“Why can’t we all just get along?”
I once had a friend who was a seasoned highway patrol officer. In a particularly memorable conversation, he explained to me how he avoided the kind of problems that lead to administrative reviews and related disciplinary action.
“I never engage in ‘gotcha’ policing, Ed,” he told me. He went on to define that term. “It’s when I could stop a driver for a nit-picky infraction” (he was referring to the classic burnt-out tail-light), “or respond with hostility to an angry driver I pull over for speeding. There are tons of ways that police work can become adversarial, and in most instances it shouldn’t. We have a job to do, but we don’t need to cop an attitude in doing it. The uniform does enough of that for us. I’m much more concerned with confrontations I can avoid than with adding another citation to my report.”
In my years of driving, I’ve been pulled over by cops like my friend and by cops who don’t follow my friend’s approach. The former are always courteous and respectful; the latter are just plain nasty, daring me, it sometimes seems, to question their authority or to mouth off with any kind of objection to their attitude. Of course, I always refrain from giving those in the latter camp the satisfaction of anything other than my license and registration. I’m not about to test their ego or their ability to make my life a whole lot more miserable.
In this manner, I have avoided any kind of incident such as might have gotten me arrested or handcuffed. Thus, speeding tickets and the like aside, I have a clean record. But I’m an attorney, I’m white, and I don’t think my demeanor or appearance would otherwise suggest that I might be potential trouble or pose a danger to an armed officer of the law.
Police work is hard. Let’s agree on that point. Any interaction a cop has with anyone on his or her beat can be dangerous. That’s why they are given guns and other weapons. The hope is that they will never have to use any of them. The reality is that they sometimes do.
Now let’s talk about the kind of interaction that leaves the person the cop has interacted with dead. There have been more than a few of those in the news recently, and while every situation is unique, they all seem to have one fact in common: in each instance the dead person was black. Those deaths have led to accusations of police bigotry, or police brutality, or of police incompetence, or of poor and inadequate training. Those accusations have been met with vehement denials, albeit in most instances the police officers involved in the deaths have at least been put on administrative leave.
Let’s consider the charges in order:
Police bigotry – Are there bigots on the police force in any given community? Almost certainly. There are bigots throughout our society. It would be unusual if that kind of individual didn’t occasionally end up in a police uniform. That bigotry exists on a given police unit, however, does not mean that the death of a black individual at the hand of a specific police officer was due to bigotry.
Police brutality – Are there police officers in any given community who are either short tempered or bullies by nature? Almost certainly. Those types of individuals also exist throughout our society, and it stands to reason that the lure of the badge, the uniform, the baton, the gun, would be appealing to some who are inclined to “get physically aggressive” in certain instances. But the existence of such individuals on a given police force does not necessarily mean that the death of an individual who came in contact with a specific police officer was due to police brutality.
Police incompetence – Are there police officers in any given community who are just not competent in their work? Almost certainly. Incompetence is part of the human condition, either by virtue of the Peter Principle (everyone advances by promotion to a level of ultimate incompetence) or because that’s “how God made us” (to borrow an expression). But the likelihood that police incompetence exists in any given police force doesn’t mean that incompetence led to the death of a particular individual at the hand of a particular police officer.
Poor training – Are some police officers poorly trained for the tasks they perform? Almost certainly. Even the best police departments struggle to provide the necessary training in the more sophisticated and nuanced areas of the work the officers are required to do. When is it appropriate to draw a weapon? When should the weapon be fired? Should it ever be fired to wound or disable rather than to kill? These aren’t textbook lessons. They are often taught by senior officers who may never have had such an experience themselves. And even the best of teachers can still not get through to students who, for whatever reason, aren’t open to learning from them. (I can definitely attest to this point.) But the likelihood of poor training in any given police squad doesn’t mean that lack of sufficient training led to the death of a particular individual at the hand of a particular police officer.
Some deaths of innocent victims of police action are accidents; some are justified; some are caused by ordinary negligence and therefore aren’t criminal; some are caused by criminal negligence and therefore are; and some, but probably very few (far fewer than non-attorneys would expect), are murders.
Police officers are human beings. They are forced to act in highly perilous circumstances that require split-second judgments. Some are better equipped to deal with those circumstances than others. Some police officers shouldn’t be police officers.
None of the foregoing addresses the injustice of the loss of an innocent life due to the act of a police officer. Injustice is never fair, always infuriating, and rarely correctable. It’s human nature to protest, angrily and even irrationally, against injustice. That, too, it would seem, is how God made us.