Another day and two stories of police action that deserves to be called, at the very least, questionable. In New York, a young man from whom police demanded ID – for walking a dog off a leash – follow him inside his home and beat him repeatedly. In Chicago, a woman is accidentally hit and killed by a stray bullet during a domestic disturbance that escalated out of control. In both cases, reasonable people have questions regarding the actions of the police. In both, there seems to be enough room for knee-jerk defenders of the police to insist, “You don’t know all the facts!” Which is usually quite true. For that very reason, rather than give the benefit of the doubt either to the police or the alleged defendant, perhaps an impartial investigation is in order in each case?
Police have a difficult job. They see people at their worst, and obviously that takes a toll on their psyches. How long would it take any of us to become cynical and even contemptuous of human beings in general after seeing things police see on a regular basis?
There is more to it, however. Police exist within the larger framework of our aging capitalist system, a system the requires the suppression of rowdy elements to keep any threats at bay. In our country, riven with racism and sexism, the divide-to-conquer strategy creates institutions like police departments to enforce and enact racist and sexist policies. It isn’t that police officers are “bad” or that as individuals are “bad people”. Rather they can become caught up in the double-bind of psychological damage coming from exposure to death and violence as well as the larger structure that compels them to act in ways that are outside the law.
Yet we need police officers. I know some. Shoot, my wife’s nephew is a police officer and I told him on Saturday I thought of him every day, and I hoped beyond hope he never found himself in a situation where he felt compelled to draw his side-arm (most cops go their whole careers without ever removing their weapon from its holster). Which brings us to matters both of oversight and how best to train officers so that, rather than yet another group the poor and marginalized must fear, they are an institution to be trusted.
I often read comments on social media from officers that boil down to: “If you’re not a cop, you can’t say anything.” Which, really, is nonsensical. The police should be answerable to the people they are sworn to protect. We have every right to demand answers when questions arise. Not just any answers, but truthful, factual answers. That police feel set upon both by the criminals and the public and politicians is perhaps unfortunate. All the same, we don’t live in a lawless society, yet from all appearances of these incidents coming to light, it seems the police are willing to act as if there is no accountability for them when they act beyond the law.
In the City of DeKalb, where my nephew is an officer, they have specialized training on de-escalization. Police officers are trained specifically to see if it’s possible to calm people down, reassure frayed nerves, and resolve matters peacefully if at all possible. More and more police departments are implementing these training strategies. That’s good because we don’t need more incidents like the one in Georgia where a man, trying to calm his son who was waving a gun around, managed to get the situation under control, only to have police arrive and shoot and kill the father.
Any training, however, will always have limited effectiveness. Police forces will always exist within a larger social framework which use police officers for social and political control rather than “law enforcement”. We should be realistic enough in our demands for change that nothing will be perfect. We should be hopeful enough in our demands for change that many might well learn that rather than policing neighborhoods and treating them like enemy territory, it might be possible to remember that most people, most of the time, are just trying to live their lives the best they can. Especially in poor neighborhoods, places where crime is common, they need responsible officers rather than police who dream of being heroes.
If this makes me anti-cop, then so be it. I’m not, however, and my hope is that we as a society can get beyond simply shouting at one another about these matters and do something, for all our sakes.