Looking Out for Your Buddy, Teammate, or Partner.
There are many similarities between military service and civilian public service as a first responder. The most obvious is that each person that volunteers for these professions does so knowing two things: the first is that you willingly volunteered to serve and protect the citizens according to the Constitution. Second, you also understand that there are significant risks associated with this type of work. In both occupations, it is widely accepted that there are strengths and expertise in numbers, and “we” must look out for each other.
In our military, there are informal systems accountability called the “battle buddy system,” which means each member is responsible for another person (Milzarski, 2020). Depending on the branch of the military, this “system,” may be called something different such as “crewmate” or “shipmate.” Regardless of how these systems are addressed, each variation means the same thing, which is; each member has an obligation to look out for the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of another person (para. 1).
Civilian public service first responders have a similar version of the battle buddy system. In policing, there are partners and teammates, and in the fire and rescue service, there are crewmates. For this article, this relationship between all first responders will be referred to as “partners.” The first responders also understand that they have an obligation, formal and informally, to look out for their buddy.
In the buddy and partner systems, there is a common understanding and belief that someone will always have your back or look out for you, because they, like you, are “obligated” by this relationship to take care of each other and are responsible to ensure that everyone goes home safely. The term “everyone” includes your partner and the public that you took an oath to serve and protect.
However, in recent years, there has been a national discussion about the obligation of a military member or first responder to intervene when they see a buddy or partner violate the law or a policy that may discredit the organization, endanger citizens, or result in a constitutional violation (Condon & Richmond, 2020). The military and many public service organizations have statutes and policies designed to deter this type of behavior and hold violators accountable.
The world recently observed the arrest of George Floyd by officers of the Minneapolis, MN, Police Department (MPD). Floyd subsequently died following the incident, and his death sparked outrage, demonstrations, riots, social unrest, and a public debate regarding police use of force. The world watched for approximately eight minutes as Floyd struggled to breathe and asked for help, while other police officers watched their “partner” hold Floyd to the ground with his knee.
This front seat to Floyd’s arrest and the actions of the officers left the public asking why those other MPD officers failed to render aid to Floyd. Publicly and privately, many first responders asked why those other MPD officers did not take care of their “buddy” kneeling on Floyd and intervene. The politicians, all forms of media, and the public demanded the officers involved be held accountable and the laws and policies be changed to require police offices to intervene. However, what most of the public did not know was that the MPD implemented a policy in 2016 which required all officers to intervene when they observed an improper use of force by another officer (Libor, 2016).
Why didn’t this policy cause the other officers to act? Will more laws or policies deter similar conduct? The public debate will continue regarding the merits of these proposed solutions. Scholars and academic institutions will likely conduct research to determine the answers to these questions. Nevertheless, absent empirical evidence, military and civilian public service leaders should persuade each member of their organization that they have a moral obligation to the citizen and their partners to intervene.
As previously stated, anecdotal evidence suggests military members and civilian public service first responders share a general belief that they are obligated to look out for each other. This understanding is rooted in common goals, shared hardship, and in organizational culture. Each member decides what it means to look out for their partner based on individual beliefs and moral values. Some may believe they are obligated to protect their partners from physical harm while others may believe that this obligation extends to all aspects of their partner’s life.
The definition of morality revolves around an individual’s interpretation of what is right or wrong or acceptable or not acceptable within a specific context. A person’s individual moral beliefs often conflict with other variables, such as the law, policy, and organizational culture. For example, a police officer may believe it is acceptable for his partner to assault a child molester because of the nature of the crime. A firefighter may believe it is acceptable for fire truck drivers to maneuver through traffic recklessly because they are responding to a multi-alarm fire. A paramedic may believe it is acceptable for their partner to delay the administration of naloxone to a known drug addict.
An individual’s refusal to follow the law, a policy, or the organizational culture because of a conflict with personal moral values may have consequences. Due to the ubiquity of camera enabled cellular phones, social media, and body-worn cameras (BWC), the military and first responders no longer enjoy an environment where they get to tell the story. Camera phones and a citizen’s ability to instantly upload videos and comments to social media have exponentially increased society’s ability to view military and first responder conduct. With social media came a rapid shift in the power of ordinary people to influence broader public opinion.
In a social media environment, the military, the actions of first responders’, and any negative outcomes can be rapidly magnified and compounded. This type of visual evidence often lacks the context and fails to depict the event in its entirety. The immediate perception of the viewer often becomes their reality, and the public may perceive the actions as just or unjust. A negatively perceived incident captured on video that circulates via social media can trigger social unrest such as civil disorder, strikes, and protests by the public.
We are experiencing difficult times in America. Recently, there have been several widely publicized police use of force (PUF) incidents that were recorded by the public and subsequently uploaded to social media platforms. The videos and discussions about the incidents sparked a national debate regarding PUF in America (Terrill, 2016). Many citizens still believe that there is systemic racial inequality in America (Milligan, 2020).
There are debates regarding the legitimacy of federal, state, and local governance and law enforcement entities. The police and military have been deployed to maintain or restore civil order in cities and towns where these authorities are accused of causing the unrest. This has placed a great deal of strain on the individual public servant and public service organizations, which could result in negative outcomes.
In 2019, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) emphasized the importance of officer safety and health. The IACP featured several articles that discussed the correlation between poor health and wellness with bad operational outcomes. Many of the IACP articles discussed the role of the leader and peers in early intervention strategies designed to prevent bad outcomes, such as excessive force, burnout, and depression. It is incumbent on all of those who entered public service to reflect on what they can do as individuals to protect the citizens and each other; one way is to look out for your buddy, teammate, or partner.
In the past twenty years, there have been several highly publicized incidents that have undermined the legitimacy of the military, police, fire, and rescue services. Many of these incidents are due to the actions of public servants who are being recorded by the public. Therefore, public servants should ask themselves, do my moral values conflict with the law, a policy, or the organizational culture? What can I do to look out for my buddy, teammate, or partner? How can I save myself, my partner, and my profession from experiencing hardship? Can my actions prevent my community and country from devolving into social unrest? While you reflect, it is important to remember every public servant has sworn to serve and protect the Constitutional rights of all people.
Coghlan T.E. (2019, May). Fostering Positive Outcomes in Policing by Addressing Burnout and
Fostering Positive Outcomes in Policing by Addressing Burnout and Compassion Fatigue
Condon, B. & Richmond, T. (2020, June 7) Duty to intervene: Floyd cops spoke up but didn’t step in.
Libor, J. (2016, August 9). Minneapolis police reveal changes to use-of-force policy.
Milligan, S. (2020, June 2). Pandemic, recession, unrest: 2020 and the confluence of crises.
Milzarski, E (2020, May 15). 5 reasons why the battle buddy system was secretly brilliant.
Terrill, W. (2016). Deadly force: To shoot or not to shoot. Criminology & Public Policy, 15(2), 491-496.
Dr. Dan Rousseau is an Adjunct Professor, Division of Criminal Justice, College of Safety and Emergency Services, Columbia Southern University. Dr. Rousseau has over thirty years of military and law enforcement operational and training experience. He is a retired Supervisory Special Agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and a retired officer of the United States Army Reserve. Dr. Rousseau’s research interests include emerging issues in the criminal justice system. He has earned a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice from the University of Central Florida, a Master’s in Education from Central Michigan University, and a Doctorate in Criminal Justice from California University of Pennsylvania.
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