On policing

A peculiar thing happened this weekend. I found myself in the crossfire in a couple of different spots on reforming police. One conversation occurred on Twitter which might be the worst place to have a conversation. Suddenly, I found myself explaining something and defending something that I don’t necessarily believe in. Those are always awkward moments.

The second case was a lot more anonymous and ultimately sad. A former colleague responded to the boycotts in the NBA and MLB by announcing that anyone that planned on spending any money on professional sports should just unfriend him right then and there. See, he served as a police officer and made a number of sacrifices along the way. On the one hand, I could see taking anything personally when you’ve invested that much blood, sweat, and tears into it. On the other hand, I found the entire gesture entirely sad.

Friendships shouldn’t have litmus tests applied to it. As long as we are respectful, we should be able to disagree on social issues and political issues. I certainly get being emotional. This is my 23rd year in education. No, it’s not as challenging as being an officer, but it is a public service position. We get criticized for what we do or don’t do. Sometimes it’s difficult to take that criticism in the spirit it is intended. So, I get the frustration.

However, I decided to take this space to articulate at least what I feel about policing. I’ve mentioned police brutality before, so I think it is only fair that I be as clear as possible. One of the problems with the Democratic party and progressives in general is that we are generally in favor of reforming and fixing things that are broken. When that happens you get hundreds of suggestions depending on the issue.

Neither left nor right is a monolithic conglomerate of like-minded people. We may generally agree that policing needs to be reformed but we will not agree on specifics. So, from here on out I am not taking the mantle on anyone else’s argument. I will stick to what I believe.

What I believe is that listening to high profile police like the leadership in Wisconsin, union leaders, and apparently my now former friend is that they sadly don’t get it. This failure to understand comes from two places. First, whenever we want to curb police brutality it means we want to bring accountability to those that would treat people brutally. If you never did this as an officer then we support you. We always have supported you and we always will support you. At least I will say I support you.

My friend never said anything objectionable, but many of the public announcements have been cringe worthy. I suppose I could go into specifics, but there are just so many examples that I really don’t want to spend all of my time on these statements. Essentially, they reflect issues with leadership and their attitudes towards who they are policing. Are they racist necessarily? I don’t know if I want to go there, but it definitely reflects a jaded way of thinking about the people you are in charge of protecting.

The aims are simple enough. I want fewer suspects to get shot. I want fewer police to get hurt as well. We can at least track officer related deaths. https://nleomf.org/facts-figures/officer-deaths-by-year has chronicled that since 1786. The peak for police fatalities occurred in 1930 with 312 officers killed nation wide. We can only assume that this was tied to prohibition and the mob.

The worst decade for safety appeared to be the 1970s. 1977 was the only year that did not see 200 or more fatalities. Since 2000 we have had only two years (2001, 2007) with more than 200. Any officer getting killed is a tragedy, but as a matter of statistics it would be incorrect to say that an officer’s job is more dangerous than it has ever been. In the backdrop of that fact is the fact that overall police related shootings have not dropped. It may seem trivial to point out an overall drop in police deaths, but it often as assumed that policing is more dangerous now than it has been in the past. Based on the numbers, this is plainly not true.

Even if we ignore black lives matter, we have to admit that being a suspect in the United States is far more dangerous than being a suspect anywhere else in the world. Yes, it is absolutely fair to acknowledge that being an officer in the United States is far more dangerous than anywhere else in the world. There is something terribly wrong when people that perform the job are overly sensitive when anyone brings up the question of whether we can do this differently.

This happens in my line of work too. Teachers become defensive about their class data. You get half of the class failing tests and someone brings up the salient point that maybe we could teach that unit differently. Maybe we can come up with a more fair way to assess the students. Maybe we could do a better job of anticipating spots where students might be confused. You get the idea. What’s different is that you usually don’t get campus leaders offering denials and excuses for that classroom teacher. If you do then that is surely a sign of a failing campus.

So, what I want are two things. They are the same two things I want in my profession too. I want police officers to be responsible for their choices and actions. I want officers that show a clear sense of bias or a clear proclivity to respond to a situation violently to no longer be officers and perhaps even be prosecuted if the circumstances warrant it. So, in essence we can train better at the outset and continually train them while they are working if they are merely exercising poor judgment. Those of us in education call this professional development.

We can’t afford to wait until someone dies or until we see a horrific event on camera to act. In a school, we know who the bad teachers are. We know who the mean teachers are. We know who the biased teachers are. We know who the incompetent teachers are. We don’t need a camera to tell us that. I have to believe policing is the same way. Many of these officers that have been caught doing things on camera had files an inch thick of complaints beforehand. It needs to be easier to get rid of bad officers. Help for inexperienced or overwhelmed officers needs to come much faster.

For those of us on the outside looking in, we need to allow our cognitive dissonance to speak to us. When you see someone shot seven times the immediate feeling is that it is excessive. Others will break in with the, “but he has a criminal record” or “he had a knife in the car” or “he was resisting arrest.” These are mitigating factors to be sure. Yet, we return to the basic question: is it ever necessary to shoot someone seven times? We can rationalize a lot of things away, but in your gut you know something is terribly wrong. Is this really the best way to do this?

Author: sbarzilla

I have written three books about baseball including The Hall of Fame Index. I also write for thefantatasyfix.com. You can follow me on twitter @sbarzilla.

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