Policing In America

Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.


I’ve had a lot of reasons to think about the current climate of policing in our country. I work in an agency focused on K-12 education, so folks who know that assume I am “on the side” of Black Lives Matter.  I am married to a police officer, so folks in my personal life assume I am “on the side” of law enforcement. I find those assumptions ridiculous, short-sighted, and sad.

Or, more properly, I find it ridiculous, short-sighted, and sad that the vast  majority of intelligent, engaged, thinking people that I know somehow think those are opposing “sides” of something. So – here’s my $.02:

Yes, racism exists. It’s a thing.  

But let’s start by “defining terms.” Here’s what that means when I say it. You don’t have to agree with my definitions – but in order to correctly understand what I am about to say, you do need to know them. First, “ism” is institutional. It’s structural. It’s large-scale, and totally in the hands of the power “in-group.” Bigotry is an individual act. Racism is a collective one, that uses structures of power to create inequity.

So – no, it isn’t possible for a black person in the United States to be a racist. (S)he can be a reprehensible narrow-minded, hate-filled bigot – but as long as the balance of power is with light-skinned people, “racist” is impossible.  (By the same logic, it is impossible for a white-skinned person to be “racist” if they live in China, Japan, or the Middle East, where white people do not control the power structure.)  That  also means there is also no such thing as “reverse racism” – the greater power can only reside on one side.

And – yes, it is absolutely possible for a white person who is not a bigot, who hasn’t a malicious bone in their body, to benefit from and be a part of a racist system. That doesn’t make them a racist or a bigot. In most cases, the worst thing it makes them is oblivious – to things that have never been pointed out to them and that in many cases they have never themselves done and over which they have little or no control.

Second, about the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”  (The phrase – not the organization. Near as I can tell, a lot of stuff that is done “in their name” is done the way that a right-wing Christian taking a sniper rifle to a women’s clinic doctor is done “in Jesus’ name.”) I do not believe that to say that something matters inherently means that all other things do not.  Black Lives Matter is designed to highlight a problem, not negate anyone else’s existence. If we were to rally and demonstrate over, say, the Brock Turner case because we feel that “rape victims matter,” nobody would interpret that to mean that we think victims of muggings or auto theft somehow don’t deserve justice. They’d likely be pretty clear that it was a statement designed to highlight how much “worse than normal” our court system deals with those cases, and to draw attention to the need to do better.

Judging all members of a group based on a few outliers, or small “gangs” of outliers, is an unreasonable, invalid thing to do, and leads to invalid outcomes.

So no matter how often the press sensationalizes negative encounters with law enforcement, it’s just as invalid to judge police officers by that measure. When you lay all of your hate and blame on a symbol, you do more damage, not less.  You create an environment, for example, where cop-hunting is condoned, and then half a dozen families in Dallas lose very good men and you lose people who were on your side of the argument all along.

See, here’s the thing I don’t hear in the press. Most law enforcement officers are good people, doing good things. Some law enforcement officers are not – and all of the good ones will tell you that those officers need to go.  (Yes, I hear the muttering about “the blue wall of silence.’  Quit getting your data from Hollywood. Cops are just as likely to bitch about their colleagues as anyone else, and most of them are less likely to ‘cover for’ someone else, because if it comes out that you knew and didn’t say anything, your career is over too.  The smallest, most bullshit white lie, once it comes out, becomes fodder for defense attorneys who can now tell a jury that you are a liar, and nothing you say can be believed.  Once you are no longer able to effectively testify in a court case, you can no longer effectively do your job. And getting into a new career after leaving law enforcement for ethical reasons is a lot like trying to get work after getting a dishonorable discharge from the military. Good luck with that.)

Which brings me to the point that I think seems to get missed a lot in this conversation:

Creating more bigotry and starting more fights does not ‘expose’ the problem – it obscures it.

So, what do I think the problem is?  As Constance Rice said recently in an interview on NPR, “we get the policing we demand.”  We have demanded precisely what we are getting, and when it happens we interpret through a lens that does not include those demands. Consider:

  • Use of force
    • “In the old days” we considered it OK for police officers to occasionally “get into it” with suspects. However, our beliefs on this, as a culture, have changed.  We think citizens should not be beaten up by police officers. So we told officers to quit fighting. We established very defined rules about what force they can use, and when they can use it. This is a good thing. But it also takes away some of their judgement.
      • We also considered it OK to ignore domestic violence as “family business” back then, whereas today if an officer sees signs of a physical altercation, they must take someone to jail.  Again, we got what we wanted – DV is no longer swept under the rug – but we also got unexpected consequences – like officers not being able to just “let it go” on occasions when that might have been a reasonable judgement call. These are the trade-offs we make.
    • But then, we don’t bother to understand what that guidance is, and complain loudly when they do exactly what they have been told to do – like arrest someone over a minor altercation where both parties agree neither is “more at fault” – creating expense, giving someone a criminal record – all because of a minor one-time event resulting from a unique family stress, for example.
      • I have no tolerance for DV. But I do recognize that sometimes, things happen in people’s lives that do not represent a pattern or a trend, and it’s a shame when something like that has permanent impact on someone.
      • The reason the police officer in Ferguson was not indicted was because he was doing exactly what he was trained and instructed to do. If you don’t like those instructions, your problem is with the department, with the standards of law enforcement training – but not with him.  And yet, it was the individual who lost his job, his career, had to move his family for their safety. It was this individual’s blood people were howling for on social media. And it is this individual who will have to pay the price for that for the rest of his life.
      • But it is so much easier to blame the first person we see, than to take the time to examine, understand, and solve the actual problems. That’s complex, it’s hard work, and it takes time – not nearly as satisfying as the instant gratification of a social-media lynching.
  • The realities of the job
    • Police officers arrest child molesters, find murderers, recover stolen property. They also deal with good, kind people at the worst times of their lives and under the worst circumstances. They don’t always know which is which until later.  Because they don’t know, they must start by assuming the worst and working forward from there.  That’s a horrible thing, and if you are a good person, it feels awful. If you are a police officer and you treat everyone like they are the good guy, it often ends up feeling dead. Consider these two examples:
      • My nephew, pulled over by a policeman, stepped out of his car and walked back to meet the officer. The officer (who only saw that the unknown/as-yet-unidentified person he had just pulled over was walking up while he was still seat belted in, on the radio, and in a relatively helpless position if the guy was coming to shoot him) got out of the car and began being very “mean” ordering my nephew to get back in the car. He wouldn’t listen to anything my nice nephew said, either!
      • In a very famous (and not at all unique) case in Texas in 1991, Darrel Lunsford pulled over a car with three people in it.  He didn’t try to ‘control his scene.’ He treated them like nice people, assumed they were good guys. They overpowered him, took his firearm, and killed him. The incident was recorded on his dashcam – you can watch it on YouTube. (No I am not going to link it. It’s there if you feel the need to go look.)

So, yeah, there is actually a reason for the way cops do things, and sometimes what seems incomprehensible to us is soundly rooted in tactics and training.

  • More to consider:
    • The North Hollywood Shootout in 1997 taught police a terrifying lesson: that the criminals were far better armed than they were.  The public was horrified that these shooters were able to wound nearly two dozen people before police stopped them. The public was dissatisfied with the result, and unhappy that the police didn’t “do more” against these criminals who seriously outgunned them. So departments began gearing up to handle such situations.
    • Our tactics used to be about waiting, trying to keep the situation “under control” or “contained” until we could create a solution. Then came Columbine. While police officers laid a perimeter, people continued to die.  Again, the public was aghast that the police didn’t “do more.”  Like run into the building as they arrived, with no information or coordination, so that they could get themselves shot too. Again, departments retrained and regeared to respond to the citizen demand.  Today, in an ‘active shooter’ situation, tactical teams storm the building immediately.  Which is a primary reason that police departments now regularly have Emergency Response Teams that look more like a squad of marines than they do Andy Griffith.
    • In the late 70s, we dismantled the mental health system in this country. Since that time, many mentally ill people don’t get anywhere near treatment until their illness has gone past the point that their actions draw the attention of law enforcement. The treatment they receive in jail may be the only medical attention they ever get for their illness.  That means that Law enforcement is having more encounters with mentally ill people than they did in the past.  And they have little way of knowing whether the person they are dealing with is ‘dangerous’ or just ‘a little wacky’ until something goes horribly wrong.  By the way – we also sent between two and half and three million service members to the Middle East – may of them, multiple times. But with almost 60% of our national budget tied up in the costs of operating the military, we don’t really have any money available to attend to the mental health needs of these combat-trained veterans. According to the VA, 11-20% of those vets will have PTSD – but only 6% of the national budget goes to veterans benefits. While most people with PTSD are not dangerous, it is worthwhile to note that we have taken no steps to increase support for the VA or to create any other mental health infrastructure – so we are still relying on law enforcement to address it “once it gets out of hand.”

So – we want our police to handle our untreated mentally ill, respond to massive shootouts involving assault weapons swiftly before civilians can get hurt, continue to handle our violent criminals, and take their chances on “everyday” duties. (Traffic stops and domestic violence calls account for the majority of officer deaths.  Felons who don’t want to go back to jail still drive, and people who will beat their spouses will also beat up or even kill strangers.) As Ms. Rice said: we get the policing we demand. And now we are blaming police for doing what we have demanded of them.

We demanded more aggressive, more (combat-)capable policing, and we got it. And we’re surprised that it leads to combative situations? It doesn’t help that our press “reports’ and sensationalizes every incident as though each were the same.  I find that frustrating both for the inaccuracies it introduces, and for the manner in which I think it undermines the conversation. On top of that, we are conflating that problem with police who are actually doing wrong things, then stacking on our dissatisfaction with judges, courts, jails, and other parts of the justice system over which police have no control or influence.

Sometimes, when someone is shot by the police, it is because the situation warranted deadly force. In general, everyone involved is unhappy about that – for someone who dedicates their life to serving, to protecting others, having to take a life is often extremely traumatic. On both sides of the event, people are devastated.

Sometimes, when someone is shot by the police, it is an unforgivable miscarriage of justice which demands response.

And sometimes, it’s not all one thing or the other. But all of these cases seem to be reported in the same sensationalist, provocative manner by an increasingly irresponsible press.

Some things to think about:

Media: When our press reports all police shootings as being only one of those things, what it does is feed the argument.  Because each side can legitimately point out events where the facts show the reporting to be false, each side can ‘prove’ that the press is lying, and thereby discount all events. Irresponsible reporting – frothing up public response instead of actual reporting involving facts and reality – generates ratings. It also generates hate, misunderstanding, misinformation, and divisiveness.

Firearms: We have a huge argument about our “right” to have assault weapons in this country.  But as long as the police have to expect criminals might have assault weapons, then police must be equipped to respond to that. If we’d like our police to be less military – perhaps adjusting our environment so that the threats they need to respond to are less military is a start.

Culture of Blame: Humans are human.  When they fear they will sometimes hide.  When we shake our fists and demand punishment and retribution and vengeance, the person on the other side of the conversation becomes defensive. Humans work like that. We could, instead, open our hands and say “let’s work together to solve this.” Right now, Seattle Police Department is working with the Justice Department to improve their own practice.  This relationship didn’t start out as a voluntary thing, but rather in response to a pattern of behavior that caused Justice to determine Seattle, as an institution, needed to clean up its act.  Instead of balking and fighting about it, Seattle has embraced it. They’d actually *like to be a better department and work in a just and equitable fashion. I don’t believe for a moment that the department or the union initially embraced the idea. But once they realized there was no escaping it, they jumped on board, and are on track to achieve their Justice Department assigned goals ahead of the posted timeline. Why not start a proactive review process for departments, both to help them identify the problems in positive ways, and to develop the idea that it is more important to fix it than to make sure there is someone to hang for it?

We need to look proactively at our departments, and help them see where they have issues to address. We need to aggressively pursue justice when a law enforcement officer behaves in appropriately. We also need to remember that these are the exception, not the rule. That these are humans, doing their best in a tough job, which we are making tougher by issuing them conflicting directives. We need to enable them to be better. Decisions we make in our society impact how we police our society.  We need to remember that the vast majority of the horrible injustices that occur in our justice system don’t even involve police officers – most take place in courtrooms and prisons.

We need to address the disease – the inequities, the injustices, the imbalances. We need to remember that when someone took a good look at Ferguson, they found a problematic department  – but not one that had gone rogue. Rather, the department was merely reflecting the government structure above it and to which it reported. Even the police department was essentially a symptom of something larger – and that something larger is where the solutions begin.

We need to look past the “easy” option of blaming individuals or badges or skin colors, and look to the difficult work of righting the underlying infrastructure, both in terms of policing and in terms of institutional racism. We should address evil where it exists – but we should not use hate to make targets of good men in the process. We will get so much farther if good cops, and underrepresented citizens can work forward together. We need to stop pitting them against one another as though their interests are not aligned. We need to stop letting  people with a vested interest in the unrest control the conversation, dividing those of us with a vested interest in solving the underlying problems.

Good people – no matter what color their skin is – want safe neighborhoods, and want crime addressed.  Good cops are just good people who put on the uniform, and they want the same thing. We are only “at war” because we spend so much time trying to insist that the few – on both sides of that equation – represent everyone. The few lawless people do not represent all of their race/neighbors/family. The few unfit police officers do not represent all of the men and women who genuinely serve. We are beginning to understand that in a neighborhood where ‘all the kids belong to gangs,’ that’s not necessarily an indicator that every kids there is rotten and wants to be a lifelong felon. Sometimes, the environment forces them onto a course they don’t want to be on. We need to understand that happens in all communities – and just as we need to provide better options for “bad neighborhoods,” we need to provide better options for identifying and improving “bad departments.” That doesn’t come by arresting kids for wearing gang colors – or targeting police officers for wearing a badge. It comes from providing better options, including proactive intervention, and tools for success. We can wait til people die and make news – or we can make a plan to look for the problem.

But sensationalizing the symptom while ignoring the disease makes for better press. Cutting up the video to just show the ‘good parts’ gets good ratings.  Waiting for the facts, examining the underlying causes – there is no instant gratification in that. It is so much more satisfying to shout and rant and shake our fists. But that, of course, only makes the problem worse.  It creates more distance between those with the most to lose, and generates profit for those who benefit from the situation – the press, and the business-as-usual money that does just fine as long as we are all too distracted to pay them much attention.

So what do I expect us to do about it?

Well – what I expect is that we will keep shouting, fomenting hate, and getting nowhere until rioting and danger are an everyday fact of life.

What I’d love to see us do is this:

  • Standardize policing standards at the national level.  This will make it easier for everyone in the conversation to be working from the same set of rules, and will make it easier to review when something goes wrong.
  • Report on all use of force, not just the deaths. I know that my husband has to fill out use of force forms if he has to exercise force in any way. There is no reason this form couldn’t be standardized and used to better understand use of force patterns before they escalate into fatalities. Which leads me to…
  • Standardize and centralize reporting. Just the attempts to understand fatalities has shown the massive gaps in our police reporting.  So standardize it, gather the same data, the same way, and compare it – by department, by region, by population centers – until we understand what is actually happening rather than believing our ridiculous, extremist media. Proactively tell departments where they need to be focused in order to ensure they are working the way they intend to be. Furthermore, standardizing reporting would help with a lot of our current crime statistics.  Yes, laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction – but a master database that identifies common categories (statute x falls in category y) would allow for more accurate comparison from one place to another. A single database would allow more effective background checks, and make “travel paths” visible so that potentially related crimes committed in different jurisdictions could be more easily pattern-matched. A single police reporting system has the potential to improve investigative results overall.

“But who will do that – surely not another expensive government agency?!” Of course not.  Since the days of J. Edgar, the FBI has been grabbing for more power – for once, here’s a place where they ought to be in charge and aren’t.  Post-9/11 marketing aside, the FBI is not an intelligence agency – they are a law enforcement agency. So let them be the law enforcement authority. They already have the elements in place – reporting, ties to departments via NCIC.  For years, departments have been adding fields to their reports because “the FBI requires it.” So put them in charge of it. Get everyone doing it the same way, in the same place. And then use that information to find those exceptions and outliers and start addressing them, instead of waiting for the news crew and the coroner to arrive.

Black Lives DO Matter.  Not all lives (of any color) taken by law enforcement are inherently cases of racist injustice. You can decry bad cops, demand justice for those unjustly treated by them – and still support good officers who really do just want to do what is right.  You can know that a man was a convicted felon and still believe he deserves to be treated justly and appropriately by the peace officer he encounters today. You can feel bad that a good officer was placed in the position of having to take a life that he had sworn to protect and serve, in order to protect the lives of others, and still be furious when someone carelessly or maliciously misuses their authority. You can recognize racism in an institution without accusing an individual who is not a bigot.

NONE of these things are mutually exclusive. ALL of the problems they represent require us to work together to solve them – they can’t be fixed unilaterally. If we could recognize that, maybe a number of people of color and law enforcement officers would still be alive.

Unfortunately, it seems, we find the hate much more satisfying. Instant judgement gives us instant gratification. Waiting for facts is inconvenient. Digging down to the underlying problem and solving that is complex, long-term work that is hard to quantify.

What’s more important to you?  The satisfaction of getting to complain about the problem and point fingers, or the satisfaction of actually solving it?


30 January 2019: Just came across this insightful column from 2015, in which a black officer discusses racism in policing and the importance of department culture and climate.

“On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.”

It’s well worth a read, and offers some great insights, as well as frustrating examples of inexcusable failures.

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8 thoughts on “Policing In America

    1. Di, thanks for sharing. Really informational. Objectivity is suffering in these times and far too many emotions – versus emotional intelligence – are driving actions. Interesting piece on militarization…phew…

      1. Thanks Robynne.

        Sadly, this election season has been rife with examples of ’emotion vs emotional intelligence’ in decision making and discourse. We are indeed reaching a place where people are able to have “their own set of facts” on almost any topic. Meanwhile, increased electronic interaction seems to be decreasing personal connection. The two together seem a recipe for disaster, and I can’t yet envision what it is going to take to break that “vicious circle.”

  1. There’s a lot here to chew on, and you have done an admirable job laying down both observations conclusions as well as highlighting details.

    I’d take a step back from this, as it carries a lot of weight:

    We have demanded precisely what we are getting, and when it happens we interpret through a lens that does not include those demands.

    I do think that we’ve militarized our police, and that the majority has willed this, mostly incrementally, sometimes in great leaps. I’m not sure that we can say “we” here, however, unless we look at the large divide between the “we” that uses the police and the “we” that more often than they should be are the targets of police action at the direction of those who use the police. It is what some of us have wanted, and in our system of law and governance the Constitution and the laws do the dance to implement this. But I’m not settled on the broadness of this statement. It’s the majority, incrementally, choosing this. And it’s disastrous.

    I’d like to see a de-escalation of the use of force. It can’t be done in isolation from other aspects of societal violence–guns must absolutely be curtailed. I don’t see that happening right away, but it’s something I work for, every day.

    I’m glad you started this discussion.

    1. What you say is true, as far as it goes. In my opinion, it tiptoes around some bigger statements:
      1. Yes, “we.” We the people. We are responsible for the actions of our government. Even the ones we might disagree with. This is the nature of a republic.

      Because I think your distinction on “we” was not actually meant to distance yourself from “we” but to recognize the many marginalized groups who have less voice in that process, and more impact from some of the decisions, I think we have to recognize that:
      2. The 3/5 rule is effectively still in force. People of color, as a group, “don’t count” as one person. Disenfranchisement, school-to-prison pipeline – If 60% of them are actually able to exercise their voice in government, I’d be stunned. And when they do, I have to question whether it’s an equal voice.

      The reality is that we created the circumstance in which marginalized groups live, *and* the conflicting and unreasoned demands of law enforcement, then judge the results through a moral lens that is not aligned with the boundaries/requirements that we have placed on either of those communities. IMHO, the judgement belongs in a different place – but if we were to turn the lens, we might actually expect them to fix it.

      But the whole Bread and Circuses thing works, apparently… >:(

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