More than a week of nationwide protests have left police officers badly shaken, and in some cases, physically bruised. Police leaders say the rank and file are struggling to come to grips with the level of animus they encountered as epithets, bricks and bottles came hurtling their way, the Washington Post reports. “I’ve had members say they feel like a Vietnam veteran returning home to a country that hates them … the morale is low,” said Robert Harris, a Los Angeles police officer heading the police union. That sentiment is likely to elicit little sympathy from protesters outraged over the killing of George Floyd and the countless deaths of blacks at the hands of law enforcement that preceded it. Police in the U.S. have shot and killed nearly 500 people already this year, three a day.
The fact that police feel besieged complicates efforts to transform Floyd’s death into a catalyst for changing the system. Although many police leaders say they agree with protesters’ aims, they also think their efforts to change have been underappreciated and their line of work unfairly vilified. “Law enforcement is the only profession where you get rocks, bricks and molotov cocktails thrown at you merely because you’re in the same chosen profession as someone else who did something horribly wrong thousands of miles away,” said Steven Casstevens, head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. David Klinger, a former officer now a criminologist at the University of Missouri St. Louis, said officers are experiencing “bewilderment” at the wave of anger they’re facing. “They don’t understand the vitriol directed at them because they didn’t do anything. They are a symbol of something,” he said. Since Floyd’s death, at least 749 officers have been injured while responding to protests and disturbances, says the Justice Department.