As a 25-year police veteran, I’ve been following along as the pundits have piled on the police—including in a recent column in these pages by Dean Obeidallah. He complains that he no longer holds cops as any more trustworthy than those accused of crimes, and cites a Gallup poll taken in response to recent events that shows a growing number of Americans agree.
I won’t tell Mr. Obeidallah how he should feel about the men and women who protect and serve his community, but I believe the picture he’s painting is wrong.
For a more accurate read on what Americans think of police, we should look to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In the bureau’s most recent nationwide Police-Public Contact Survey, data was collected from the survey of 60,000 individuals who had a documented interaction with a police officer. About 90% of those interviewed said they came away feeling respected and well served. Even those detained at traffic stops or for pedestrian violations overwhelmingly said officers behaved properly. And fewer than 2% of police-citizen contacts involved the use, or threatened use, of force by police.
It is important to note that these same polls reflect a less favorable rating among people of color and this is a reality that must be addressed. Even so, when citizens have personal interaction with law enforcement, the Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers shows approval ratings for police that few professions can claim.
In fact, cops are so confident in the true nature of their service, they’re willing to strap a camera to their chest and film their behavior on the job (we won’t hold our breath waiting for a similar offer from lawyers or politicians). Still there is no denying that challenges remain.
In recent months, law enforcement has found itself in the cross hairs of public opinion. Many believe we have not handled it well. In what felt like the same news cycle, two tragic and quite possibly avoidable deaths of citizens occurred at the hands of police. Across the nation, people from all walks of life filled the streets of their communities, demanding accountability if not retribution.
In response, police officers geared up.
In Ferguson, Missouri, a town with just a single public high school and a police department that could fit into one classroom, local cops deployed military tactical vehicles into the streets. A thousand miles away, after the reprehensible assassination of two uniformed officers, the labor leader of the largest and most powerful law enforcement organization in the free world led officers to turn their backs on civilian authority.
A game of political football has ensued, with the caskets of cops and citizens displayed like props on the 50-yard line.
For many Americans it’s as though the cops have drawn a line in the sand and dared anyone to cross it. Of course, the line is described as thin, blue and impenetrable. The truth is far less colorful but much more human.
Every police officer in America is confronted by dark and tragic realities on an almost daily basis. Imagine the burden on a detective who listens for hours to a child molester detailing his despicable crimes, or the patrol officer who delivers news to a parent of a teenage son or daughter killed in a late night car wreck. This is not work you take home to discuss with a spouse or neighbor. Cops learn to insulate themselves from outside influence not because of mistrust, but as a way to cope with a world most civilians don’t understand.
The danger comes when we take it too far. When we allow ourselves to become desensitized and dulled by routine. We stop, frisk and search indiscriminately. We slam the door of a jail cell giving little thought to the future of the man, woman or child inside. We shrug our shoulders at statistics that confirm people of color are getting a raw deal on the street and in courtrooms. We put yellow tape around tragedy and tell people, “Move along. There’s nothing to see here.”
The sometimes paternalistic and standoffish nature of police culture is well documented and it is where the current disconnect begins. And the complex and tragic events of 2014 have driven a wedge between the police and the communities they serve. It is predicament that, left unresolved, could threaten the very cornerstone of our democracy. The stakes couldn’t be higher, so it is time to face hard facts.
In 2014, 126 officers were killed in the line of duty. A significant percentage of these officers were murdered. To read the stories of their deaths is to read of men and women who were, in many cases, killed because of the uniforms they wore and the values they stood for. But there are other lives to consider.
Roughly 400 citizens have died annually, in recent years, as a result of a police action. The circumstances of these deaths are not readily made available to the public and because not all police forces participate in this accounting, the record is far from complete. The most detailed analyses of cases that end in the death of a citizen as a result of police contact, are being accomplished by other organizations, such as the news media.
This must change. The death of any citizen at the hands of the police, regardless of the circumstances, must be documented and intensely scrutinized. Federal or state authorities must build an independent investigative model that will ensure police transparency and accountability. Most importantly, police officers must be willing to accept questions, oversight and criticism.
The police must demonstrate what they already know to be true: They have nothing to hide.
We don’t need to keep score. We don’t need to pick a side. We’re better than that. We need to get back on the same team.