4 Weird Decisions That Have Made Modern Cops Terrifying
We're pretty much begging cops to be our heroes. Think about it: Every major blockbuster movie is about a brave hero enforcing an important moral code: John McClane, Transformers, every superhero -- even if they're going outside the law, they're still doing the exact job a cop is supposed to have: upholding the law and protecting the innocent. In fiction, they're the ideal we strive for.
But in real life, a huge chunk of Americans have no trust for the police force, for reasons which should be obvious to anyone who's paying attention to the news right now. And while the authors of this article can't pretend to understand what it's like to be targeted by the police, or to be a police officer, we do understand how hype works. And myth. And our shitty fucking mass media. And we think that the myth of the police officer -- the the things we, as citizens, immediately assume upon seeing someone in uniform -- has gotten pretty rotten. Because ...
Cops Separate Themselves From the Community
To someone on the outside, one of the most baffling parts of the Ferguson Police Department's response to their shooting of an unarmed teenager was when they refused to name the officer who pulled the trigger. "If we come out and say, 'It was this officer,' then he immediately becomes a target," the Ferguson, MO police chief said, about officer Darren Wilson, the cop who shot 18 year-old Mike Brown. "We're taking the threats seriously." The reason it seemed strange is because it implied that the cops don't see themselves as part of the community. In a perfect world, the police chief should look at a dead kid and be like, "Wow, this whole town needs to work together to figure out what happened here, because a child is dead, and that is unacceptable." But instead he prioritized the comfort and security of his officer over the comfort and security of his community, which ... okay, non-rhetorical question: Isn't that literally the opposite of his job?
"Hold on, I'll look that up."
It really seems to us that cops don't understand or care about what it's like to not be a cop. First there's this Washington Post op-ed, where an officer actually says, "If you don't want to get hurt, don't challenge me," in response -- this can't be stressed enough -- to the death of a child. Then there's BuzzFeedy, inside-baseball article a cop wrote for all his cop buddies. "The gun isn't to protect you. It is to protect me," the guy says, apparently forgetting what it says on the side of his car (Reminder: It says "to protect and serve." It does not then say "myself"). The underlying assumption of both those articles is that the community should change to adapt to how cops behave, and not vice versa. That is fucking insane, and proves that they see themselves as an entity separate from the people they're supposed to be working with and for.
And this, unfortunately, goes both ways. Do you know how cops really think? Because we don't -- everything we know is based on my own limited personal experience (cops treat everyone so differently that no one could possibly see the whole story), cold, scientific studies, and videos I've seen online. What if we tried to relate the experience of being a cop to our work as customer service representatives? Does that sound like the most insane thing you've ever heard, considering a customer service rep answers phones all day while a cop is trained to kill and puts his life on the line every day? Well, what if we told you that the customer service approach is a core part of law enforcement, and its effectiveness and definition is hotly debated among veteran officers? Does it somehow seem like that isn't your business?
What are we looking at here?
Are we saying both sides are at fault? No. This is the cops' fault. The point of their uniform is to make them seem like a unified force -- a mythic presence that we can generalize about (more on that in a second). It's their responsibility to keep that generalization positive, and it's their responsibility to remember not to do the same to us. Yeah, that's not fair, but that's because being a cop is a hard job. Which is fine. Sorry, but no job where you get to carry a gun and break traffic laws should be easy. You gotta earn our trust.
Cops See Civilians as the Enemy
Once the protests in Ferguson started, the police response seemed a bit ... well, let's go with "strange." There was such an ardent struggle, not for peace and non-violence, but for control. There was so much aggression. At least one cop even threatening to shoot journalists on camera. It seemed like they were almost trying to come off as brutal fascists. But if you pause and go through each part of this step-by-step, you realize that what this really comes down to is fear -- not just the unarmed citizen's fear, but the cop's fear as well.
Try and put your brain in the place of a normal cop. Obviously you need to know that at any point, you might be involved in violence -- that's the shittiest part of their job, and also the world. But what if, somewhere along the the line, "anyone might be my enemy" turns into "everyone might be my enemy." That's crucially different, right? When you're constantly afraid that everyone is out to get you, well, you're constantly afraid. Why didn't the police chief release the identity of the shooter, Darren Wilson, right away? Because they were afraid of what the community might do to him. Why didn't that cop threatening the media want to be filmed? Because he was afraid that the community would judge his actions harshly. That's not a guy drunk on power -- if he really thought of himself as an untouchable demi-god with an automatic rifle, he wouldn't care what the cameras caught or what people thought of him. To him, the camera really seems more powerful than the gun.
We tested that theory. Turns out it's not.
We're not trying to paint the cops as the real victims here, because clearly they aren't. And we're not saying their fear is somehow the fault of innocent teenagers. But regardless of why, the facts seem to indicate that cops spend every day on the street terrified for their lives, and you can see how their fear is the real problem, right? It's the police officer's job to walk around with a whole shitload of power and decide how to use it, and if they're constantly afraid, how can they possibly make the correct decision? Fear leads, eventually, to hate, according to this guy Cracked interviewed and also Yoda, so we think if we get rid of that fear, we have a lot fewer dead kids. Presuming cops also fix on of their other little problems.
Cops Do Not to See Citizens As People
Yet another seemingly inexplicable part of the protests in Ferguson was this interview with one of Wilson's friends. The guy says he "can't imagine shooting anybody, even as a police officer," which seems like a weird thing to say about a guy who just shot somebody, since it does nothing but point out what a shitty judge of character this guy is. If that sounds harsh, think about how this news report must come off to the family of the victim, Mike Brown.
I never realized that a black silhouette could seem so punchable.
Here's the problem: What if cops don't see citizens as "somebodies"? What if, to some cops in some neighborhoods, anybody not in a uniform isn't a person, just a potential problem that they might have to take care of -- the same way someone working at Starbucks eventually gets jaded and sees every customer as a potential pain in the ass?
"Potential" is being optimistic. There's a reason we don't arm baristas.
This is sorta due to a weird quirk with human psychology. We've talked before about how every single person on the planet discounts most of the world's population as non-human just because we can fit only so many other humans in our brain. And anyone with a job that involves interacting with other humans is going to have this problem more than most, though cops seem particularly bad at it.
Anthropologist Philippe Bourgois once spent over five years in one of the most dangerous parts of East Harlem, getting to know and understand the crack dealers so he could write a pretty badass book about it. But while he managed to become close friends with the criminal underworld, and though he attended "community outreach" meetings to try to build a rapport with the local law enforcement, he was never recognized on the street by a cop. Keep in mind, he's the only white dude on the street after dark, for five and a half years. But he didn't stand out, because the cops weren't thinking of the people they saw as part of their community, they were just seeing a sequence of problems to solve. You can't help but imagine that they would just acknowledge a person, assess them for a threat, and move on, like fucking ED-209. Yes, they are only human and can only remember faces, but holy fucking shit -- there was only one white dude on your street, guys, how did you not start recognizing him?
Do all white people look the same to you?
Of course, cops have tried to fix these problems. The problem is they went about it in the worst possible way. Which leads to our last entry.
Cops Chose to Be Badass
Cops want to be heroes. Hopefully that's why they got into this business in the first place. In a perfect world, everyone would look up to them just because of their uniform. But they also want to be badass, and that creates a problem, because who's more badass: Splinter or Shredder? Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader? Kyle Reese or a Terminator?
Follow up question: who does this most resemble?
We don't understand crime, police work, poverty, or oppression, and we won't pretend to. But we do understand stories, and we do know that the human brain defines its world through story tropes. Not because we're taught to think by movies but because movies are a reflection of how we think. We create bad guys that look a certain way because we know that will make the audience scared and resentful. And we make the good guys look like us because we want to identify with them. This is a simple, powerful part of human thought that has informed storytelling for thousands of years, and yet cops completely fucking ignore it: Over the past few hundred years, American police uniforms have become darker, more intimidating, and more militaristic -- and as they drift closer and closer to looking like someone who should be firing their blaster in the general vicinity of Han Solo, their ability to enforce the law has become weaker. Because everyone wants to be on Han Solo's side, and if we don't trust the cops, they're nothing more than armed bullies.
We're not saying that cops should dress in flashy superhero colors to get on our good side, but surely there's a middle ground between that and actively presenting yourself as a cartoonish villain. We know that if you dress in black, with heavy armor, and carry a big-ass gun with a mask over your face, you look like a fucking Stormtrooper and no one is going to see you as their protector, because we all see ourselves as the Luke Skywalker of their own, personal, slightly more boring Star Wars.
Most of us just happen to be stuck in this scene ... for now.
And by the way, when we say that the police needs to calm the fuck down and become our friends again many actual cops agree. In 1969, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Jerry Wilson was appointed police chief of Washington. While the city protested, he took discreet precautions (putting riot teams in unmarked buses and parking those buses out of sight of protesters) and made sure to recruit a police force that reflected the ethnic make-up of the local population. Because of this, Washington was one of the only cities where crime actually fell during that period of American History. The shit cops do to protesters now -- tear gas, preemptive SWAT raids -- is based off of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, which Norm Stamper, then-Seattle police chief, calls "the worst mistake" of his career, because "police departments across the country learned all the wrong lessons from" them. If you're trying to violence a town into being peaceful, your understanding of violence, peace, and nouns is just completely broken.
We're not going to stop stereotyping cops because, again, that's the point of their uniform. So we say it's their responsibility to change the fucking stereotype.
For more from Sarge, check out 5 Reasons the Video Game Industry Is About to Crash and 5 Popular Medications You Won't Believe Mess With Your Brain.