COPYRIGHT 2020 Debra Littlejohn Shinder
I guess one of the key ways in which I’m showing my age is that I can remember when the police and most of the public had a good relationship. The good guys (and girls) of all colors who made up the majority of the citizenry and the men and women in blue who protected and served them had a pretty good relationship. For the most part, we trusted one another — at least in the small towns where I lived and worked.
That was true in almost all of the neighborhoods, regardless of predominant skin color. Each neighborhood had its troublemakers. Some of them were white, some were black, some were Hispanic or “other.” They didn’t get along with the cops so well, And as with any close relationship, it wasn’t perfect. There were grumbles that “some animals were more equal than others,” but that usually pertained to friends of cops and family members of elected local officials getting warnings instead of tickets for traffic violations.
I’m not naïve. I know that even back then, things were different in the big cities, different in different parts of the country, different from town to town even in my area. But it seems to me things have gotten a lot worse in a lot more places over the last few decades. Today we’re at a point where a large portion of the public wants to defund and dismantle their police departments, and a not insignificant portion of them want to see cops dead. A few extremists are acting on that desire, targeting random officers.
The Blame Game: A losing proposition
As of early June, not quite halfway through the year, twenty-three officers have been shot and killed this year. In Chicago alone, 130 police officers were injured between 5 p.m. May 29 and midnight May 31, according to WTTW News.
I know some want to put all the blame on the communities (and one of the major political parties) and others want to make it out to be all the fault of the police (and the other party). But I think if we dig down deep, we’ll find it’s like most failing relationships: There’s plenty of blame to go around and nobody is really innocent.
This post was inspired by a Facebook friend’s link to an article in the National Review about how blacks are frequently treated differently by cops. I don’t doubt the experiences recounted; I know for a fact that it happens. But I’ve thought long and hard about this and I believe I can honestly say that when I was a police officer, I didn’t treat people differently because of skin color.
Did I know a few cops who did? Yes. Never to the extent of using excessive force (that I witnessed) but yes, I knew some who were a little rougher with blacks and less inclined to believe what a black person told them. There were some who used racist language and who told racist jokes (about a number of different races — including whites). But they made up a small percentage of the police officers I knew (and as an instructor at the regional academy, I knew a lot of police officers).
More common, and I think something that gets mistaken for racism a lot, was that most of us did approach cocky young men — whether white, black, or brown — differently than older men or women, or (most) young girls. And how someone dressed definitely made a difference, too. A 20something male in “street” type clothes would be viewed with more suspicion and caution than the same guy dressed in a suit.
Those means of categorizing people were sometimes wildly inaccurate, of course, with more “false positives” than “false negatives,” but it had some basis in fact. Race is something we’re born with, but we choose our clothing and appearance and mannerisms and we either deliberately or subconsciously send signals about ourselves (or at least about whom we aspire to be) when we make those choices.
What people don’t understand or want to acknowledge is that we all make judgments about people we encounter based on external factors, all the time — because that’s a built-in survival mechanism.
We need to be able to quickly determine whether they’re “probably friend” (or at least harmless) or “probably foe” (and thus dangerous). And we either relax or tense up, smile or prepare for fight or flight, based on that determination.
Cops have to do the same, but in addition are tasked with protecting others as well as themselves. They have to be more vigilant, and because they’ve seen more violence they tend to be much less trusting — of anyone who appears to be a potential threat.
Sometimes a bad decision is just a bad decision
To some cops, race is one more factor in the assessment of a subject and for some it’s the overriding factor and that’s wrong, but it’s also based on the statistics. Whatever the reasons, which we could debate all day long, one race does commit more violent crime than another, and specifically those in a certain age/gender category. It’s maddening to be stereotyped, I know. Women are statistically more openly emotional than men, so those of us who tend more toward logic and reason are still assumed to be emotion-driven by those who don’t know us.
Wherever humans live, so do stereotypes. The impulse to stereotype is not a cultural innovation, like couture, but a species-wide adaptation, like color vision. Everyone does it. The powerful use stereotypes to enshrine and perpetuate their power, and the powerless use stereotypes just as much when seeking to defend or rebel against the powerful.
Second, contrary to popular sentiment, stereotypes are usually accurate. (Not always, to be sure. And some false stereotypes are purposefully promoted in order to cause harm. But this fact should further compel us to study stereotype accuracy well so that we can distinguish truth from lies in this area).Psychology Today, Stereotype Accuracy: A Displeasing Truth
In my experience with the cops with whom I worked (which does not represent all police agencies), it was “attitude” that was the real overriding factor in how they/we treated someone. Someone who was openly hostile or subtly snarky was more likely to be cited for something for which a nicer person would get a warning, more likely to be cuffed during a detention when a more polite person wouldn’t, more likely to be arrested for a minor offense that an officer would let slide or issue a ticket if the subject had been cooperative.
But it’s important to say that now and then and here and there, there are some plain old bad cops who just want to bully and beat up on people. Most of those (again, in my experience) are equal opportunity assholes and are happy to extend their brutality to (usually young men of) all races, regardless of how polite they are. And the bully cops come in different races and even genders, too.
Those bad apples can get through the screening process and turn up in any agency, because sociopaths and malignant narcissists are masters of deception and very good at gaslighting. Once they’re hired and have made it through probation, civil service and police unions can make it hard to get rid of them.
However, if that type of cop is more than just an anomaly in a particular agency, in my opinion that signals a serious top-down problem. At best it’s a failure of leadership and at worst it’s a systemic “us vs them” mentality that permeates the department because it’s not just tolerated but taught and reinforced by those in charge: supervisors, the chief or sheriff, city/county managers, and sometimes the elected governing body.
The Cycle of Fear, Anger, and Hatred
The problem with the current animosity between certain communities (not just black) and the police is that it’s a vicious cycle. A particular cop or agency commits an act of excessive force — or what appears to be excessive force (sometimes the force level turns out to be justified; sometimes it’s not). Instead of coming out against him/her or that department, a large segment of the community blames all cops and protests, riots, demands defunding, and the extremists even start killing random officers who had nothing to do with it.
What effect does this have on the good police officers? Will it make them less prone to be violent? Common sense says of course not. Even if they can resist acting out of anger, it makes them more fearful for their lives when encountering any member of that community, which means they’re more likely to escalate force to defend themselves from the real or perceived threat. And that makes for more incidents that make the outrage the community even more, and it goes on and on until we end up with our cities in flames, those who kept order gone, and the streets ruled by criminal overlords who’ll make the cops’ abuse of their authority look like child’s play.
This isn’t some sort of worst-case speculation. It’s happening now, all over America.
Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again
Like any good marriage that’s gone bad, this situation cannot be repaired by just one party no matter how badly that party wants to make it work. Both sides have to stand down and make some compromises. Otherwise we end up in a bitter battle in divorce court, and the kids (all of us citizens) will suffer mightily.
What’s the solution? Is there one? I don’t know. I believe there are steps that both sides could take to help heal the wounds, but I’m not confident that a gesture of conciliation would be accepted now by either side.
Law enforcement agencies, as the “adults in the room,” will almost certainly have to go first – unfair as that might be. The first thing that needs to go is the “blue wall of silence.” While the vast majority of cops are good, every one of us has encountered an officer who shouldn’t be wearing the badge. It’s time to stop protecting them, to stop giving them the benefit of the doubt because they’re “brothers” (or “sisters”) in blue.
It’s time to realize that they are bringing this down on the heads of all the rest of the officers and putting the good ones in more danger. Unless and until the good officers stand up to them, stop them when they overreact or overreach on the streets and speak up to help get them removed, the public will never have trust in the police again.
In my opinion, it’s also important to recognize that the COVID crisis has put the police in a bad light with many who supported them without question before. Most of the members of the population have been locked into our homes under “house arrest” for two months or more. This was done to them by their state and local governments — in most cases by the governors, mayors, and county judges rather than the legislative bodies — many of them see the police as the enforcers of those orders that more and more people are coming to believe represented an abuse of authority.
It’s not wonder that a lot of people were already angry and spoiling for a fight. The George Floyd incident was like tossing a lit match onto a gasoline-soaked playing field. Now the cities burn in the background while cops and the community go to war against one another and those who started the fire sit back and watch.
Something else that the police officers need to do is differentiate between the true troublemakers — the rioters who just want to destroy things, the looters who are out for personal gain, and the political activists whose agenda involves using violence to bring about their vision of a socialist future — and those good people who have joined in what they expect to be peaceful protests to address legitimate injustices and flaws in the system.
What about the public? What do they need to do for this marriage to be saved? First and foremost, they have to want to save it. I’m afraid that’s going to be the biggest hurdle. Too many people today are short-term thinkers. A police officer did a bad thing, thus police officers do bad things, thus we should get rid of the police. They aren’t looking at the long term ramifications of that. They aren’t thinking about how it would impact their own safety and that of their families. They’re just (most of them unknowingly) following a playbook written by master manipulators who are using them to gain power — not to give power to “the people.”
Unless and until the protesters and rioters open their eyes and see that they’re being used, there is nothing the police can do that will convince them that the relationship is worth preserving.
If this widening gulf between law enforcement and its supporters and those who oppose them was the whole of the problem, it would still be bad, but maybe manageable. It’s not. We are in vehement disagreement over so much more than just the role of the police or just the suitability of a presidential candidate.
I have been afraid, for a while, that our country is headed toward the Big Split, more formally known as a schism. We are divided to a greater extent than we’ve ever been in my lifetime. The population has for the most part retreated into two distinct camps and their members might as well be from different planets. Their values, beliefs, aspirations, and ways of thinking are so far apart as to be almost incomprehensible to one another.
I remember (fondly) when “regular people” rarely discussed politics. They went to the polls and voted (or didn’t), they might even give money to candidates they supported, or put a yard sign at election time. Today, politics permeates all parts of our lives. Facebook cruise groups, dog lover groups, photography groups — all sorts of groups dedicated to interests that have nothing to do with political issues are rife with liberal vs conservative discussions. The most innocuous posts on my own timeline (such as a photo of my dinner at a restaurant) have turned political (“shame on you for eating sea bass” or “I wouldn’t eat there – it looks like they use plastic straws.”
Some say we’re headed for a second civil war. Others say we’re already fighting it. One thing is certain: we are no longer “one nation, under God” (if we ever really were). We no longer even pretend to be. I have a lot of thoughts about that and where we may be headed and the future of this country. But that’s another subject for another time.
In the meantime, we’re losing those who stand between the weak and the wolves. Good police officers are leaving. Their places won’t be filled by And when they’re gone, there is going to be a feeding frenzy.