When we turn on the news for commentary on relations between law enforcement and the community, the voices on the police side usually have “Police Chief” or “Sheriff” attached to their name.
You might sometimes also hear “Retired” or “Former” next to their title.
It goes without saying that these men and women have a wealth of experience to offer regarding law enforcement matters. But it’s also more than likely they haven’t stepped into a patrol car and had an enforcement contact with a citizen in a very long time.
What’s missing in today’s police-community commentary, I believe, are the voices of those of us at ground level.
I wouldn’t pretend to speak for anyone but myself: a white peace officer in the United States in the year 2021. I’ve been working in law enforcement for seven years and patrol for the past four years.
I’ve worked urban areas with heavy gang activity and minority populations, and I’ve worked in a suburban area with a relatively affluent population. Within my own sphere of law enforcement, I can tell you that officers are frustrated at what they perceive to be a never-ending stream of critiques regarding their performance.
I’ve watched my Hispanic and Black colleagues called unfathomable names simply because they’ve chosen a career in which they enforce the rule of law; an essential function in any society governed by democratic principles.
These men and women are forced to reconcile their choice to serve their communities with their racial identity, when in reality there should be no conflict in that decision and they should be applauded for that service.
They feel the barrage of criticism, with little ability to respond.
I’ve watched as my dear friends (who actually go by titles such as “mom,” “dad,” “husband,” “wife,” “sister,” “brother,” “son,” and “daughter,” in addition to officer or deputy) have been ridiculed, physically attacked, baselessly stereotyped, and treated as though they are a menace to society simply for trying to maintain order in our communities.
Not all of my colleagues believe that what we say or think is listened to with any degree of understanding.
I’d like to prove them wrong.
During the past year, the emotions surrounding law enforcement have been tense. I’ve felt anger and disillusionment; and I know I’m not alone. I also recognize the irony that many community activists in groups like Black Lives Matter feel the same.
While some of my fellow officers choose to seethe in this anger and regress into tribalism and the reassurance that their cause is just and correct (as do their protesting counterparts on the other side of the skirmish line), I want to propose a conversation.
Not an actual conversation, since I can’t directly see those who are reading this—but an imaginary conversation with the person who is glaring (or even shouting) at me from the other side of the line.
Some might ask, “Why not have an actual conversation?” It’s a valid question, and the reality is that I would love to have as many as possible. However, these opportunities are not typically feasible when you’re wearing a badge. You simply can’t speak independently because anything you say will be represented as reflecting the stance of our department.
I hope people understand this when they misrepresent the silence from the officers they’re speaking to as an unwillingness to engage in a conversation. While you can shout whatever arguments you want, our best opportunity to continue to feed our families is to stay silent.
I didn’t always wear a badge. Perhaps I could have had this conversation if it had taken place when I was working at a low-paying job in a Center City Philadelphia gym. That’s where I met and grew to love some of my closest Black friends, many of whom had similar stories about their struggles with previous law enforcement contacts.
The same friends who share some of the views associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, but always recognize the person beyond the badge and end our conversations the same way.
“Please stay safe out there.”
That’s one reason why it is especially painful for me to hear people tag me and my colleagues as symbols of “White Power.“ I would never support such vile ideologies.
But when you wear a uniform, the chances for a frank dialogue are reduced. We may be meeting face to face, but we’re a thousand miles apart.
Would we change each other’s minds? Maybe not. But if I can try to put myself in their shoes and see the world from their perspective, perhaps they could do the same.
Let’s call that person standing on the other side of that contact “Aaron.”
Margaret Wheatley, a writer I admire, once wrote “Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.”
Here’s how I think it might go.
Me: I just want to be clear… Why do you call me and my partners racist when none of us have ever targeted an individual based on their race?
Aaron: It’s not about you individually. It’s about years of mistreatment by law enforcement. It’s about the systemic oppression of black individuals since the incarnation of this country.
Me: I understand that… and I think anyone would. But just to be clear, I personally had no role in that. I actually understand that this is an issue and support your right to march for a better life. However, do you really feel like law enforcement should be the center of this the issue? Or is this a problem on a much more systemic level?
Aaron: It is absolutely a problem on a systemic level… but you are the representation of that system. Did you know that my grandparents were once arrested and beaten simply for walking into the wrong restaurant or drinking from the wrong water fountain? I would hear these stories from them, and I knew I could never trust anyone with a badge and a gun.
Me: I completely understand why you’d feel that way, but I would never do anything like that. I entered this profession because I saw a career where I could serve the communities I care about and be a symbol of trust. Growing up, cops were always the good guys and I wanted nothing more than to be that good guy.
I played in sports leagues (largely made up of minority kids) that were coached by officers, and I never saw them treat any kid differently based on the color of their skin. These men were larger than life, and all of us looked at them with endless respect and admiration. I’m still trying to figure out what changed.
Aaron: Well you and I grew up a lot differently. I never saw the cops as good guys. And while you may take pride in what the profession stood for, you also have to recognize that the legacy it left for me has to be reconciled as well. You put on a badge because you were proud of what it stood for and you openly embraced that side of the badge. But if you truly care about law enforcement, you have to see the negative side of that badge as well.
Me: The men and women I work with are some of the finest human beings I’ve come across in this life. They are hard-working, caring individuals who are simply trying to take care of their families and communities.
I personally have never seen any overt racism or targeting in the ranks of my own department. However, some officers have disrespected the badge. They’ve associated themselves with hate groups responsible for heinous crimes against our country. They’ve lost their temper and crossed the line during a use of force. Some in the past have been so ignorant about those who were different from them that they treated people in an inexcusable fashion. They’ve soiled the image that men and women such as those youth football coaches I referenced above and countless others have worked so hard to foster.
I suppose if I accept and own the positive symbolism associated with the badge, then I have a duty to accept the negative symbolism and look for ways to reconcile that.
This conversation with my imaginary counterpart probably won’t satisfy everyone. From the their point of view, I would likely come off as defensive and incapable of understanding the reality of systemic racism.
But some of my colleagues, to be frank, might think I had bent too much in the direction of people who they believe fail to understand the reality—sometimes a life or death reality–we face in law enforcement.
So be it.
But the point of this process is to critically interrogate my own perspective, and maybe refine my thinking as a result. As you might guess, this really amounts to a conversation with myself, a way of trying to identify with a side of the argument I’m not familiar with.
To paraphrase an old political adage; these issues are like a highway.
All you find on the far left and right are gutters. The middle is the only way to get anywhere. I would hope my fellow officers would never question how important our job is, and how well I believe they do it.
These conversations are uncomfortable and they challenge me. That is how I know they’re working.
If I always have the perfect answer built in and immediately available, then I know I’m not doing it right. If I never change my mind, I know the exercise is futile.
Maybe more of us –on both sides of the police barriers—need to have them?
Ryan Smith, a Peace Officer in California for the past seven years, wishes to keep the agency where he works unidentified so he can write with candor. He worked in a detention environment prior to moving to his current assignment as a field training officer in patrol. Ryan received his Master’s Degree in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership program from the University of San Diego. He welcomes comments from readers.