I touched on this yesterday in a comment over at athingirldotcom, and it’s a thing I’ve been pondering for quite some time. Before I get to my thought, I just want to be clear that I believe there is a problem with racism in law enforcement, just as there is racism in just about every other profession and in every corner of this country. At some level, it’s impossible to deny that racism is as much a part of the human condition as religion is.
Somebody on CNN said yesterday that racism didn’t exist until 500 years ago when the Catholic Church began its missionary activities in places where brown people lived. I think that’s somewhat ridiculous. There is a need in many humans to feel better than others, superior to others, to rule and to command. And guess what is the most apparent characteristic upon which to base those “needs”? Skin color. It is the thing we see before we see or know anything else about other humans we come into personal contact with. And it is unchangeable. Once you’re white, you’re always white. Ditto with black and brown. So, yeah … racism has existed as long as humans have walked the earth and come across people with different colored skin.
I also want to make sure to acknowledge that there are “bad cops” in the ranks and in the commanders’ suites. Again, just like in any other profession. And I get that because of their role in our society, bad cops are a particularly bad thing. They have so much power behind their badge, the impact of one bad cop creates huge ripples.
But here’s the thing … I don’t think that all of these incidents are a reflection of racism. Working in downtown Sacramento for almost 22 years — where the homeless problem has worsened each and every year, where the instances of mentally ill individuals walking the streets have become too numerous to keep track of, and where so many people are simply not all there — I saw enough interactions between police officers and these types of individuals to understand just how difficult, and potentially impossible, their job is.
Yes, many officers may not have to deal with this type of population on a constant or regular basis, but my guess is that most do. Because that is the role we have assigned to them — to deal with the “problems” in our society so we don’t have to. We want to be able to turn our backs on the homeless and the mentally ill and the drug-addicted, and expect somebody else to deal with it. Just do it quietly and don’t disturb us.
It is understandable, therefore, if officers crack every now and then. They have one of the most difficult jobs that exist today. They travel in human muck every day, muck that the rest of us privileged masses want nothing to do with. And we demand that these officers do so with perfection. Make no mistakes, show no weakness, never, ever crack. While most of them likely have inadequate training before they are hired and don’t receive the kind of resources, support, and therapy they need once they are on the job, and their unions protect them, no matter how bad their actions. (A topic for another post — how unions representing government employees, including teachers and police, are creating far more problems than they are solving.)
Decades ago, we underwent a grand experiment. Institutions for the mentally ill were shut down. Since then we have utterly failed at providing the needed services and supports for the previously institutionalized to survive in the community and far too many of them wander the streets, without homes and without help. For decades also, law enforcement has become more and more militarized and militant in many of our communities. It is a toxic mix we have created on the streets of America, and it has nothing to do with race.
And sometimes an officer cracks. He or she goes too far and abuses a citizen, police brutality, and sometimes that citizen is injured or killed as a result. Sometimes the victims of this abuse and violence are black. Sometimes they aren’t. It is not always racism, even when the bad cop is white and the victim of the abuse is black or brown. It may be nothing more than bad training, a bad day, or something completely unrelated to the color of skin. Understand, I’m not condoning or excusing any of this. I’m just trying to provide an alternate explanation for some of this.
The last time I was pulled over by a cop, I was on my way to work. I exited my neighborhood, turning left behind a two-door car. The driver in front of me was driving slowly and when he pulled over to the right lane, I passed him and I glanced at him as I did so. It’s a thing I do. I look into the cars around me, I look at the drivers, I see what’s around me as I drive along. I’ve never just stared straight ahead while driving.
Once I was past him, I changed lanes and drove in front of him to the next major intersection, where I turned right. With my blinker on, I pulled to a complete stop, waited for traffic to clear and then made my turn. The other driver in that little two-door car, turned behind me and then a flashing light appeared on his dashboard. I pulled over to the shoulder on a road that was backed up with rush hour traffic.
The gentleman in the car behind me got out of his car and came to my window, asking for my license and registration. He was dressed entirely in black – black pants, black jacket and there was no law enforcement insignia showing. And, oh by the way, I’m white and he was black. I told him I had no idea who he was and I wasn’t giving anything to him.
At that point he unzipped his jacket enough to show that he was a lieutenant with the Sheriff’s Boating and Waterways Division. During the next couple of minutes, he told me he was citing me for reckless driving, that I upset him when I glared at him as I passed him, and that it “was the wrong day” for me to do that to him. I handed over my registration and license and he went back to his car to write me up. I waited a moment or two and then couldn’t take it anymore. I was baffled by what he said and I wanted to plead my case.
I got out of my car and walked back to his. As soon as he looked up and saw me standing by his car, he got more upset, so I backed up. But through his open passenger window, I explained to him what I described above. That nothing I did could have been construed as reckless driving and that I had done nothing wrong. And then I pointed out to him that, at that very time this happened, there were numerous reports of idiots pretending to be cops pulling people over and then raping or robbing them. I pointed out that he had pulled me over in an unmarked car and walked up to my car without identifying himself until I asked him to. And that I was scared.
He then told me he wasn’t going to issue a ticket and drove off, after saying once again that it was the wrong day to cross him.
My point? This was first thing in the morning. He was likely on his way to work, just like I was, and he was already over the edge. Imagine what might have happened if this incident was at the end of a crappy day at work too. Or if I was the last in a line of people he felt had disrespected him. Or … just imagine.
Was it racism because he was black and I was white? Or was it something else.
When a victim is black, it is far too easy to just blame racism. I get that. I wish though that people would look deeper. We expect cops to be perfect in a job that is more difficult, more stressful, more exhausting than most of us can possibly imagine. We send them out with inadequate training, into neighborhoods and communities that are at times like war zones. We expect them to deal with the mentally ill, the domestically violent, the drug-addled, the drunk, and the lowest of the lowest members of our society. They deal with things every day that most of us never have to deal with, let alone on a daily basis. We arm them to the teeth with weapons of war, but fail to provide the mental and emotional weapons they need to survive the environment in which they work.
And worst of all, we attack all of them for the sins of a few, without ever acknowledging the good things most of them do and appreciating the difficult job they have.
Look deeper folks — the easy answer is not always the right answer.
Edited to Add: One more caveat … I get that some of this is based on race. Profiling, for example. I’m just going to say it one more time — I’m not saying racism in law enforcement is a myth.