La La How The Life Goes On

That’s a Cop Out

Posted on: December 10, 2014

One hallmark of higher-level thinking, ie, being a grown-up, is having the ability to see issues through more than one lens. Very few issues in life are This or That, Black or White, Up or Down. Certain “news” channels want you to believe that they are, certain interest groups want you to believe that they are. But they are not.

Take, for instance, the current situation regarding our nation’s police forces and charges of racism and unnecessary force. Why do I have be either pro-law enforcement OR pro-reform? Facebook is full of posts either slamming cops wholesale or tributes to all cops everywhere no matter what. As if supporting law enforcement AND equitable treatment of citizens are mutually exclusive concepts.

I absolutely support law enforcement. It’s a tough, some might say on a bad day, shitty job that requires a combination of skills very few people possess at one time. My brother, as a deputy sheriff, was required to be a social worker, peacemaker, ass-kicker, child therapist, drug addict counselor, precision driver and round-the-clock, on-demand barrier between good citizens and those with malintent. He spent his days dealing with absolutely the shittiest people on the planet, be they drug dealers, wife beaters or child rapists. So to say that he developed a certain world view would be entirely accurate. But what he never developed was a sense that he was above the law. That somehow his personal values could be set aside in service to his job. Or that somehow he could phone that shit in and still remain employed.

As in any profession, there were some coworkers in his sphere who perhaps were not entirely up to the job. The lesser lights. You know these people, because they exist in every single vocation. Promoted to the level of their incompetence. Maybe nice guys or girls,  so people give them a pass on some stuff that they really should have down. Or maybe they are assholes, and so people give them a pass because they don’t want to deal with them. But in any case, people who are not awesome at their jobs do exist in every single profession.

Which is why I am mystified by the suggestion that demanding excellence from our police officers is tantamount to hating them or not supporting them. On what planet is saying, “Every single one of you must bring your A Game every single day” a statement of hatred or lack of support? Is it fair to single out cops? Maybe, maybe not. Think about surgeons. Their margin for error needs to be zero. The average person sorting mail or bagging groceries can have a higher error rate because no one’s life is necessarily riding on every aspect of their performance every day. But surgeons, airline pilots, bus drivers, subway drivers, nurses, police officers; these are professions where errors cost lives. If you join one of these professions, you know that this is the deal. You have to be better, stronger, faster, smarter, tougher than the guy slicing deli meat or the woman painting houses. Because your profession requires that next level of competence.

So, when someone in your profession clearly (and in the case of Eric Garner, it is CLEARLY) fails to meet the high standards set for its workers, consequences absolutely must follow if there is to be any public faith in that profession. It is counter-intuitive, which is why people balk at it. But it’s true: by disciplining and retraining and/or firing individuals who do not meet the standard, the police force would actually ENHANCE its respect and esteem in the community. Unfortunately the bunker mentality that seems to permeate law enforcement culture is impeding that goal at the moment.

Requiring accountability of a police officer who used an outdated, banned tactic not supported by that department’s training program is not hating on cops. It is not inciting anarchy. It is simply demanding excellence from those who serve. In my job, if I screwed up, I got reprimanded. Taken off client accounts. Not necessarily entrusted with the next big project until I’d redeemed myself. People all over America deal with this employment reality every single day of their working lives. So why do we resist this most basic of workplace realities when it comes to the police?

There is work to be done on both sides of this issue, and much of it is chicken-and-egg. People need to teach their kids to respect police officers. Police officers need to earn that respect. People need to recognize the daily dangerous reality of a cop’s job is real. Cops need to not use that “I just want to get safely home tonight” trope as an excuse for less than excellent police work.  Eric Garner wanted to get home that night. Tamir Rice wanted to get home that night. We all want to get home tonight.

So how do we do that? How do we bridge this giant gulf between our communities and our police officers? How do let go of our defensiveness–on both sides–and get down to making things right? First, we acknowledge the other side’s perspective, whether we personally feel it is valid or not. I have a friend who is African-American whose mom told her never to run–for a bus, a train, anything. Because in her experience as a person of color, she was seen as running FROM something. Stopped by police. Questioned. Her very experience of Running While Black was a cause for suspicion. This is something so unbelievable to white people that our instant reaction is to reject it as fantasy, as race-baiting, as nonsense. White people run all the time! No one assumes we have just robbed a QuickieMart. It’s a beautiful world to live in when you don’t have to think hard about whether to run for a bus and then you get to tell someone else who has lived it that they are full of crap because their reality makes no sense to you and so therefore is invalid.

So too from the other side. Let’s acknowledge that there is a deep distrust and disrespect for law enforcement, not all of it justified. That there are police officers who get up every damn day and just want to do the right thing by their fellow citizens, who sure aren’t doing it for the giant paycheck, flexible hours and luxurious company cars. That we can be quick to blame individual cops for systemic problems, and to blame entire police forces for the failings of individuals.

There are giant challenges before us to repair and restore trust between our police forces and our citizens. I don’t pretend to even have an inkling of what the solutions might be. But I do know that the first step is refusing to be forced into an either/or, pro/con framework. I support our police. I support a citizen’s right to be treated with respect and humanity regardless of race. I support the community’s right to be policed by qualified, highest-level professionals. I support law enforcement’s right to demand excellence and partnership in return. These things ARE possible. We just have to refuse to be forced into the For Or Against easy soundbite cop-out.

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