I have a “love-hate” relationship with law enforcement.
I like seeing officers patrolling my neighborhood. I consider them heroes. And I know plenty who love the job and do it well, a job I could never do.
But I get angry when they ticket me. I’ve cursed officers before. Sometimes when I pass a patrol car I tell them they’re “#1” in my own, unique way. I believe they could use their time more wisely, looking for the thieves who continue to break into cars and homes in my community. Other departments call my hometown department “assholes with guns.” And sometimes, I tend to agree.
That’s why when I heard about Michael Brown, when I saw the video of Eric Garner, my emotions kicked in. I grew angry. I felt they crossed the line. I wanted justice. Debate. Change.
But I waited. I wanted to let those emotions subside. I wanted to see how others reacted. I wanted to let it play out before flying into the maelstrom.
It went as I expected. Similar cases usually lead to similar reactions. Outrage at an armed white police officer killing an unarmed black man. Outrage at the lack of indictments. Outrage at the protesting and rioting. Outrage about people’s outrage. Debate about race, police militarization, body cameras, and the relationships between cops and citizens. Same conversation, different case. As Albert Einstein said, “Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.”
The results: two New York police department officers are dead, gunned down by a mentally ill felon who wanted retribution for what happened on the streets of New York. A tragedy. Like the 377 or more police-involved deaths in this country since officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown on August 9th, 2014. If you’re doing the math at home, that’s about three a day.
That number proves I was wrong. You are wrong. Wrong about the role race plays. Wrong about police militarization. Wrong in our beliefs about law enforcement. And wrong about how to prevent these incidents from happening again. We continue to debate the symptoms while ignoring the cause. It’s not criminals, bad cops or bad laws. It’s not race. It’s you and me. The “law-abiding” citizens are the cause.
I base my theory on our views of crime and crime fighters. The FBI says violent crime is down 37% over the last 20 years, its lowest level since 1978. And your chances of becoming a victim of violent crime at the hands of a stranger are less than 1%. And yet, our fear of criminals continues to rise. A Chapman Survey on American Fears released a couple months ago found the majority of us not only fear crimes like sexual assault and child abduction, we actually believe these crimes INCREASED over the past twenty years. “Criminologists often get angry responses when we try to tell people the crime rate has gone down.” We believe we are the next victim. States continue to pass laws allowing us to shoot someone we deem a “threat.” The popularity of “conceal and carry” grows. Many of us live in constant fear of crime, even if it never touches our lives.
And those fears color our beliefs about law enforcement. We expect them to “protect and serve.” We want cops on every corner. We want them to respond when we need them. We want investigations into every stolen bicycle and car break-in. And when we feel under-served, we joke about the job they do. “When seconds count, officers are minutes away.” They still hang out at the doughnut shops. Go five miles over the speed limit and a cop is right there handing you a ticket. But when someone gets shot, they’re nowhere to be found, right? National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre even uses these beliefs in a new advertisement promoting membership.
Yet, we cause this “under-serving.” We want the service without paying for it. We think taxes are too high, and budgets too big. Since the economic downturn in 2008, local police forces shrunk by 7%. “In a series of surveys, more than half of police chiefs across the country have reported multiple rounds of budgets cuts, forcing layoffs, furloughs, hiring freezes, loss of specialty units, cutbacks on training and equipment, and service cuts.” Communities find other ways to get revenue and resources. “Protect and serve” starts to feel like “ticket and arrest.” Red-light cameras replace real officers. Departments turn to the federal government for free, used military equipment. SWAT teams carry out raids to stop people from “barbering without a license.” I recently spoke with a West Palm Beach police officer who believes his department will stop investigating property crimes altogether because it lacks the manpower and resources. In other words, we ARE paying. Paying the price. More tickets, less protection.
With more guns, higher expectations from us, and fewer resources, law enforcement may be more difficult than ever. And it shows. In 2012, 48 officers died in the line of duty–44 involving firearms. As for police-involved deaths, there’s no real tracking method. Law enforcement agencies “self report” to the FBI. And, in 2012, about 750 agencies reported 400 “justifiable homicides.” However, with about 17,000 agencies in the U.S., independent tracking shows much higher numbers. D. Brian Burghart runs the not-for-profit website www.fatalencounters.org. He puts the yearly average of police-involved deaths at around 1,150. And he says a vast majority of these victims fall into at least one of three categories–minorities, mentally ill, or poor. Some are true criminals. Most just need help. But that help will never come without a “real conversation.” The cycle just continues.
How do I know? Because of this:
After the shooting of the two officers, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio tried to start the “real conversation.” He candidly told us what he teaches his biracial son about interacting with law enforcement. And this was the response from New York city police officers. Instead of embracing a white leader for speaking honestly about a controversial topic, they turned their backs on him. And continue to do so. They protested, just days after admonishing people who protested against them. They turned their backs on the “real conversation” just like we continue to do. Instead of rioting and protesting, let’s talk openly about the relationship between minorities and law enforcement. We need frank conversations about what law enforcement needs to keep us safe. Face the facts of crime, and stop perpetuating myths about it.
Put your hands down. Take a breath. Don’t turn your back. Open your mind.
Or, continue to prove Einstein right.