America’s Broken Law Enforcement Model — What We’re Too Afraid to Fix, Pt. 1

The Long Arm With A Short-Fuse

It was a beautiful, sunny late spring day. My mood could best be described as insouciant. I had just found a pretty sweet parking space — and flawlessly parallel parked, thank you very much — despite the huge festival crowds in the area. I had my headphones in, bopping a little as I walked down the sidewalk listening to some tunes. I was on my way to meet my friend for some Saturday afternoon shenanigans and was already picturing the tall glass of ice cold beer I was planning to order when I arrived. I was definitely feeling myself. Maybe that was why I quipped at the police officer and home owner I passed while they were loudly discussing a parked car that was kinda-but-not-quite blocking the home owner’s driveway, “I could get outta there.”

Just seconds after that, my sunshine and birdsong feeling instantly dissipated.
Instead of ignoring or making light of my little comment, the officer brusquely told me that since, “Nobody asked you, ma’am,” I should “stop talking,” and keep walking.

To which I responded, “It’s a free country.”

Truth be told, though, right after those words left my lips, I felt more fear than freedom. Had I gone too far in daring to talk back to an officer of the law? Should I have just kept quiet at the unnecessary rudeness and hostility this man displayed? An image of another mouthy black woman who paid with her life for talking back to an officer flashed through my mind. I hadn’t slowed down or turned around after ‘clapping back’; was it possible that this man was about to pursue me down the sidewalk and really try to start something? My heart started to beat a little faster. I hesitated to look over my shoulder.

He could have. But fortunately, he didn’t. I was relieved. I went on about my way, but the incident stayed with me for the rest of the day. In truth, my feelings were hurt. My Southern sensibilities had been offended by the officer’s rudeness. My anger roused by his hostility. My mind reeled with questions about what had just played out, most of them unanswerable:

Why was that guy such a d*ck to me?
Would he have spoken to me the same way if I was a man? A white woman? Asian? Latina?
Who gets to go to work and speak to people on the job that way?
Isn’t he supposed to be a public servant?
Why couldn’t he have done it differently?

In my mind, his reaction was excessive for the offense, if any, that I’d committed. But as I replayed the scene over and over, I recognized a certain familiarity in his tone and reaction.

He sounded irritated. Agitated. Edgy. Short-fused.

Like how you sound after you have a shitty day at work, then you come home to something f***ed up too. Or, like how I sound when I’ve skipped breakfast and lunch and am struggling not to bite people’s heads off. 
At the moment I’d crossed paths with him, he was dealing with a driveway dispute, but what other calls had he been on that day? How many irritating or ridiculous, crazy or dangerous situations had he dealt with that day? That week? For how many years on the job?

“We see the very worst in people. I honestly wonder sometimes if we ask too much of officers. It’s not natural to be doing what we’re doing all day.”
 — David Brown, Dallas PD Police Chief

If all you deal with all day is shit, eventually, everything starts to look like shit. Every offense becomes the same offense. Reacted to with the same level of force. Your perspective becomes distorted. Layer on top of that distorted perspective any individual prejudices or biases you may have, then add on the unspoken codes and rules of the membership club known as law enforcement, and the product is a person who is mentally and emotionally primed for aggressive behavior. A person who’s also been encouraged and trained to act aggressively in most situations.

In essence, a ticking time bomb.

READ: America’s Broken Law Enforcement Model — What We’re Too Afraid to Fix, Part 2