“Back the Blue.” “All Cops Are Bastards.” Both of these slogans generalize a particular conclusion about police. Either we reflexively defend or attack all individual police officers. I can’t agree with statements that define everyone in a particular group as the same. Police officers make mistakes. They break the law. They are honorable. They care about their families. I don’t believe either of these slogans captures how we should feel about police.
At the same time, I am not calling for moderation. Believing the best about individuals does not mean withholding judgments from systems and from those who violate others in their communities. Policing as a system harms people in this country every day. Police officers killed 1,194 people in 2022, more than 3 per day. Black people were 26% of those killed, despite being 13% of the population. White people constituted the largest group of people killed. Only 1 in 3 police killings began with the allegation of a violent crime – most started with traffic violations, mental health checks, domestic disturbances, other non-violent crimes, or with no crime at all. (Statistics from mappingpoliceviolence.us)
Policing at minimum needs drastic reform, although clearly I don’t know the full answer to these challenges. I believe ending qualified immunity – a policy that makes it difficult to hold officers civilly accountable – is an important step. I believe that reducing the responsibilities of officers by empowering other trained individuals to handle mental health calls, traffic stops, and other responsibilities would make it less likely for police officers to cause harm. I have a lot of time for those who argue that it needs to be abolished entirely. I don’t know how abolition would work, and I have fears about going that far, some of which are centered in the security I derive from my own middle-class white identity.
But even if we go so far as abolition, that does not mean we need to condemn each individual police officer. They are certainly part of a compromised system. But that is true to different degrees of all of us. We are part of a capitalist system that enables the wealthy to amass riches and prevents the poor from meeting their own basic needs. I work in an education system funded primarily by property taxes which guarantees that the children of well-off families have all their needs met, while the children of poor families get less. It is certainly true that this compromise shows up in a dramatic way for police officers. Police officers who make mistakes or even act out of malignant motivations end up killing too many non-violent people. The “blue wall of silence” that prevents police officers from speaking out against bad actors is a real phenomenon. Many police officers could do much more to agitate for accountability in their departments. I understand the criticism that officers who continue to work alongside officers who break the law and then don’t speak out are tacitly condoning the behavior of negligent and malicious officers. And still I continue to believe that most individual officers are trying to do the best they can in a challenging job and system.
These problems are demanding, but they are not intractable. We can and must make strides to address police brutality and misconduct. We must condemn the bad actors. And we can do all this without shaming one another. We must do this without using shame as a tool or as a weapon. Shame may serve us in the short term, but in the long term it damages individuals and fractures relationships. Those outcomes are the antithesis of our goal when we are seeking to heal our communities.
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