This post, entitled “To Protect and Serve,” was originally one of series of three posts I had written on my first ever blog. I don’t think I will repost the other two posts in the series here because my thoughts in those posts were unorganized, but I intend to revisit those thoughts here eventually.
As you can see, I haven’t updated this blog much this year or much over the past two years, but recent events have compelled me to write something — anything, particularly about law enforcement. As you may know, there have been a few notable murders of Black Americans: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. All three incidents have led to a public outcry and Floyd’s murder by four Minneapolis police officers (only one kneeled on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, but the other three officers present were complicit) has touched off a series of protests across the United States and around the world.
Before I can even begin to address many of the details of those cases and these protests, I need to first discuss my feelings about the police, which has only been negatively impacted, especially during this past decade. In the meantime, I want to use this text to touch off a conversation about law enforcement, protest, and our relationship with power.
How I Feel About Police Officers
I’m just going to come out and say it: Even from a young age, I have never had a comfortable impression of the police. It’s not what you think and not part of “being with the crowd.” It’s quite the contrary. Honestly, I feel there is a real disconnect between law enforcement and the communities, as well as a lack of accountability.
I never hated the police as a child, but I always had a fear and mistrust of them. This may have started with what I was told at a young age.
For one thing, I had heard a story of that happened way back in 1987, in which a 19-year-old was shot dead after pointing a toy laser gun at a police officer. It was an honest mistake, but it alerted me to the prospect of danger and tragedy civilians face if they make one wrong move.
Secondly, it is also a scary thing to tell a kid that the cops take care of bad guys. Of course, I hated the prospect of being arrested for anything — or worse, shot — so that pretty much kept me on the straight and narrow, but something always seemed off about that.
For Example … Take My Parents — Please
To explain how I feel, it’s like a contrast between two parents. I actually got to see this with my own mother and father.
My father was big on punishment. He was more likely to hand out belt whippings, even for relatively small infractions. And he was less likely to adequately explain where my sister and I went wrong.
My mother didn’t like whipping us and was far more likely to ground us and talk to us about what we did wrong and how to make better decisions in the future. Furthermore, she has always had a presence in my life. Guess who I like more.
Likewise, the police have had a very limited presence in my life and I associate them more with punishment, rather than rehabilitation. It is this hardline, impersonal impression I get that has always tainted the perception I have had of cops.
Arrogance Is but One Problem
Over the years, some of the statements I have read and speeches I have seen from law enforcement added to my frustration. It might not be the words cops use but their tone of voice that puts me off. The show COPS comes to mind in this regard. While many situations require a neutral tone of voice, I can sometimes detect an air of arrogance in officers, when certain suspects or communities are being referred to.
What I’ve Seen and Heard
Understandably, police keep the public at arm’s length, but they also have the license to kill. Given their resources and authority, the police can be outright dangerous if corrupt. That last part especially lends to the healthy suspicion I have of the police.
The stories of police encounters make everything worse.
Some stories of cops from my peers were negative. We were all aware of the delayed response times to calls and some people have even been harassed and talked down to by officers.
My Experiences with Police Officers
I have come into contact with police (but not in arrest situations), seen them in action, and each encounter has been neutral-to-negative.
One cop once came to my school as part of the D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistant Education) program. He tried his best to interest the kids, but I found him a bit impersonal.
Another cop cut me off when I was learning to drive, and he and his partner looked at me with a mocking and cocky expression.
I was once accosted by a few cops when I was staying at a motel room. These cops were looking for a criminal who was rumored to be in the area at one point. I could hear the fear and see it in the eyes of one of those guys, whose defense mechanism was being a fucking asshole. The others were relatively calm.
One time, I was at a laundromat when a homeless man was being accosted by a police officer. The officer eventually and unnecessarily used pepper spray on the man, and it eventually wafted its way to my mom and me. We momentarily had difficulty breathing.
Other Stories Involving Police Officers
Far worse things have happened to others, of course. The stories of cops I became aware of did nothing to help my opinion of them. While there were occasional stories of officers defending children and helping to bring young lives into the world, the alarming stories persisted and outnumbered the good ones. Particularly, there were stories of officers ignoring 911 calls and skipping certain neighborhoods entirely.
Other alarming stories involved police responses to slain officers. Unlike in many cases of civilian deaths, there is a fervor by police departments to go after cop killers, even at the expense of even more civilians and even when cops were in the wrong, to begin with.
Things That Might Lead to the Lack of Accountability
Now, I would like to believe that highlighted cases of police brutality/abuse of authority are in the minority, but sometimes I don’t know. What I do know is that police are human and they have a great deal of responsibility and power.
The pay might be decent, as well, so there is a real opportunity for the unqualified to seek a job for that alone.
The stresses of the job and responsibility cops feel for each other definitely add to the potential danger for civilians. It’s even worse when cops serve in cities where they don’t reside.
Why do I say this? Think about it for a minute. The power (imagine how many officers were once bullied as children), pay, responsibility, stress, work distance, connections to peers, and connections (or lack thereof) to the communities they serve can conspire to corrupt certain police officers. Add to that a seeming lack of accountability when they do get caught for abusing their power.
When Officers Do Get Caught …
It seems when an officer is caught abusing a civilian — even on camera! — he is more likely to get off. There may be no repercussions in some cases or a slap on the wrist in others. There have been convictions, but those are rare, and payouts are more likely. Usually, there might be administrative (read: paid) leave or even termination, but the (ex-) cop is almost always cleared in a speedy trial.
Sometimes, it seems like a conspiracy between the police departments, lawyers (with the district attorney working closely with the police departments), and the judges to get these men and women off.
(In American courts, the attorneys on both sides select the juries, with a certain number of unexplained dismissals. So, it will be easy for both sides to quickly find law enforcement-aligned jurors.)
The Michael Brown case kind of reinforces this view.
The Crux of the Issue
Add in past rulings from district courts to the Supreme Court regarding the public duty doctrine and the like. I don’t like how the doctrine was applied in decisions such as in the cases of Warren v. District of Columbia (1981), DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services (1989), Castle Rock v. Gonzales (2005), and McGaughey v. District of Columbia, et. al (2012) and I feel those decisions have set and reinforced a dangerous precedent.
If one takes all the above into account, it seems like a majority of cops are in violation of their badges and the social contract. It seems that police departments might be more inclined to avoid liabilities or their own danger in certain circumstances, and at the expense of civilians. They often seem less concerned about their duty, to protect and serve the populace, but are more inclined to protect and serve each other.
This is how I feel about those who are charged with keeping us safe: Whether one is a member of the armed forces, a police officer, or any type of public servant, one must not think they are more important than the people they are supposed to serve. It defeats the purpose of their job.
Ultimately, I have a deep-seated mistrust of police officers because it appears that they have deemed themselves more important than the civilians they have sworn to protect. The cases in Ferguson and New York (Eric Garner) only serve to reinforce this view.