I understand at its outset that an article that seeks to defend police written by someone who is closely related to a police officer can only be seen as biased. ButI used to be one of you. I was inherently afraid of police, I thought they were bullies, fighters, foe. Even though I had been helped by some police officers at harrowing points in my life they were the exceptions to the profession and not the rule. In my years growing up with a cop, I have had to ask my fair share of questions, and the answers were often surprising and always enlightening. What I’ve learned, and what I hope to relate, is that good, helpful police officers are more often the rule.
Why are you writing this
I hope to answer specific questions and address common misunderstandings about this oft-scrutinized profession from a non-cop point of view. I will not seek to defend specific incidents or individuals, although I will comment briefly on media portrayals. One police officer shouldn’t have to represent everyone in their profession, just like one CEO shouldn’t have to represent the actions of all CEOs, or one individual shouldn’t have to represent everyone in their entire race.
I should also say, however, that I am not a police officer, and while this was read and fact checked by one, it is not necessarily endorsed by police officers everywhere. Cops are a diverse group that police a wide range of locale in the United States and what’s true for one department or individual may not be true for another.
Without further caveat, I invite you to dive into a few common questions, that I and many cops have had to address more than once.
What are cops like?
Think about your workplace for a moment, imagine your high school or a college classroom and think about the people who end up there. If you have worked in multiple places you will begin to notice a pattern in the types of people you find. There are extremely hard workers and lazy do-nothings, there are incompetent bosses and excellent managers, there are aging employees who reject new technology and wizened genius who’s worked in the same place for thirty years. The list goes on. These may be tropes but in broad terms, these types of people found in a variety of professions. A police department has the same colorful smattering of people as your workplace.
Bureaucracies are largely the same across the board, and the same struggles you run into at your job, are often the same struggles police departments have to face. In the end, it’s a job that you have to clock into and out of. Sometimes you have friends on your shift, sometimes you have annoying coworkers, sometimes your boss is a pain. It’s a job. They’re just people. That’s the reality.
I thought all cops were bullies, but you seem so nice!
When you say this I want you to remove the word “cops” and just pop in any race you can think of. Doesn’t sound good, does it? There are roughly 900,000 sworn police officers in the United States (according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund http://www.nleomf.org/facts/enforcement/), and as a liberal and equal rights activist myself, it makes me a little queasy to put any group of people in one box.
Pretend for a moment you’re tasked with hiring a police officer. You have to train this person which is an investment in classes, training staff, and time (if they’re brand new, the department has to pay a lot of money (100k in California) to vet them and send them to the police academy - depending on the state, all states hire cops differently) so you will want to pick carefully. You have to work along side this person, which means you want someone who is smart and trustworthy, responsible and easy to work with. Consider, as well, the type of person who would best serve society — this is the person who might have to pull a child out of a car after a crash, the person a young woman may have to talk to after she’s raped, the person who has to talk a suicidal man down from a literal ledge.
You would also want to hire someone who won’t cower away from gangsters, someone who will stand up for weak, someone who won’t crumble under pressure or the sight of a dead body (count me out). You’re basically looking for the kindest, strongest, gentlest, bravest person you can find. I’m not saying every cop is Prince or Princess Charming, but that’s basically your high bar.
Let’s just say there aren’t a lot of bullies that fit into that box.
Are all cops racist?
See the above note about statements like all “blanks” are “blank.”
Regardless, let’s address racism briefly. None of us are unaffected by racism. Everyone has assumptions about groups of people based on the media and past experiences. Whether those assumptions are overt or remain internal is up to the individual and what is seen as Okay in their community.
There’s no arguing the sordid history of racist policing in America. But my guess is that police officers are exactly as racist as their surrounding community and the time period they live in, i.e. the percentage of racist cops in 1950’s Alabama is probably equal to the percentage of racist people in 1950’s Alabama. I personally don’t believe that cops are inherently more racist than the average person just because they’re cops.
Perhaps that simply because police have to interact with a more diverse group of people than the rest of us on a daily basis, and have the power to pass explicit judgment on individuals, the public perceives a higher percentage of racism in cops. Cops have more opportunity to act on racism more, and racist acts by someone with power are more obvious and more detrimental.
That said, cops are still bound by law to deal with the facts. They have to justify every action they take, and those actions need to hold up against defense attorneys and the written law. They also have a ton of training about racism because they understand that we all have biases - and biases plus power is a dangerous combination. I don’t think I’ve ever spent eight hours talking about my latent biases and micro-aggressions. Cops do.
What is it like being a cop every day?
Lot’s of paperwork. Really. Most shifts at most police departments are twelve hours long so beat officers will usually work 3-4 days (or nights) a week. If they arrest someone they’re looking at two to four hours of paperwork. Maybe more if the arrest is complicated. This is precisely why they can’t fit a days work into a standard eight hours.
The type of work is completely dependent on the department. At busier departments, you get in your car and go to call after call. At smaller departments, you drive around and try to find crime until dispatch tells you to respond to an incident that was just reported. In both cases you’ll go to calls and talk to people dealing with a smattering of the following - domestic violence, mental health issues that may require hospitalization, theft and robbery, missing persons, suicides, attempted suicides, rape victims, murders, kidnappings, bomb threats, active shooters, person with a gun, among so many others. These are all events reported by citizens concerned enough to call the police, and these are all possible scenarios that every police officer has to be trained for.
Sometimes the domestic violence was just a woman heard screaming, sometimes the missing person was just a guy on a bender, sometimes the gunshot was just a firework. But sometimes it’s real, and every call you go to you have to be prepared for anything.
What about tickets?
Police can only pull someone over if they have violated a law. That means if you run a red light and almost hit a group of pedestrians, you’ll get pulled over. If you have expired registration, you’ll also get pulled over. The more heinous the violation the more likely you’ll get pulled over, but it depends completely on the officer’s discretion. The officer may be on their way to a call that requires their attention more than a red light violation, but, if they’re not, they’ll flip on those lights and sirens. A cops primary concern is keeping the community safe, and sometimes that means giving mild-mannered-you a ticket.
While traffic citations are the primary way that law abiding citizens are going to deal with the police it is not the primary thing that police are doing. Tickets are, for most officers, an ancillary duty that pops up while they’re on the road.
It is annoying for normal people like you and me to get pulled over for rolling through an empty intersection when people are on the road talking on their cell phones and throwing trash out of their window. But remember, those people get tickets too. Wouldn’t it be satisfying to see someone throw trash out of their window, and you flip on your lights and sirens and give them a ticket? Yeah, cops get the same rush.
Remember: Cops trying to keep everyone safe, and sometimes your actions are putting other members of our community at risk.
How do I get out of a ticket?
Cops won’t tell you this as a rule, but I think it's better for everyone to stay on the same page. First, don’t try any of the dumb tricks you read online. Cops know about them and it’s annoying. Your best bet to get out of a ticket is to STAY HUMBLE. Remember: It’s a lot easier to talk yourself into a ticket than out of one.
Acknowledge that you did something wrong (you probably did) even if you’ve done it a thousand times before and never got a ticket (definitely don’t tell the cop that). Be nice, be remorseful and do exactly what they say. Just because you know you’re unarmed and harmless doesn’t mean the cop knows you are (remember they have to be prepared for anything to go down). If you do get a ticket just accept it, sign it, and show up to court. The judge may reduce your fine, or if the officer doesn’t show up then your ticket will be expunged.
The way I see it, I probably commit hundreds of traffic violations a year. I may not stop completely at some stop signs, Every time I go to Target I make an illegal left turn, and I have done my fair share of checking my phone while driving and sending that one quick text. Getting a ticket is a good reminder for me to stay safe, to slow down, and stay off my phone. Plus, for all those violations it’s a small price to pay every five to ten years.
Why are cops always at protests, looking so scary?
Protest organizers often coordinate protests with the police in advance. That’s right, you heard me, cops are asked to be at protests to keep the peace. And since there are usually more protesters than police, they come prepared with helmets and gear in case there’s a mob or a riot.
Sometimes organizers will assemble a number of protesters that would like to be arrested before the events, and discuss this number with the police liaison. More arrests for the protesters mean they get more news coverage.
Protests are a very political and often organized display, the police are there to protect the community as well as the protesters, and play their role in the political process. Sometimes protests are more organic and simply spring up. In that case, the police show up for the same reasons — To protect the protesters and their right to free speech and to protect the community’s right to enjoy a peaceful public place.
After certain elements are met (depending on location, crowd size, and unruliness), crowds are asked to disperse for the safety of the community, to not block the road, or to free up the park/doorway/lobby for the rest of the community members. If protesters don’t disperse in a timely manner they will get arrested for not obeying a police dispersal order, but usually, protesters are given ample opportunity to leave so that only the people who originally wanted to get arrested will get arrested. That just means they’re put into handcuffs, booked at station, cited and released.
They won’t even smell a flower, or accept a hug from protesters who are trying to make peace!
Not only is it unprofessional for a cop to interact with protesters in that way, it’s also dangerous. They don’t know if that person wants to grab their gun or put them in a headlock. There could be a sinister substance on the flower, or they could be trying to distract the cops. If there are two sides of the protest, it would be uncouth to show favoritism to one side. When a cop is in a skirmish line like that, interacting with a protester could put them, all their coworkers and the rest of the community in danger.
I know it feels like they’re dehumanized when you’re all hanging out in a park and a cop won’t interact with you, but understand that this is not the time or place to show police officers your appreciation. It would be like someone shoving a flower in your face while you’re on the diving blocks at a swim meet. You’re focused, you’re vigilant, you’re prepared, and in comes a dangerous distraction.
If you want to interact with a police officer you can flag them down on the street, or bring something delicious to their department to show your appreciation. A lot of departments have community meet ups where you can go have coffee with officers that patrol your area. Part of a cops job is to connect with community members, so feel free to interact with them. Just not while they’re in a skirmish line, or in the middle of a traffic stop for that matter.
But I saw on TV that video of the cop who…
When these videos of police shootings and use of force incidents go viral usually the video is cut so you only see the action moments. This is understandable, people don’t want to see the boring lead up. But this practice can take the video out of context, and you may not be seeing exactly what the police officer was seeing in that situation.
Also, consider that sometimes police have to and legally can use force on someone (including shooting them). It’s awful to watch, and way worse to be in that situation, but sometimes the law justifies the actions of the officer if their life is in danger.
If you want to learn more about an incident from a cop’s perspective you can google the name of the incident with the words Tactical Breakdown. These are usually videos made by cops for cops so they can learn from other officers’ experiences. It might help you understand what the police officer was seeing, what they might have been thinking, or how training might affect their decision making. In the end, though, you weren’t there, and there’s no way for anyone to know for certain exactly what happened.
Imagine you’re driving your car, and in a split second you see a semi truck careening toward you. In that moment you turn the car left. It’s not really a decision it’s an instinct, a moment you won’t remember even fifteen minutes later. You survive and the truck driver dies, if you had turned right, he would have lived, and your fate is unknown. Now imagine three people are filming this from the side of the road with their cell phones. They go back through your every turn of your wheel, they view every second in slow motion, they make suggestions “If you had just changed lanes a while back you could have avoided the crash altogether.” You’re alive, someone else is dead, and it’s really hard to compile a list of decisions that you made that got you to that point.
Police are well trained to make accurate gut decisions, but the adrenaline, the careening truck, the decision that’s not a decision, the fact that one wrong move could kill you, it’s all the same.
Take police videos with a big grain of salt.
How do I talk to a police officer about important issues?
Be respectful. Don’t use the phrase “Why are all cops blank.” Ask broad questions, and be receptive to what they have to say. Don’t assume anything. If you can help it, try not to ask them about specific incidences with other cops and other departments. You can ask questions related to the incident if you wish to understand it and try to remain open to the answers. Remember cops do so much more than what you see on the news every day. They will show up on your very worst scariest day, and no matter how you feel about police officers, they will be there to help you. Try to be respectful, and understand how painful it must be knowing that you’re putting your life on the line every day to protect a community that thinks you’re the enemy.
Anything else I should know?
If you know a police officer in real life try to understand that you know very little about what they do. If they had to perform CPR on someone who just committed suicide by jumping from building that afternoon, they’re probably not going to bring it up in polite conversation that night at a restaurant with friends. If they were attacked during a traffic stop and had to wrestle someone onto the pavement while trying to keep them from grabbing the knife from their pocket, they’re probably not going to share that anecdote at Christmas dinner.
Police officers deal with victims more often than criminals, and more problems with the world than solutions. They see the poverty gap first hand, and they see what mental illness can do to those who don’t receive adequate help. They are our first line of defense against bad people, but in the end, they’re not actual superheroes, they’re just people. They’re sworn and trained maybe, but they’re just humans, like you and me, trying their very best to protect other humans.