Let’s get the obligatory acknowledgments out of the way up front: Deadly attacks on police officers are destructive and corrosive for any civil society. You cannot have order if those who volunteer for the assignment of keeping it are being systematically or pervasively targeted for violent attacks. But when that happens, how we respond to it defines us just as much as the precipitating do. However tense conditions get, I will never counsel my son to kiss any police officer’s ass with gratuitous groveling of “yes, sir” and “no, sir.” If speaking clearly, coherently and professionally is not sufficient to keep my son safe in an encounter with police then the life he is preserving by groveling is not worth living. That is what our newly installed Attorney General Jefferson Boregard Sessions wants to see black men doing. Check me on that by checking his racist record. He won’t get any of that here.
Setting aside matters of personal dignity and self-determination- which should be core values to every American man who calls himself a man- the reality is that the police have not earned the level of respect that the politicians and talking heads always feel obligated to shout out when there is another controversial and politicized killing.
Since we now have the self-proclaimed candidate of “Law and Order” is now the in full attack mode from the presidency, we need to brace ourselves for what is coming. When crime picks up this summer, so will controversial shootings involving police officers. Specifically, we will see instances of officers targeted and murdered in the line of duty and we will see even more unarmed black men killed by police officers under conspicuous circumstances- sometimes in the very same news cycle. The inflammatory political-speak will precede the street protests. And virtually nothing will change. But the landscape is even more perilous this time around. Considering the emotional heat of our public discourse these days and the fact that our newly elected Commander-In-Tweet can be counted on to fan the flames of tribalism at every turn, we need to get our collective heads on straight ahead of time about all of these issues. The energy and the ethos of Trump and his faithful following has much of urban America on high alert and it could get very ugly out here within just a few months of his inauguration. But it does not have to- not if enough principled progressives and conscientious conservatives read and heed the following points of clarity- and then direct the discussions we encounter and engage in accordingly.
Point 1: Cops Are Not Victims or Martyrs. Any narrative that casts cops as victims or martyrs in our society is as phony as a three dollar bill- phony baloney, plastic banana fake. The numbers just don’t bear it out. According to FBI statistics, of the 1.13 million law enforcement officers in America, there are 135 killed each year in the line of duty. That is about one tenth of one percent. Forbes and the Washington Post keeps a list of the deadliest jobs in America and the risk of being killed working as a cop is statistically indistinguishable from being killed as an electrician, bus mechanic or construction worker. It does not even crack the top ten. So few cops are shot as compared to the national population that no informed or rational person would advance this narrative unless the intent was to distract or deceive the audience. Incidents that are aberrations are sold as the new normal to validate this victimhood narrative that right wingers so desperately need.
They need this narrative in order to justify every policy that further militarizes law enforcement, criminalizes target populations, and manages urban policing more like the occupation of a foreign territory and less like protecting and serving American citizens. To be sure, these are the very same people who reflexively oppose anything that black people rally around- particularly when black folks are able to galvanize others to a particular cause and create an organically integrated social movement. Yes, that means the Black Lives Matter “movement.” Whatever organizational problems it has, the movement is authentic and the problems are real. I saw a kid on television with a t-shirt on that summarized it perfectly. It read: “We March, y’all mad. We Sit Down, y’all mad. We Speak Up, y’all mad. We Die, y’all silent.” If that t-shirt slogan offends you, then you are the problem these kids are out there trying to solve. They just want to feel as safe as anybody else feels in their own home, on their own block, around their own neighborhood and in their own nation. Police are supposed to support that, not undermine it.
Point 2: Cops Do Well Being Cops. It has become an article of faith for right-wing America that police officers are victimized by the unholy trinity of the liberal media, violent urban predators, and greedy trial lawyers. But even if any of that b.s. narrative was true, it does not change the fact that no police officer has ever been drafted into the force. They all joined voluntarily- and probably because it is the best professional employment opportunity they could get- just like the rest of us do. It is one of those professions in America that tends to define people- and there are only a handful of them. How many professions bestow such enormous power and security on people with no more than a high school diploma? Perhaps the military armed services, but that requires a far greater institutional investment and personal sacrifice- and that is most often a shorter term engagement. It is an expedient talking point that police officers put their lives on the line every day to protect their communities but the fact is they are doing a job that they asked for and that they get paid to do.
Hold the outrage: I am well aware that this does not pertain to everybody. One of my best friends attended law school with me after a decade carrying a badge so I know not all cops are nimrods. But clearly enough of them are to be a danger to society. It is noteworthy that he now makes a handsome living suing the police when cops violate the rights of citizens. He stays busy.
The point is these people enjoy the promise of a guaranteed living wage, good health benefits, access to financial resources and opportunities being extended to them by schools, banks and commercial establishments as a perk.
Consequently, a total compensation statement for a cop holds up well against similarly situated members of the workforce. So let’s leave the hero worship to little kids in school on career day who love to see the badge, the gun, the uniform and those snappy Batman-style utility belts. But for adults to have productive policy discussions we need to call it what it is: a job not a sacrifice. An important job, but a good one considering the marginal capabilities required for entry.
Point 3: Cops have a 99% Math Problem– If we accept the popular assertion that “99% of police officers are good”, then we must extrapolate that 1% of police officers are bad actors. 1% does not sound too threatening, but if you have one million police officers in the country, then that means there are 10,000 bad police officers strewn around wreaking havoc by abusing their power. These are not the “protect and serve” cops, these are the “patrol and control” cops. That’s a lot of bad cops. Let’s dig a little deeper into what that means on the street: if those 10,000 bad cops engage an average of 10 citizens a day, that is 100,000 direct contacts between cops and citizens.
And say they act like they have some sense for the most part and harass/abuse citizens just 10% of the time. Even by those conservative estimates, these bad cops have abused or harassed 2,000 people across the country every day. Harassing one person every day of a five day week means these rogue cops have committed some level of misconduct against 50,000 citizens every week. Given that these jackasses will get two weeks’ vacation, we have reached the shocking number of two and a half million incidents of misconduct every year. While this may be theoretical exercise, it is difficult to argue with the math- particularly when it is the math that you were given by the other side.
Point 4: Cops Love Snitches Unless the Snitches Are Cops– Everybody has heard that it is uncool to be a “snitch” and in many cases it is. This is one of those stupid and self-righteous “code of the streets” rules that has transcended prison yards and concrete jungles and has become a part of homogenized American culture.
Like baggy, saggy pants and everybody calling each other “nigga.” Of course it is pure mythology and only ever serves the purposes of the powerful- be they corrupt politicians or stalwarts of organized crime. The bigger the criminal enterprise, the more likely it is that the guy at the top is a “snitch” or will at some point be a “snitch.” The problem is that those who have volunteered for the assignment of upholding our laws are following that stupid criminal code too. There is a ton of documented evidence that cops turn on other cops who expose misconduct. We have already laid out the amazing damage that the acknowledged 1% of rotten apple cops can do, but consider the undeniable complicity of the 99% of the police force that are the “good” ones.
Do they kick their asses or do they close ranks around that rogue 1%? Do they actually lie to help cover up the malfeasance of that 1%? Do they elect spokesmen or union representatives that run to the cameras to defend the indefensible actions of that 1%? Or do they just turn a blind eye to the abuses of authority and the public trust? Do the supposedly good 99% actually adhere to that misguided code of the streets “no snitching”? So the 1% that do the dirt are not entirely to blame- they would be easy enough to root out. The problem is the rest who follow the same rules as Crips and Bloods- and Enron and Tyco executives.
Point 5: Some People Need to be Shot. As hard as this is to say, the simple truth cannot be ignored: sometimes police have to shoot and kill people. Frankly, sometimes it is their job and their duty and it is not always clear cut and simple. Sure I hate all of their bitching and posturing but there is no getting around it. There are legitimately bad guys out there and they have to be taken down- either by handcuffs or bullets.
And when the pressure is on and the stakes are high, it is easy to make a mistake- even if you are not an undercover Mark Fuhrman. A lot of my formative years were spent on the Westside of Detroit and as much as I hated the police, I hated the neighborhood scumbags a lot more. So I shed no tears if somebody got shot- armed or unarmed. It wasn’t until I got a little older that I realized that to the cops I looked just like the scumbags I hated. They didn’t know on sight that every college in the country that was worth a damn was offering me early admission. They just saw a black male- a six foot tall, 200 pound menace to society. That sucked for me and there were some unfortunate moments, but it has not kept me from seeing this issue for what it is- a quandary that demands more than a cursory glance to draw any conclusion. Like my man Johnnie Cochran always admonished police for rushing to judgment, we need to admonish any and everybody who opens their mouth about a shooting and is clearly speaking under the burden of ignorance, misinformation, or a lust for conflict. The stakes are simply too high these days and thought leaders from both sides of the argument need to guide the national conversation accordingly.