We don't need social workers to replace police. We just need good cops.

On a street corner in Southwest Baltimore last month, friends and family of 27-year-old Hunter Jessup gathered to commemorate his life and to call for accountability in the matter of his death. Jessup was killed on Nov. 7 after exchanging fire with police officers during a foot chase.

This scene is far from rare: Each year, roughly 1,000 Americans are shot to death by police. This has left many families like the Jessups distrustful of police and the justice system.

A study released at the beginning of this year found that the level of confidence in police is even lower than it was shortly after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis officer in May 2020, with that confidence particularly low among minorities.

However, attention-grabbing headlines about these tragedies do not show the complete picture. There is such a thing as a bad cop, and bad cops deserve harsh consequences.

But I was on the beat for decades, and well before our current anti-police activist sentiment started calling for us to be replaced by social workers with “soft skills” outside the use of force, I served with many good cops who routinely used and relied on those tools on a daily basis.

A police officer and his baby at the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City on Nov. 23, 2023.
A police officer and his baby at the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City on Nov. 23, 2023.

Training goes beyond use of force

In fact, a 2015 study of U.S. police academies found that while recruits underwent about 250 hours of use-of-force training, a third of that time was spent on constitutional and law training, de-escalation and communication, first aid and other soft skills, as opposed to firearm, self-defense and other physical training.

What this means is that cops carry many tools on the job – and most of them are not weapons.

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Along with our training in de-escalation, we may carry walkie-talkies, writing instruments and even lollipops or sugar-free gum.

Bottom line: No member of law enforcement can effectively “protect and serve” without interpersonal skills and de-escalation tactics that prevent violence upstream, well before anyone has the inkling to use his trigger finger.

Rescuing a veteran, treating new orphan to Christmas

Soft skills like empathy aren’t just key to the job during traffic stops.

Take the case of James Nicoletti, who had just moved to Berwyn, Illinois, in January 2020 and was going hungry and cold without access to his veteran’s pension. Five Berwyn police officers appeared to check on him, and they gathered food and supplies for the man, posting on social media to rally the community to do the same.

In Leominster, Massachusetts, in 2019, 4-year-old Jaiden “JJ” Clifford was facing a bleak Christmas after his mother was killed. A parade of police cars from nearly a dozen departments across the state showed up to treat JJ to a pile of presents and a turn wearing a real, honest-to-goodness police vest.

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In my time as a policeman, I used those soft skills myself to protect and serve the broader community. And they’re not just golden on the streets; some police officers like me work as school resource officers (SRO) later in life.

When I was an SRO, my kids knew that Mr. Angel was always ready with a high-five, a corny joke or a stick of sugar-free gum. All three can help relieve tension and anxiety. Most of all, these gestures helped the kids understand I had their best interest in mind. That mindset made a difference when I had to enforce the rules or speak sternly to a child.

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I am a Puerto Rican American with mixed-race children, so I know all too well the challenges people of color face when interacting with law enforcement. But for every unarmed Black person harmed by police, there are many James Nicolettis and JJ Cliffords.

Cops across the nation, under the radar and largely unappreciated by the wider culture, are writing those stories every day. They don’t make the headlines as readily, but they change lives just the same.

Angel Ruiz is a retired deputy sheriff for Frederick County, Virginia.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Police shooting headlines overshadow good cops with soft skills