John Ben Shepperd: Eastern New Mexico and South Plains Peace Officers Association

April 18, 1957

Eastern New Mexico and South Plains Peace Officers Association (Lamesa, Texas)


When I received the invitation to talk to you this morning, I began to think of the many improvements, both large and small, that have taken place in the last few years in the area covered by the Easter New Mexico and South Plains Peace Officers Association. I have been very pleased to see a number of law enforcement agencies over the area acquire valuable new equipment and I’m happy that salary schedules have loosened up to some extent.

Among the less tangible improvements has been a decrease in the number of frivolous habeas corpus petitions that hamper the work of prosecutors and often undo the hard work of peace officers. I have talked to our peace officers on numerous occasions about the necessity of documenting cases more thoroughly be keeping more complete records on arrests, booking procedures, defendants statements and behavior and many other routine things which often make a big difference in whether or not a criminal can sell a judge a bill of goods and go free on the grounds that constitutional rights were violated.

I’m happy to see, too, that it isn’t as easy as it has been for some misbegotten thug to sit in jail and write a letter on a piece of scratch paper, charging the jailer and the local peace officers with mistreatment and violation of his civil rights and thereby to precipitate a federal investigation of local officers.

Several months ago an irresponsible prisoner was convicted in a Federal court in Dallas for making false statements to the F.B.I. about his alleged mistreatment by local peace officers and it is a welcome innovation. It should serve to deter a lot of crooks in the future and it certainly serves as an encouragement to local law enforcement officers that their integrity is not going to be repeatedly aspersed, as it has been in the past, by federal investigations of every frivolous complaint filed by a troublemaker.

Peace officers are grateful to the F.B.I. for following through on this case and letting the blame fall where it actually lay. We are grateful also to the United States District Attorney for prosecuting the case. Such cases are important to States’ Rights and I presume that this conviction may be taken as an assurance that the F.B.I. in the future will continue to follow every case to its conclusion, out of fairness to state and local officers who are so often wrongly charged.

We ought to keep in mind that F.B.I. is not the policy-maker in such investigations. It merely carries out its orders as a part of the Department of Justice under the Attorney General and the Attorney General is appointed by the President. The policy is made by the Administration in office—although such policies can be carried over temporarily from one Administration to another.

House Bill 165 that passed the Texas House of Representatives on April 4th might also give us further relief. This Bill among other things makes it a misdemeanor for any person “to make or file a false, misleading or unfounded report to any governmental agency for the purpose of interfering with the operation of such government agency or with the intent to mislead or malign any officer of such agency. . . .” If this Bill passes, it might give us some relief in the State Courts. Yet, in spite of many improvements there is still a back-log of problems confronting law enforcement officials. Our courts are over-crowded. On January 1st of this year we had more than 22,500 criminal cases untried even though peace officers and prosecutors gathered enough evidence in each case for information and indictment.

There is hardly a prosecutor in the state with enough paid help and it is very discouraging to peace officers to arrest an offender five or six times on separate chargers before an overworked and understaffed D.A. can get him to trial on the first charge.

We are still hindered by old laws and probably will be until that happy day at the end of the rainbow when our ancient code of criminal procedure is revamped.  Our Penal Code is still preposterously outmoded and hundreds of crimes are committed every year for which nobody can be convicted because of horse-and-buggy technicalities.

But the greatest problem facing law enforcement today is not crime or the criminal, nor what Shakespeare called the law’s delays, nor even the loopholes and deficiencies in the criminal statutes. Our greatest problem—the great obstacle to good law enforcement in Texas—is the decent, law abiding public. Until we recognize this, the significance of our many operational and technological gains is seriously reduced.

We may as well face—we have to live with public apathy and misunderstanding. The public cannot possibly understand your problems as well as you do because the public cannot sit in your position, do your job, live on your salary, experience your frustrations, share your personal pride in your organization or know how it feels to be responsible for protecting the lives and property of all the people and treating every citizen with complete impartiality.

Nor can you blame the public for having, sometimes, only a fuzzy conception of what the law enforcement picture really is. The crime gets a bigger headline than the conviction, because crime is bigger news than punishment. Citizens who obey the law and seldom see the inside of a courtroom are not acutely  aware of the fact that the law is often a stone wall protecting the accused, literally  forcing the prosecutor to look for loopholes that permit prosecution.

The people have no way of knowing how too-willing criticism of their peace officers almost forces those peace officers to become competitive for public approval instead of being cooperative for the sake of efficiency. Law enforcement agencies are the first to get the blame for any failure, even when they are not at fault. They are trapped in a situation in which the failure to catch a criminal at all is not much worse than letting some other agency get the credit for catching him.

The big job of law enforcement authorities, therefore, is not merely to catch the thief and the killer, but to capture the public—to win its understanding and support.

The hardest task, possibly, is to sell law enforcement to a public which wants it but doesn’t want to pay for it. Somehow we must convince the people that public safety is not on sale in the bargain basement. If there is no other way, we must have sheriffs and police chiefs who are not afraid to speak out for larger appropriations, even at the risk of being scolded by city councils and commissioners courts for being noisy.

You know the old saying:
He who has a thing to sell
And goes and whispers in a well
Is not so apt to get the dollars
As he who climbs a tree and hollers.

I am just as aware as you are that the minute a police department or sheriff’s office starts yelling for more money, local officials are likely to get mad and start yelling about inefficiency. But no law enforcement agency can fulfill its duty by meekly accepting whatever the city or county fathers choose to hand out if it isn’t enough. They, like you, are subject to public criticism and are willing to appropriate adequate funds for law enforcement only if they can look back over their shoulders and get a nod of approval from the voters who put them in office. It is up to you and me to prepare the public to give that nod of approval.

That, of course, is one of the primary objectives of the Texas Law Enforcement Foundation—to enlist the support of the public in getting the things our law enforcement officers need to do their job instead of criticizing, hindering and ignoring them. No sheriff, police chief or other agency head should have to go before an appropriating body and beg for money. They should do it if they have to, but the public ought to do it for them. It’s the public that suffers when syndicated criminals moving across the state lines and in and out of local police jurisdiction with the greatest of ease are able to thumb their noses at law enforcement officers who are compelled, in the figurative sense, to chase them on bicycles, fire at them with pop-guns and communicate with each other by smoke signal.

But how can you, as peace officers, enlist public support and assistance? How can you help to get good law enforcement bought and paid for by a taxpayer who is already shoveling 33% of his hard-earned income into bloated bureaucracies on the state and federal level, as well as local governments which are prevented by worn-out state laws from spending a tax dollar in an efficient manner?

Being only human, I’m not prepared to answer so broad a question, but maybe you will allow me a few random suggestions. I won’t bore you with a lot of advice, however, because I remember how my youngest son, Johnny, once summed up a profound truth unconsciously. He was doing his homework and wrote” “Socrates was a Greek philosopher who traveled around giving people good advice.  He was poisoned.”

Somebody once said that it helps us more to look at one idiot than to listen to a hundred wise men. I’m convinced that the same applies in the realm of public instruction—that it does more good to show the public the real crime picture than to gloss it over in the silly hope that people will support law enforcement because it apparently functions so efficiently. Law enforcement agencies ought to encourage newspapers to run a daily or weekly tally of offenses, arrests, persons killed, amount of money or property stolen and many other things in exactly the same place and at regular intervals.

For a long time I have been preaching to officeholders on all levels of government that there is no place for secrecy in a Democracy;  no place for closed meetings, executive sessions or confidential files, except in very special circumstances. As the most important of our public institutions, law enforcement is no exception to this rule. The public is not going to give its support to an institution which does not display its record frankly or which is hypersensitive to public criticism. Let the people see the record. If it is a poor one, tell them why. If it is your fault, don’t hesitate to say so. The more honest you are with the public, the more fairly the public will treat you in your efforts to do a job you can be proud of and receive the compensations and credit you deserve.

It is just as important to be honest with yourself and with each other—to give credit where credit is due. I believe a lot of good could be done in this world if nobody worried about who’s going to get the credit. When all of you work as a team, the whole team and everybody in it will reap the glory, if it is glory you want.

Bear in mind, too, that the public is more intelligent than they cynics give it credit for and will appreciate its law enforcement officers in proportion to the real quality of their service. Therefore you cannot afford to delude yourselves into thinking you are doing the best you can just because you have a high batting average. During the past two years, Texas grand juries returned 32,700 indictments, 24,265 of which were brought to trial, resulting in 19,420 convictions, the assessment of $219,000 in fines and the imposition of over 60,500 years in prison sentence.

That is a good batting average indeed, but the people of Texas cannot look at it and determine whether their peace officers and prosecutors are going out after crooks with political connections, racketeers and syndicated criminals or whether they are concentration on the stumble-bums that can always be picked up down in the back streets. From the batting average nobody can tell what methods you are using to enforce the law or whether you are enforcing some laws and ignoring others. Statistics can be used to show a good record or to conceal a bad one. It’s your job to let the public have enough information to enable the people to know the difference. The most tragic thing that could happen in Texas law enforcement furthermore, would be for peace officers to become heartless in their effort to be impartial—or to become indifferent to the problems of individuals in order to reduce human beings to statistics and keep the batting average high.

The public’s pride and confidence in its law enforcement officers can never be higher than your pride in yourselves and your confidence in the efficiency of your law enforcement team. Self-Respect is the one quality that no man can hide and no man can feign. It is visible or lacking in your every work and action, whether you speak as one man or a team, and the public puts its confidence in the team that has it.

The most important thing you can do for the law enforcement happens to be also the most abstract and often to most difficult. The enforcement of the law cannot be separated from the larger issues of maintaining the integrity of the Constitution under which all our laws are made. This is the concern of every law enforcement official. If I may refer back to the question of habeas corpus petitions, there lies the classic example of how the everyday actions of peace officers and prosecutors on the local level help to preserve states’ rights and constitutional government by establishing the validity and fairness of State Court convictions and preventing Federal Courts from infringing on their jurisdictions in an unjust and unnecessary manner. The manner in which you perform your duty, the methods you use, the attitude you take and the very spirit in which you enforce the law all have direct and traceable influence upon the permanence and stability of the free government under which we live.

I like to think that the daily acts of devotion, loyalty and bravery of our peace officers are like the bricks that go one by one into an indestructible wall that will protect our way of life in the future so that our children and our children’s children can enjoy it. It would be tragic if we, through neglect or unconcern, became like the little community which maintained an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff instead of building a fence around the top and justified its lassitude by saying “Aren’t we picking up the bodies as fast as they hit the ground?” Only by taking the trouble to do the little things that count, to do them in the right spirit and to do the best we can and stand or fall on our record—only then will we be working toward that promised time when human law will be working toward that promised time when human law with all its imperfections will be supplanted with that Divine Law which needs no enforcement and whose dominion will be forever.

Law enforcement does indeed have a problem—a problem that only you can solve by doing your dead-level best in the job you have undertaken.  In the words of Walt Mason:

There’s a man in the world who is never turned down
Wherever he chances to stray;
He gets the glad hand in the populous town
Or out where the farmers make hay;
He’s greeted with pleasure on deserts of sand
And deep in the aisles of the woods;
Wherever he goes there’s a welcoming hand;
He’s the man who deliver the goods.

[Note: The views expressed in this speech were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.]