Disclaimer: I’m not a cop. The closest I’ve ever come to being a cop is being friends with one. I’m trying not to indict or throw blame on the protestors or cops in Ferguson, but I did feel the need to underline the one crucial thing that’s missing through all the commentary about this.
It’s weird, but the one thought that makes the most sense when I’m trying to parse out the shitstorm in Ferguson is this:
People hate it when someone unqualified tells them how to do their job.
I hope to draw a parallel. I’m a copywriter, my expertise is in language. I’m pretty good at what I do, so when someone questions my competence at my job, I question their position to do so. If a coworker with no experience in copy or professional writing decides to throw shade on my work, I’d tell them in the most polite terms I can muster together: know your role and shut your mouth.
I can imagine it’s the same with cops. There’s a popular op-ed piece from former cop Sunil Dutta in the wake of all the heat cops are receiving from media pundits and the public at large. Once you read the op-ed, the main takeaway is: just listen to us or get a beating, because we know how to do our jobs.
Mr. Dutta makes salient points, I agree that policing is difficult, most citizens lack context, and most cops do their jobs properly. But Mr. Dutta fails to realize that by speaking for his fellow LEOs without an ounce of diplomacy, he’s only emboldening the main sticking point that many people have with the police. It makes sense to me that antagonizing a police officer will probably get that antagonism thrown back in my face. But Mr. Dutta clearly doesn’t care why the citizens are upset, especially with phrasing like:
Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?
When the public is openly questioning their police officers, it’s patronizing and tone-deaf to say “Just trust me when I stop you, or don’t complain if I tase you.”
This is the crux of the problem. We’re arriving at a point where a lot of people no longer trust the police to effectively do their job, and cops like Mr. Dutta believe they’re doing their jobs just fine.
I’m not justifying or demonizing the behavior of LEOs. I understand that law enforcement is a very difficult and thankless job. A popular saying is “Everyone hates cops until they need to call one.”
But cops are supposed to serve and protect the public, which they can’t effectively do if the public doesn’t trust them or respect them to do their job. As longtime police reporter David Simon so pointed out in his letter to Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson:
Your department, in order to solve crimes and maintain order, is dependent on the cooperation of witnesses — fellow citizens willing to trust in the process of arrest and prosecution, and in their own personal safety should they properly contribute to that process.
From where I sit, many police departments aren’t doing a great job of getting the public to believe in them. You won’t get that kind of cooperation by telling people to shut up or you’ll get arrested/beat. After seeing the schism between the St. Louis County police and the citizenry they serve, I’m not sure anybody wants to cooperate at this point. The problem now isn’t the perceived stupidity of the protesters or the perceived malintent of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, it’s that neither side is willing to take the aggrievances of the other seriously. It’s become a game of “he started it” that nobody wants to grow out of. Protesters continue to antagonize cops. Cops continue to point rifles at protesters.
Nobody’s willing to empathize with the other. We’re so quick to demonize the other side that respectable dialogue is a pipe dream. The issue begs us to question how we act as a society and how police officers conduct themselves with the public. Policy shifts will probably happen, people will get fired, people will get arrested, and we might think Ferguson is resolved. But if there’s no lasting buy-in from both sides, the problem will still remain. It’s the disconnect that needs to be solved, and to say that policemen are inherently corrupt/incompetent or that Black people are all born stupid/criminals unjustly narrows the scope of the issue.
We need to fix this disconnect or we deal with more Fergusons down the road.