Over the past 30 years, I have counseled cops who have killed someone in the line of duty. They cry. They sob. They have nightmares. They don’t know what to tell their children or their spouses. “How was your day?” is an ordinary question — unless you’re a cop. Some are demonized in the press and by their communities. Others feel betrayed by their own departments. Some suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder, others with what might more accurately be called moral pain. A few choose not to return to work for fear they will again be confronted with the possibility of taking another human life.
Cops do not become cops to kill people. They become cops because they want to make a difference in their communities. One of the many ways they make a difference is by putting criminals in jail. They are part social worker, enforcer, lawyer, counselor and priest. Their jobs are complex and the decisions they make, often in the worst of circumstances, have powerful consequences for themselves and for the rest of us. Because society invests police with so much power, they must be held to the highest standards. But the degree to which they are held to these standards must also be the degree to which they are supported by their departments and their communities. So what has gone wrong? Because clearly something has gone wrong. People of color and white people report different perceptions toward law enforcement and different experiences with the police. Opinions about why this is so and who’s responsible fall into two camps, each imploring the rest of us to line up with them because it’s too hard to consider the both/and approach that implicates us all.The applicant pool for police officers draws from American society. And America, while making progress, still struggles with racism. Famed criminologist Jerome Skolnick described “the symbolic assailant,” a black male who lives in the heads of many police officers and, I would argue, in the heads of many Americans.
What can a police department do to counteract this? When a citizen phones the police for help because a black man is walking up the street, the police can’t refuse to respond to the call, but they can, as did one department, call the reporting party back to tell them that the suspicious person is their neighbor out for an evening stroll. Has the “broken window theory,” a well-intentioned effort to use police to stop neighborhood deterioration, helped or hindered police-community relations? In some communities, the application of this theory has forced the police into confrontations over minor violations and left citizens in that community feeling as though they live in occupied territory. Poverty is a driving force in criminality. It isolates people, constricts opportunity and destroys hope. Reducing poverty, and all the factors that create it, is not and can never be a police function. I cringe at recent headlines because I know so many dedicated cops from every ethnicity who do their best to keep their communities safe and enforce the law fairly for everyone. Their contributions, their sacrifices and their achievements rarely make headlines. Instead they are stereotyped as symbolic assassins in blue uniforms. What’s the fix, Doc? you ask. Better and different training for police officers? Fewer guns for citizens? Fewer tanks for cops? More women in law enforcement because women are rarely involved in excessive force incidents? More resources for the mentally ill? More sitting down, face-to-face time between cops and the communities they serve? Less pressure on cops to write tickets and make arrests? Better pay for police so poor communities can hire the police force they deserve instead of losing officers to higher paying departments? Better schools? Better courts? Better health care? More job opportunities for disenfranchised citizens? Yes to all. Any would be a beginning. We have to start someplace. All of us.