Being a success as a police officer requires a special mix of idealism and realism. To put up with the stress, abuse, long hours and low pay, it is necessary to believe that you can make a difference in people's lives. Or at least make a dent in the things that threaten people's lives, property and peace of mind.
But try being a cop with the idea that you can create an ideal world where everybody follows all the rules and no compromises have to be made, and you won't last long.
In the real world, platonic ideals take a back seat to doing what one can reasonably do to hold the line on real evils like violence, theft and exploitation.
This is what Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank and other police chiefs were talking about the other day when they took a firm stand against an idea, now before Congress, that would push city street cops into the maelstrom of enforcing the nation's failed immigration laws.
Specifically, the peace officers allied with National Immigration Law Center are objecting to a bill called, misleadingly, the SAFE (Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement) Act.
Unlike the far more rational immigration reform bill that passed the Senate some weeks ago, the SAFE Act would require that the civil notices federal immigration officers file against known or suspected illegal immigrants be loaded in the National Crime Information Center database. That's the computer network that officers consult when they want to find out if someone they are holding might be wanted for a crime, locally or anywhere in the country.
Burbank objects to the idea, not only because the addition of so many more data points would threaten to clog such a crucial law enforcement tool, but also because it would put the whole nation on notice that local and state cops are on the lookout for undocumented migrants.
And that, say Burbank and his allies, is the last thing local law enforcement needs. Especially in a diverse community such as Salt Lake City, where, depending on the neighborhood, more than half of the population might be Latino.
Police officers fighting real crime murder, theft, rape, gang activities are utterly useless without the support of the communities where they work. Real people, of all walks of life, must trust the police, call them when they witness a crime, come forward as witnesses, testify in court.
If, in any community, the fear of jail or deportation is linked with local law enforcement, that law enforcement is made much more difficult.
Members of Congress, especially those who claim to favor law and order, should not place that burden on the police.