Thursday, February 12, 2015

To Protect And To Serve

We get up in the morning.  We follow our daily routine to get the body ready for our planned day, and put on our uniform that identifies our work.  Some uniforms are more obvious and distinctive, clearly defining us and the life we live and work that we do.  Some uniforms are more subtle, more generic, more ambiguous.  But they are all uniforms.  Properly tuned and attired, each of us goes off to our respective job, volunteer role, family chores, or personal activity.  To serve our “customer” or clients, and then come home.  All is routine.

A few other people follow a similar daily pattern.  But it may occur at differing hours of one day versus another.  The uniform they put on is typically blue, very official-looking, clearly indicative of their high-visibility role in society.  They leave each day heading towards a very different customer base.  Their return home is a little less assured than the rest of us.  They are cops.

Much has been written and discussed recently about the state of policing in America today.  Particularly as regards profiling and discrimination in selective enforcement; sentencing and incarceration; and violence committed towards suspected offenders.  Some claim we have not progressed beyond the misuse of law enforcement we saw in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  Some view with alarm the increasing frequency of violent arrests and killings in circumstances of perceived public threats.  And some are worried about a growing militarization of our police forces; the “cop on the beat” increasingly looks like a member of a heavily armed military force – will America begin to look like those foreign countries where police and military are indistinguishable?
In truth, this is not the police environment of the 1960s-South, as anyone who lived through those times knows all too well.  To claim such a correlation, and to ignore the great changes that have occurred over these past 50 years, is to trivialize and disrespect the brave individuals who changed that entrenched system.  But one also cannot dismiss the violence that permeates much of America today.  Nor our increasing awareness of such violence from our news media that has shrunk our entire country into one virtual neighborhood, which distorts our sense of proportionality, balance and imminent threats in our immediate environment.

There is no arguing that this violence exists.  Concerns over home-grown and imported terrorists are warranted.  Concerns over domestic and foreign religious fanatics from all religions are warranted.  Concerns about the socially isolated and mentally disturbed who seek importance and worthiness from distorted notoriety are warranted.  This kind of violence is growing, along with our personal fears that call out for “protection” – often at any cost.

Responding to the rising chorus for that protection falls to that person in blue – the cop.  How to respond to it is no easy job, with few easy answers.  These people see the most broken, the most destructive, the most amoral people and situations in our society.  That is their territory every day, all the while challenged to keep their sense of humanity and good will in the face of such brokenness.  The weapons of this conflict continue to expand; the tools of defense are obligated to keep pace.  Combat veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan learned that the most innocent face of a civilian could turn into a killer at a moment’s notice; our local cops have learned that same lesson, challenging their ability to trust their otherwise instinct towards goodwill.  This is an everyday life few of us ever see as we contentedly go about our daily business.  In the isolated safety of our separation, we can be quick to judge harshly when cops over-react to a situation.  But we can be just as quick to judge harshly when cops under-react and casualties happen.  It is easy to criticize from the sidelines.

While this hardest of professions deserves our measured assessments and patient judgments, mistakes do happen which we need to understand.  And like all professions, policing can attract wrong people who are undeserving of the uniform, unqualified to enter its ranks, and not worthy to remain on the force.  And the prime instigators to remove these internal outlaws should come from inside the profession itself, who are unduly blemished by these ill-performing cops.  Instead, all too often the profession seems structurally incapable of cleansing itself.  This has to change.  Recently, some NYPD personnel chose to play politics by turning their backs on their mayor at separate memorial ceremonies honoring two policemen assassinated in their patrol car.  These cops dishonored themselves, as well as the intended solemnity of these policemen’s ultimate sacrifice.  Grandstanding in the wrong place is wrong for everyone.

Clearly there is a problem in Fergusson, Missouri, in the makeup of that city’s police force and its operation.  But it is a problem that did not warrant the destruction of its downtown by opportunistic hoodlums.  Clearly a videotaped chokehold death screams out for accountability that did not come about, which therefore warrants our collective protest.  Clearly a pre-teen boy with a toy gun killed within seconds of an officer’s arrival on the scene flies in the face of “standard police protocol,” and demands a thorough investigation into this officer’s questionable hiring credentials.

Finding proper responses to these structural issues may be difficult.  But a failure to find any response is unacceptable.  Because these and other situations highlight genuine public safety difficulties that are fed by numerous societal issues that cannot be ignored.  Issues that precede, and come to a head in, the seemingly inexplicable crimes we see in our headlines.

We live in a hair-trigger society today, with an excess of triggers to go around.  In such a tenuous environment, oftentimes cops must make critical decisions in a split second, sometimes in otherwise seemingly innocuous circumstances.  Mistakes will be made, which in turn will require compassionate judgments to be made.  Sometimes, though, misconduct requires harsher judgments, preferably coming from within the profession itself.

We must not turn our backs on the people doing this most critical, life-threatening job.  Yet we must protest for change, for fair treatment towards the protectors and the protected, for accountability where warranted.  We need to search for the elusive ideas and difficult corrective actions required, always striving for that tenuous balance between public order versus individual freedom.  And when we encounter it, we must houseclean our dirty laundry where needed and not cover it up.  Yet we must protect and serve well those who strive every day to protect and to serve us.

©  2015  Randy Bell