In an opinion piece for CNN, Neal Griffin, a retired 25-year police veteran argues that Americans on the other side of the thin blue line can’t understand the fear and anxiety officers and their families live through on a daily basis. He does a good job painting a picture of a life few of us will ever live; a life where you are expected to go out daily, put yourself in danger and get little to no thanks from the people you serve.
Unfortunately, Griffin’s perspective, more than anything, is a confirmation of the disconnect between the police and the people they protect.
He acknowledges that in order to do a very difficult job, the police run the risk of dehumanizing people as a defense mechanism. Cops need to protect themselves from the often gruesome realities they see on a daily basis in order to be effective. He argues that police culture can come across as standoffish and that intentional distance is the beginning of the disconnect between the people and the police. He argues in favor of rigorous review procedures of every officer involved shooting, not only to protect the people from undue force, but also to ease feelings of mistrust in communities.
While I applaud this former officer’s argument for oversight, transparency and stronger community ties, the foundation of his argument is based on the very misperception the people of New York and other American cities have been peacefully protesting. There seems to be a general belief that people who protest police brutality don’t respect the police or the job they do. On the contrary, even a casual observer should notice that protesters are not arguing for a state of anarchy with no police system, they are instead arguing for dialogue and a transparent system.
Instead of acknowledging the very real and documented conflict between the New York Police Department and the people of New York, the NYPD leadership dug in their heels and turned to petty, passive aggressive displays.
Many feel that the act of turning their backs on the civilian leader, Mayor Bill de Blasio, at the funeral for a fallen comrade shows the type of defensive behavior that causes the problems of distrust between police and communities, especially minority communities. Instead of engaging in dialogue to try and build relations, the NYPD have resorted to the equivalent of a temper tantrum, throwing up a thick wall and refusing to cooperate.
What seems to be missing from Griffin’s analysis of the negative reaction to the NYPD’s behavior is the catalyst to the whole situation. De Blasio has made his support for the people protesting recent cases of excessive force by officers. Whatever the politics of his support for the protesters, the most outspoken members of the NYPD (in particular the leader of the largest union and former mayor Rudy Giuliani) seem to have taken particular offence to his statement that de Blasio and his wife felt the need to “literally train” their son how to handle interactions with police.
The fact that de Blasio’s statements regarding his fears for his bi-racial son are seen as anti-police is indicative of the level of disconnect between the police and the people they serve.
For millions of people, the fear that their son will be the next kid caught in the wrong place at the wrong time is constant. The fact that this sentiment came from the mouth of a public figure (a white man at that) seems to have triggered a visceral reaction in some.
The idea that the mayor of New York would fear the day his son must interact with the NYPD seems offensive to those who don’t have to live with this reality; and trust me, this fear is a reality.
Griffin’s article assumes that the point of contention between protesters and police stems from a public that doesn’t value and respect the police force. We value the police, we respect the police, but it’s hard to respect an institution that has built a reputation over centuries, for bullying, abuse of power, corruption and racial profiling, among other things.
Rather ironically, the argument against the protesters assumes the type of generalizations the people of New York are protesting against. The idea that a few bad apples dominate the narrative of a whole community is the same type of profiling that leads a man to be shot in his own apartment building, while walking up a stairwell.
The police are constantly under threat; they are on edge and in constant danger and when that fear is combined with a culture where brown equals threatening, the result is a community that feels like it’s under attack from the people that are supposed to be protecting them. That is what the people are protesting.
Griffin seems to believe that the protests will stop once everyone realizes that the police live their lives in the crosshairs but that’s not the question on the table; we already know that, not as eloquently as Griffin put it, but we know it’s a dangerous job. No one is denying the difficult job the police have and we don’t want to belittle their work. We are not protesting a police officer’s right to defend himself; we are protesting our right to be treated and protected as a citizen of this country.
No one benefits from a weak or vulnerable police force, including the police force paralyzed by a community that doesn’t trust them to carry out justice. What Griffin, and many others, seem to miss in their defense of the police, especially the NYPD, is that we don’t want a world without police, we want a world where the police are there to protect and serve the civilian population, full stop. No qualifications, asterisks or exceptions; we just want to be treated as equals when we walk down city streets. We don’t want to demonize the police; we want them to see us as people who need them to protect us from danger.
The police are trusted with significant power. They need some level of force to effectively do their job. But, as the cliche saying goes, power also bestows a level of responsibility. We trust them with significantly more power than the average citizen, and as a result, we expect them to behave as such. The cases of police brutality, the refusal to accept responsibility, the practice of protecting the bad apples and now the childish bout of the silent treatment are all signs that the police of this country don’t seem ready to accept the responsibility their role in society requires.
That isn’t to say all cops are bad, for every story of abuse of power there’s a story of extraordinary kindness. Like the officer in Alabama who caught a woman trying to steal a pocket full of broken eggs. It turns out her daughter’s welfare check for $120 was lost in the mail, and facing two grandchildren, ages one and three, going hungry, she took a chance, left the $1.25 she did have on the counter as a sort of offering and got caught.
Instead of arresting the woman, who is living in a household that includes her two daughters, niece and two grandchildren, the officer let her go with a warning and a carton of eggs he purchased for her. The officer later drove to her house to deliver a generous supply of donated groceries after a video of the encounter went viral.
There was the dash cam video of a Texas officer patrolling through an apartment parking lot where a child was playing with a football by himself and got out and tossed the ball back and forth with the boy.
There are stories of officers adopting children they rescue from abusive homes or dragging unconscious drivers from burning cars. These are the stories that go viral for all the right reasons. These are the stories of America’s finest. These are the officers that the public look up to and respect.
So Griffin is right, the officers deserve our respect, they have one of the most difficult jobs out there and they live under constant threat. But the behavior of the NYPD has not reflected the good will we would expect from our police.
Brionne Powell is a junior political science major at Drexel University. She can be contacted at [email protected].