CONDITIONED FOR SURVIVAL
THE MEN AND WOMEN WITH BADGES AND GUNS
We’ve got ourselves some mighty thin rope to balance on in America. The tension between civilians and cops is nearing a critical snap in many parts of our country. Law enforcement has an ominous presence amongst certain communities, and their road to restoration is a long and treacherous one. It’s become abundantly clear that the issue of racism is more than enough fuel to ignite this conflict and keep it lit indefinitely. The reoccurring headlines of police brutality are creating dissent, and Americans have become increasingly concerned that officers are abusing their power. In one way or the other, we have all been affected.
Do you remember that feeling you had when you first saw the video of a cop killing an unarmed civilian? And then the video after that? And the next one? And all the others after those?
It felt wrong every time. It seemed so obvious that law enforcement was overreacting. From my perspective, the aggression was entirely unnecessary. I believed if I were to put myself in the shoes of the cop, that victim would still be alive. I would have never instigated such hostility. In fact, I would trust most people I knew — who had no police training — to not resort to mortally wounding a suspect.
What’s with the cops being willing to go there?
Why have they become so violent? When did they become so violent? And how did they become so violent?
I don’t think those questions are unanswerable. I find there is a fundamental principal that addresses all three at once, but it doesn’t do anything in the way of simplifying the issue.
Right or wrong, this is how the world currently works.
ASSUME THE WORST
Have you ever had that life-altering experience when the way you saw the world was effected in a radical and frightening way? Maybe it happened in a single day, in the span of a few months or over the course of several years, but it did enough to significantly change your perspective. You either witnessed the weakness in something that looked strong, the brevity of something that felt everlasting or the evil within something that seemed good. Whatever it was, your previously held notions and beliefs were challenged.
Well, for many officers-in-training, that degree of event may be exactly how they would describe their six months in the academy. If not then, they would likely make that assessment after some time in the field. Generally speaking, they are not the same people that first went in.
Their change may appear to you like the result of brainwashing or corruption, but the point-at-hand is the fact that the world looks remarkably different to them now than before. And it’s certainly not as pretty anymore.
For every one scene of police brutality you and I encounter, the men and women in service can account for a hundred more where the scenario led to the death of a fellow officer. They’ve witnessed incidents, first or secondhand, when cops had no apparent reason for concern yet found themselves bleeding to death only moments later. They’ve been conditioned to assume that even the most non-confrontational scenarios can turn dangerously hostile within a brief moment.
Every day when a police officer puts on the badge, they become that first penguin jumping into the water to let the rest of us know if there’s a hungry predator waiting. This is their purpose. No matter their ethnicity or gender, and regardless of how many years go by without incident, they must always be prepared for the day when something takes a fatal turn. In the best case, they can serve and protect the good people of their district. In the worst case, the darkest part of the human condition comes looking to them for another victim.
Now, imagine that being the condition of your life day after day. Imagine that weighing on your mind every time you clock in for work. Envision a lifestyle where you see firsthand the kind of evil that resides in your city. Or visualize yourself patroling a small town, having never had to experience that adrenaline-inducing side of your career, until one singular event sends your heart racing and your head spinning.
Can you picture a possible outcome where these conditions cloud your judgement? Could they potentially provoke your anger, aggression, pride, vindictiveness or unwarranted suspicion of others? What if, by habit alone, you profiled every potential criminal while at a family picnic because it’s the same tecnhique you use to survive on the job?
I can see that happening to me. And it’s why I’m not a cop.
However, the average policeman or policewoman can handle it. Most of them find ways to cope with that level of stress. But, keep in mind, there are over one million officers employed in America, and every one of them is a human-being that can be made susceptible to the influences of the dark version of the world they live in. We’re asking them to be perpetually exposed to the worst parts of our neighborhoods but to not carry those experiences into their next interaction with a potential perpetrator.
…We’re asking a lot.
THIS IS NO EXCUSE
By no means does this imply that cops should be let off the hook when they cross the line. Earning a badge does not make you inherently well-intended. Anyone can become a criminal. The issue of guilty law enforcement agents getting away with murder is a worthwhile investment of time and protest, but it’s not the thrust of this piece. My thoughts are garnered more toward a better understanding of what contributes to police brutality, as opposed to blanketing the entire agency in a veil of doubt and skepticism.
It’s a widely held belief that within police departments they enable one another to get away with bending the law. And while this can be the case at times, allow me to propose the idea that the wall of protection they form around each other comes from a commonality of experience that cannot be replicated or explained to outsiders. This perpetuates the barrier between us and them in times of conflict — if we let it.
So it should be said, if you are enraged by the criminal actions of the police force, allowing your frustration to drive activism will likely lead straight toward a gridlock. Believe it or not, sympathizing with someone can be the best tool for uncovering how to reign them in. If you take the time to genuinely see things as they do, you may find the source of their criminality and how to combat it.
As far as suggesting a solution for improving the state-of-mind of cops as they enforce justice, it’s well outside my jurisdiction. If they’re inundated with exposure to the underbelly of society then I’m not entirely sure how to avoid the outcome of some of them becoming worse people. I don’t know if there is much else for us to do in response but to start by acknowledging their struggle.
Police officers are our fellow citizens. They are a part of our community. If we want them held accountable, then lets start by creating a better line of communication. Maybe we should show greater solidarity with the men and women who take the front lines. When they have to venture into the depths, we should be holding the line. More than pep rallies, we need to be informed on the psychology of their daily routines. We should be better educated on their exposure to the depravity of our cities, and they should be more aware of our attentiveness. It should be a cohesive team of law-abiding individuals. Checks and balances.
Some cops will commit acts of criminal violence no matter what the preventative circumstances are. But maybe, in the future, the rest of us can respond with something far more effective than an all out culture war. Maybe civilians and officers alike can respond with a unified voice that prompts swift justice.
For better or worse, they are living on the edge of costly decisions. We should be better prepared for when they fall off.
Or jump off.
A Hopeful Member of Society