Cops are human and, like the rest of us, are scared and for good reason. We’re anxious and frustrated about a stagnant political process within a polarized country; we rage about partisanship, but are contemptuous of politicians with whom we disagree; we’re embroiled in one endless war after another; we obsess over the threat of domestic terrorism; and we’ve allowed for the mass proliferation of handguns and assault rifles, resulting in 372 mass shootings in 2015, including 64 school shootings (according to Everytown for Gun Safety).
Within this civil decay, the culture of policing is changing as well. Cops are being accused of overt racism and unmitigated aggression, primarily directed toward men of color. They are now inclined to enforce the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law, resulting in increased and unnecessary incarceration. Good policing practice in some minority communities has devolved from issuing stiff warnings or reasoned words as a deterrent, oftimes to violent overreaction and other questionable behaviors. In a society more violent by the day, mass shootings occur with regularity, more than one for every day in the year.
In minority communities and on our roads, establishing probable cause or having a reasonable suspicion has become outmoded. Now, when a police officer confronts a minority male, it seems that all he has to do is state that he felt threatened to justify having used excessive force. There surely are inherent dangers in being a police officer, as there are some dangerous people out there. But not every black or brown person should be considered a serious threat to a police officer’s safety.
Is the job of policing becoming too difficult for the average cop to manage? They are anxious about being hurt, in spite of all the training they receive. They worry, like the rest of us, that their superiors are continually watching and evaluating their performance. They fear involvement in a tense confrontation that may become unmanageable. We all harbor racial and cultural biases. Fear tends to heighten these, and heightened fear can easily lead to violence.
It’s certainly understandable for a cop to fear being injured or killed in the line of duty; or for a cop to worry about meeting the expectations of his superiors; or for a cop to be concerned about how to adjust to the changing requirements of the job. But how a cop deals with these feelings, and his or her ability to manage anger and resentment, should it arise, distinguishes them from the rest of us; and it is critical to their ability to do the job fairly and safely.
All cops experience fear every day, but the ones who weather difficult situations well tend to be realists—thinkers as well as doers—and are exceedingly resilient, willing to bend and stretch to avoid unnecessary conflict. However, some cops experience too little caution on the job and can be seriously hurt. Others are excessively fearful and have a tendency to overreact and get someone hurt. And there are those cops who demonstrate no fear at all, acting with cold-hearted superiority, and unjustly targeting the people they are sworn to protect.
Cops are trained to recognize signs of trouble and respond appropriately. They are trained to identify and assess a potential threat, prior to the use of force—using only the amount of force necessary to overcome the resistance of a suspect and de-escalate the situation. But, when it comes to dealing with people of color, too frequently this is not the way it unfolds. Police leaders should hold accountable the weak cops who endanger their brethren, and rogue cops who disrespect the meaning of the badge.
The job of a police officer today is significantly more complex, dangerous, demanding and unnerving than ever before. Their courage and commitment is admirable. But they need and deserve better training in dealing with diverse communities of people and operating in hazardous environments in which lethal weapons abound.