So I was scrolling through my Facebook feed recently when this link pops up about gang members across the country coloring the tips of their real guns with orange to make the gun look like a toy gun in an effort to make police officers pause before shooting someone. My first thought was, “Any cop, when a gun is pointed at them, is liable to shoot first and ask questions later.” And a few weeks earlier, on a TV show (a crime procedural) I noticed an officer character hand cuffing a suspect and thought to myself, “I’m not sure he’s grabbing hard enough, that guy could try anything.” This criminal character was suspected of being particularly dangerous and being an engaged viewer I cared for the safety of the protagonist and they appeared to be failing at any sort of intimidation to facilitate an easier take down.
And it was here between these two moments that I developed some sympathy and empathy for police officers. They are designated with the task of keeping the peace, upholding laws, and protecting individuals and groups where they can. But in both these scenarios, I became more aware than ever what it might be like to be in the field day after day, not knowing whether you’ll come home, or if some action you take will end up in a department review, splashed across the media, and personally condemned by peers, politicians, and the public at large. And it was in this thought that I finally developed some understanding for the ‘other side.’ Like many African Americans I am wary of the police, from their unwarranted search and seizures to shootings that end someone’s life when no gun is present. I have thought that police officers are not really for my protection, but society (i.e. white people) at large.
But in reading this article which happens to be a satirical site, but like most satire is based in truth, which means someone out there is doing exactly that. What I understood in a way that I never really had before is how much danger a police officer is in when they are called out to a disturbance or coming across a situation that seems ‘off.’ When you have seconds, really mere milliseconds to make a life or death decision, would any of us, trained or otherwise get it right, every single time? I ask this question because we know about civilians like LaTanya Haggarty who was shot and killed when all she had was a cell phone, but in the case of any officer, particularly in urban areas, how often have they not shot someone when a situation of clear and present danger was before them, and if not to themselves then to a civilian in the vicinity.
There are many cases of corruption, cover ups, and scenarios where officers have numerous complaints about their abuse of authority and no disciplinary action occurs to remedy their behavior so I do not write these off, but the issue here and what my main effort in this piece is to see the other side. The worst of what we see in almost any situation is not the totality of the structure or institution we’re condemning. We get up in arms about companies that pollute or a car company with a massive recall and we hardly ever take into consideration that the worst of what we see and hear is not what happens the majority of the time. And not necessarily that these cases are isolated, but that it’s not the entire truth.
And another truth is that the disenfranchisement of African Americans from a lack of economic opportunity, to draconian sentencing for minor offenses, to racial profiling, to stereotyping happens a lot. Enough to be statistically relevant and illustrate that African Americans suffer institutionalized unbalanced justice. But in seeing that these injustices occur, are we forgetting the fundamental fact that many people (but not all) who get into law enforcement, like fire fighters and soldiers, do it because they genuinely want to help others and do well for their city, county, or country. These individuals risk life and limb not to make us feel safe, because all those jobs fail at that miserably (lets be honest), but to give us the sense that if something catastrophic goes wrong in our lives, someone is there who has been trained that can help us through the worst of it, so we at least have a chance of seeing tomorrow. In the case of many black individuals, unfortunately, an interaction with a police officer will often mean harassment, arrest, jail, and/or death.
These imbalances in the administration of justice can not stand, but I also wonder in our collective distaste if we heap negativity and condemnation on an institution that deserves more nuanced consideration than we currently offer them. For we pay them to be super heroes, to make the right decision at the critical moment in order to deescalate a situation and for all parties involved, victims and perpetrators, to receive the justice they deserve and to do this consistently with no regard to a person’s education, upbringing, and the social culture police officers need to immerse themselves in which are all things that shape their world view and how they approach a situation or task. But even superheroes are not super all the time and the unfortunate fact is that real life and death choices are at stake.
To be sure there are racist cops, city councilmen, and mayors and they’ll do next to nothing and even enforce policies to ensure our black males and females are at a consistent disadvantage in regards to justice. But with forces of 2,000 to 10,000+ in major cities across America besides small towns and state police, the conversation may need to be geared towards more cooperation and understanding than vehement, viscous criticism and on both sides of the aisle, cop and civilian. There are thousands of people invested with the power, authority, and the task to help civilians in our darkest hours and bad blood with no understanding or empathy for the other side is a hardly a winning strategy to start to rectify past and ongoing wrongs.