When I began my law enforcement career over 38 years ago, the times they were a-changin’. I came in with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. I don’t know what the percentage of college graduates in law enforcement was back then, but I believe it was less than ten percent. I took some abuse from the old school group, but, generally, education was already being encouraged.
As ancient as 1980 may sound to some, what I clearly remember from my first moments on the job was the profession’s goal of eliminating the proverbial “Us-vs.-Them” mentality. Admittedly, there were those who resisted. One older guy told me early on, “They’re all assholes! They all lie. It’s us vs. them. Even your family doesn’t understand.”
But the change began in spite of the old guys. It was emphasized that the police were part of the community, not hired mercenaries. By the 90s Community Oriented Policing was all the rage. Cops got out of their cars, road bikes, walked around, shook hands. Citizen Police Academies became popular. Cops did more charity work. We put officers in schools. Bosses started attending community social events. The walls between the police and the citizens, in most communities, began to tumble.
All of this in a single generation. Success!
Us vs. Them is back—and with a venomous vengeance. The results are deadly. And this time, I believe, it’s not primarily the doing of law enforcement.
Haters are hating. They cite stats out of context to bolster their cause. They use individual events to generalize an entire profession. They look for the slightest excuse to scream, “Racism!” Meanwhile, they disparage black officers as traitors. They discourage cooperation with law enforcement officials. These haters drive this cavernous divide between the police and the community and I believe, for at least some, that’s their goal.
Law enforcement isn’t blameless. We make mistakes, for sure. Some agencies, and regions, still have their problems. The profession’s most obvious example of nonfeasance is in the way we train—or more descriptively, don’t train—our officers in the area I refer to as the intersection of communication, stress, and the realities of force. But pervasive racism and a disregard for human life simply aren’t profession-wide issues.
Statistically, this is easy to prove. By every measure, law enforcement as a whole, does a remarkable job at avoiding the use of force. But that doesn’t stop those who benefit in the division from taking every opportunity to push the false narrative that racist, vicious cops are engaged in systemic violence across the country. And, boy does it sell. The baiting of clicks is working. The anti-police crowd is finding fame and fortune. If they want airtime to demonize the cops, cable news and a myriad of websites will provide.
Being a journalist, I’m sure, ain’t easy. Excellent journalists do exist, and good journalism is essential to the functioning of our democracy. But the essence of good journalism is fact and context. And that’s not what I see being peddled on cable news and social media. I see speculation, argument, hand-waving, and tactics of division.
Most so-called journalists know little about police work. They know even less about case law, human performance, the psychology of real stress, and the realities of human violence. And yet they are so willing to impugn the officer, especially in the headlines. If the cop is white and the citizen black, 100% of the time, those colors lead, strongly implying the entire episode is racial and that the cop (implied: all cops) a racist.
Statistics seem not to matter. In The Enigma of Reason, a book by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, the authors say as much. People look for information that will confirm their beliefs (confirmation bias) so they can continue to feel what they want to feel. They mistake belief and feeling with actual knowledge.
Case in point. Two years ago I was talking to a producer of a cable news network who wanted to do a story she described as, “dealing with the epidemic of police violence against the citizens of this country.” She was convinced police shoot too many people, thus the epidemic. I told her I would discuss the issue with her if she gave me an idea of how many people she thought were shot by the police every year. She had no idea. Reluctantly, she finally gave me her estimate: “I don’t know, 50,000.”
When I told her that less than 1,000 are shot and killed and probably no more than 4,000 are shot by the 800,000 cops in the more than 17,000 agencies involved in hundreds of millions of interactions every year. Her response was a revealing, “Either way.”
50,000 or 4,000, what’s the difference?
Why this pervasive bias? Some, I believe, are motivated by their personal experience or politics. That I can actually respect. But I think a deeper, and more troubling, explanation is money. Views and clicks translate into money. Exploiting feelings captures the audience. It’s Us vs. Them, the righteous vs. the damned. Go team! Except that this isn’t a game …
Cops are hunkering down like they did in the 1970s. “We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” a cop from a big, and increasingly violent, city recently told me. “If they don’t like us, fine. Let them handle their own problems. I can’t get in trouble for doing nothing. Nothing is what they’ll get.”
The end result: People are dying. Civilians and the civilian peace officers sworn to protect them.
The terrible irony is that the price for inaction is felt acutely by black communities. According to Heather MacDonald 1,800 more black men were murdered in the United States in 2015/2016 than in the previous two years. That’s a horrifying fact.
Violent crime, including murder, is on the rise for the first time in decades. Opioids are killing scores. Criminals despise the police and are emboldened by politicians and the media. People refuse to obey orders, be civil, and comply with police direction.
And cops are being attacked. Just a few weeks ago in Gilchrist, Fla., two young deputies were assassinated while eating lunch! We’ve had assassinations of cops take place in New York, Baton Rouge, and Dallas, among other places.
Words matter. The language we employ can either serve to unite or divide. And the truth is there is no Us vs. Them.
We are all us.