Opinion » Rhetoric & Reason

In cops' shoes

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Following the death of George Floyd, and the resulting protests and riots, there has been a lot of talk from Democrats about "reforming the police," including some proposals that the police be eliminated completely, and replaced with unarmed "de-escalation teams" and such. Since the police departments in most of the cities in which the incidents of police violence have occurred, such as Minneapolis, LA, and Baltimore, have been controlled by the Democrats for decades, I am curious why they have waited until now to implement these supposedly obvious reforms.

But rather than argue politics, I instead wanted to examine the role of the police generally, and to try to develop a little empathy for the people who perform the law enforcement function. I'd like for you to try and understand what it is like to walk in their shoes.

We are ambivalent about the police. We are grateful that they keep us secure but then attack them when their efforts go badly. Still, even the shrillest police critic will still call the cops when bad things happen.

The police function is inherently and unavoidably problematic. The police are the "muscle" enforcing the laws that we enact. They are asked to enforce laws that they may not even personally agree with, like "nanny state" laws. Regardless of political orientation, nobody likes being told what they can and cannot do. The corollary to the old saw that "a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged," is "a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested." No one likes to have the law enforced against oneself.

We expect the police to confront and "deal with" the people we wish to be protected from. These people can be some of the worst people in our society, and often at their worst moments due to drugs, alcohol, and rage. Often, encounters will include angry, loud, or intoxicated bystanders. The cop will usually have no idea of the intentions and capabilities of a suspect and just how far they will go.

They often work socially isolated from a public who are, at best, wary of them due to their function. And often, they face outright hostility and belligerence from people solely on what their badge represents, not on anything they might have said or done.

A cop does not have the option to decline to engage a belligerent or difficult suspect, or to walk away and wash their hands of the problem. They are the last resort and are expected to handle the problem.

Cops and soldiers are the only two professions that we direct to use force and violence. But unlike soldiers, whose unambiguous role is to either kill the enemy or to accept their surrender, we demand that a cop fight with a suspect using only the limited amount of force necessary to subdue and arrest them, and no more. And they need to make this judgment instantly, in the heat of the moment, and at a time when they may be fearful and pumped up on adrenaline. Their lives, and the lives of the suspect and possibly the public, depend upon getting it right.

Relatively few of us are physically and emotionally capable of fighting and accepting the routine risk of being killed or injured, yet most of us feel qualified to judge how it is conducted.

We not only expect a cop to be our gladiator, but also a lawyer knowledgeable of rapidly evolving laws and procedures. We expect them to be a psychologist, able to instantly diagnosis the mentally ill and to calm the insane, enraged, or intoxicated. And we expect them to be polite and patient, and to routinely tolerate verbal assaults.

A cop is required to function in a world of heartbreaking tragedy, or appalling cruelty and depravity, including shocking violence to children, the elderly, and women. Their exposure far exceeds the few moments of video which most of us see on the news.

Are there some bullies and violent, angry sociopaths among the police? Of course. Any profession which requires the occasional use of violence, is going to attract some who enjoy it. And, like all human beings, they will emotionally react to those they encounter. In the poisonous racial climate we live in, they are bound to develop impressions of different groups, especially in reaction to the treatment they receive from members of those groups. But the vast majority of cops just want to get through their shift with no difficulties, to feel like they have accomplished something, and go home safely to their families. They tend to have "corny" traditional values, like "duty," "loyalty," and "courage," and see themselves as protecting the weak and the innocent from the predatory, not as part of an "occupying army," as often charged.

What I ask of you is: The next time you read of a controversial encounter, to think about how you would have handled the situation, considering the environment they work in and the expectations and demands that we place upon them. Rather that just react to an ugly outcome, try to walk in their shoes. Δ

John Donegan is a retired attorney in Pismo Beach, who is known to sputter indignantly when he gets a ticket. Send an opinionated response to letters@newtimesslo.com for publication.

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