that this trend is likely to continue and that it could have an impact on crime. The report says that this feeling of entitlement, or narcissism, by millennials could blur feelings of right and wrong because some millennials may feel that that they can take whatever they want to do whatever they want without because it is “their right.”
I have seen this first hand on patrol when dealing with some millennials. Some question why they are being arrested for drunk in public, driving while intoxicated, or shoplifting. They just cannot understand the connection between their behavior and violations of the law. I tell my young son every day two things: (1) actions have consequences and (2) YOU and YOU alone are responsible for your actions.
I believe these two rules are two of the most important aspects of a lawful, free and democratic society.
Everyday and on almost every call for service, police officers in the United States deal with citizens of different religions, races, nationalities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In almost all of these citizen/police interactions, police officers do not judge the individuals and provide quality police service, regardless of the person’s race, creed, color, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation. Not every millennial will exhibit the behaviors mentioned in this article and no one should be treated differently, judged or stereotyped because of the year or time period that they were born. However, it is widely believed that a major rule of public speaking is to know your audience. Knowing that millennials are out there, and that some exhibit certain well-documented and scientifically researched behaviors, can ensure that this population receives the best police service. Knowledge is definitely power and in the current hypercritical arena in which some have negative attitudes and beliefs towards law enforcement, we need every weapon and tool to help us do our job. Be Safe!!!
William Gage is an experienced and award winning law enforcement professional that recently returned to local law enforcement with the Leesburg VA Police Department, after a 12 year career as a Special Agent with the United States Secret Service. During his 12 years with the Secret Service, he was the recipient of numerous awards for investigative and protective excellence. He has participated in hundreds of protective missions, and has done numerous foreign and domestic foreign protective advances for the President, Vice-President, and others. These included protective missions to hostile areas such as Iraq, and Afghanistan. William also served as the Lead Tactical Advance Agent for numerous National Special Security Events (NSSEs), and served as a Team Leader on the elite Counter Assault Team (CAT) focusing on active shooter response, threat mitigation and planning at the White House and other U.S. Government functions and facilities. Prior to joining the Secret Service, William was a Police Officer in Leesburg, Virginia where he received awards for exceptional performance. During his time as a Police Officer has as served as a SWAT Officer, and Bike Officer. He returned to local law enforcement in 2013, and returned to the Leesburg Police Department and currently works Patrol. William also works as an active shooter and security consultant with several companies, including PSIG, BLR, and Willis. He has given numerous public presentations about active shooter awareness, training and preparation and has appeared on various other media outlets including CNN and CSPAN. He also helps businesses with continuity of operations planning and logistics. He has written for several law enforcement and security journals, to include Law Officer, Police One, Tactical Solutions Magazine, and others. He holds a B.A. from the Virginia Military Institute, and an M.A. from Boston University.