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Harford County Sheriff's Office Cpl. Joseph Peters says that officers have to be more vigilant and alert, as attacks on law enforcement officers have been on the rise around the United States.
Harford County Sheriff's Office Cpl. Joseph Peters says that officers have to be more vigilant and alert, as attacks on law enforcement officers have been on the rise around the United States. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

It isn't the motto of every police department in the U.S., but the four words are known by people across the U.S.: "To protect and serve."

It's the motto of the Los Angeles Police Department and, according to that agency's website, it was coined in 1955 when Officer Joseph S. Dorobek entered it in an inter agency contest. Initially, it was the motto of the Los Angeles Police Academy, and in 1963 it was officially made the city police department's public mission statement.

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Over the years, it has come to national prominence by being featured in any number of movies and TV shows about police, no doubt owing, in part, to Hollywood being within the greater Los Angeles area.

It's also a good motto. In four words, it captures the ideals of any agency in a free society with the responsibility of maintaining civil order and ensuring that law abiding citizens are protected. In short, it's a fitting job description for anyone who wears a uniform or works plain clothes or undercover.

It's a sentiment echoed recently by Aberdeen Police Chief Henry Trabert, who was questioned for our recent story about police and community relations in Harford County and how recent high-profile acts of violence involving police — both as victims and perpetrators.

"I don't want my guys in armored vehicles. I don't want my guys going around like we are in military vehicles. We don't want tinted windows, we don't want to look tactical, so that is not something that we want to see in Aberdeen," Trabert said.

The past several months have been tense in these parts for all involved in law enforcement. The sentiment that the job of the police is to protect and serve is far from universally accepted. The death earlier this year of Freddie Gray, who died while in the custody of Baltimore City Police, and the subsequent civil unrest in the city, weighs heavily on police agencies across Maryland. Indeed, officers from agencies in Harford County were dispatched to Baltimore during the unrest.

"I have never seen it like this in my 42 years with the Sheriff's Office," Bel Air Town Administrator and former Harford County sheriff Jesse Bane said, adding, "It is really a scary time for officers on the streets."

In addition to some people being afraid of police because of high profile acts of police misconduct and abuse, officers on the street have reason to be afraid because police have been targeted and killed in some equally high profile acts of violence.

Locally, the various agencies whose job it is to protect communities in Harford County have had a range responses to the situation and with an eye toward keeping officers safe while they patrol with the mission of keeping the rest of us safe.

It would be easy to say the problems that have sparked local police to take safety precautions have little or no bearing on police and community relations in Harford County, but it also wouldn't be accurate.

For a variety of reasons, all police come under scrutiny when there are high profile accusations of misconduct and abuse of authority. People in the news business are all too keenly aware of such broad brush scrutiny as every time a journalist — or even a self-proclaimed journalist — does something dishonest, it reflects negatively on all. People in many other professions are similarly affected.

It's a terrible thing for a good and honest person to be judged based on something other than his or her character, but unfortunately this is exactly what's happening to good and honest police. It is also unfortunate, but this what happens to a lot of people when officers of lesser moral character — however few they may be — make judgments based on race, clothing choices, hair style or anything else aside from evidence of wrongdoing.

To put it more simply, there have been all too many bad actors on both sides of law enforcement, as evidenced by the seemingly endless succession of incidents in which police are accused of inappropriate behavior and wholly unacceptable attacks on police are perpetrated.

When Aberdeen's Chief Trabert went on to say it is important for officers in the city to be approachable by the people they serve, he expressed the exact kind of sentiment that is needed to help the Baltimore area and the nation as a whole get beyond any adversarial relationships between police and the communities they serve. It's exactly the sentiment expressed in the LAPD motto.

Certainly, this is a two-way street. It is, however, incumbent on police to take the first steps. They are, after all, the ones who are armed, assigned to protect society from rogue elements and to, well, serve.

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While there haven't been problems lately in Harford County, the best place to treat people with respect is close to home. Like charity, civility and respect begin in the home, and the places close to it.

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