A public defender and a cop. We were like Romeo and Juliet, except (1) you never cared about me the same way, (2) I’m not planning to off myself, and (3) my balcony is only eighteen inches high.
You are brilliant, hilarious, and quick-witted. In comparison to your personality, your profession was only a slight setback. For months, I hoped that you were one of the good cops: the rare individuals who not only serve with courage, but also speak out against bad deeds with courage. As that good-cop image dwindled, what I felt for you didn’t change, because I could still see the “real” you underneath the trauma that you cover with gallows humor and gin. I still see that man now, when we send rare text messages about mundane topics like the weather. I wish I could bring that man out for a real conversation.
When we dared broach the topic of Philando and Yanez one day last month, you asked me why I don’t feel like justice would be served with an acquittal. Isn’t that the point of a jury trial, you asked? You get a jury of your peers, they decide you’re not guilty, and that’s that?
No, I said. It’s not that easy. I may be a public defender, but it doesn’t mean I trust the system that employs me.
Like the entire Black Lives Matter movement, the Yanez verdict didn’t happen in a vacuum. The Rules of the Justice Game are alive and well. The thin veneer of “justice” masquerading as our criminal courts is built upon a foundation of racism and class discrimination. This isn’t about one particular jury; it’s about laws that favor police, policies that favor police, prosecution strategies against police that still manage to favor police, and echoes of race-based jury selection in a society that still discriminates against Black people.
In order to convict Yanez, the jury had to find that no reasonable officer would have acted the way Yanez did. Though the evidence surely supported a conviction, the elements in themselves are flawed. The fact that police spend their shifts in dangerous situations should not give them special legal status. When you kill someone, you should be held to the same standards to which the person you “serve” — the citizen you just killed — is held.
You try to justify profiling by saying that Black people commit more crime and are statistically more likely to be dangerous, so you react in kind. You can’t beat statistics, you tell me! And hey, we arrest and kill white people too! (As an aside, you’re being disingenuous on both counts: first, Black people are disproportionately arrested and charged when they commit the same crimes as white people; second, police are more likely to shoot Black people than their white counterparts for the same activity).
But hey — for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume for a second that you’re right, and that Black people are more likely to be criminals. WHY IS THAT? Do you think that Black people are differently built than you and me? Do we have different genes? No, you scoff. Of course we don’t. But Black society and culture glorify violence. I mean, look at Gangsta rap!
Okay, let’s take it a step further. Let’s assume you’re right and that Black culture glorifies violence. (Such an assumption, of course, has no basis in reality and disregards the unquantifiable beauty that Black history and culture brings to the world, as well as the fact that rappers write what they know.) But okay. Violence is glorified. WHY IS THAT? Is it because Black people are biologically more violent? Because they have different genes? Well, no, you say. It’s because there are too many families without parents, too many deadbeats, too many crackheads.
Okay. I appreciate your honesty — it’s better than hiding under a veneer of Minnesota Nice Racism that just clutches purses and crosses streets and tsk-tsks about another Black man being shot by police. But I’ll keep playing. Black culture is about crackheads and deadbeats. WHY IS THAT? Is it because Black people are biologically more likely to leave their families? Do we have different genes?
I know you. You’re analytical. You start to realize that you either have to admit that Black people are biologically inferior,* or that institutional racism has been oppressing people of color for centuries. Oppression is hard to see when you’re the oppressor, so I’ll make it easy for you — let’s just talk about the last seventy years or so. Let’s talk about memoranda from the Reagan administration admitting that the War on Drugs was designed to eradicate Black people from society and strip men from their families. Let’s discuss the generational trauma that comes from an entire generation lost to the prison industrial complex. Let’s mourn together the fathers that were taken from their families only a few decades after redlining destroyed Black families’ dreams of home ownership. Let’s try to understand that that crime is a puzzle piece in a much bigger picture of poverty and its secondary effects, including educational achievement gaps, broken families, and blatant discrimination that Black people experience even before they walk in the door.
Okay, you say, but I wasn’t alive when all this started. It’s not my job to fix the past — it’s my job to stay alive on the dangerous streets and come home to my kid every night.
No, my dear. Staying alive is not your job. You are a peace officer. Your job is to protect and serve your community. Your job is to bring peace to the community. I love you, and whenever I don’t hear from you — whether it’s because I told you not to contact me, because you’re on some glorious vacation, or because you’re working too many overtime shifts — I assume the worst. That doesn’t change the fact that you have chosen a profession where the community matters more than you. You face Schrodinger’s Danger in every situation (i.e., every circumstance is both benign and life-threatening until the incident ends), and as someone who has sworn to protect the community, you should assume that your life matters less than the person you’re facing. There must be a line between “reaching toward his gun” (which, by the way, the evidence did not show in the Philando Castile case) and “pointing his gun at me,” and you should err on the side of getting shot. Don’t volunteer for a suicide mission if you’re not willing to die. Don’t take the oath and wear the badge if you’re not willing to serve.
I want you to care about the fact that police don’t receive deescalation training, resulting in the assault and murder of mentally ill people. I want you to see the people on the streets as part of greater humanity, not people who aren’t cops. I don’t want you to live in a chasm of us v. them.
I want you to have enough respect for the integrity of your position that you blow the whistle, on yourself and others. Stop parking illegally with your ticket book on the dash to save you. Stop turning a blind eye to cops who drink in their cars while driving off shift. Stop wearing a gun while you’re at the bar. (The jury essentially decided that Philando’s death was reasonable because he had marijuana in his system while carrying a gun. Do you really think you’d get the same condemnation for drinking while carrying?)
Stop covering for the cops who shouldn’t have guns and badges. They might be loyal to you, but at what cost? At the cost of the lives of the community members you serve? If that’s what you really think, shame. Shame on you.
Start demanding that cops receive the same treatment from the criminal justice system that my impoverished clients receive, and demand accountability when the system turns a blind eye to the crimes of cops. Demand that Officer Jason Marino (still employed with your department after he was charged with false imprisonment, kidnapping, and assault in Washington County D. Ct. File № 82-K0–06–004241) start registering as a predatory offender as required by Minn. Stat. Sec. 243.166.
Stop living in a different city than you police. Recruit people who love the department’s community, who want to see it better, cleaner, friendlier, safer. Recruit people who don’t particularly want to carry a gun, but dive into training so they know how to use it as only a last resort.
Society deifies you. (Children don’t run up to me begging to be a public defender for a day.) Use that deification for good! Speak honestly, speak forthrightly, with courage and openness. Say that implicit bias and poor training killed Castile and let the man who shot him walk free. Say that Yanez’ testimony flew in the face of the evidence that was presented, that the prosecution dropped the ball by failing to present material information, and that the jury only acquitted Yanez because we live in a country where blue lives matter more.
Because that’s the difference between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, you know. In their full form, it’s Black Lives Matter Too, and Blue Lives Matter More.
Acknowledge the deep generational pain of Black people and poor people. Even if you’re not prepared to fix it, start simply: I acknowledge your pain, and I’m sorry.
Get mental health help. Stop being afraid to process emotions. You know that more cops die from suicide than police shootings; speak out about mental illness and secondary trauma with courage. Inspire your subordinates to do the same: acknowledge that they are neither perfect nor unbreakable, that their job is hard, and work to process the things that they see and experience.
Be the best version of yourself. Be the man you can be.
And tell your blind grumpy dog that I miss him.
*There are obviously people who believe this. We’ll save them for another day. For now, fuck those people.