I grew up in a cop family, and the cops in my family are my personal heroes. My late step-father, Jim, and my step-brother, Scott, have been, to me, the living embodiment of what a cop should be.
That ideal is the cop who wears the badge to defend the defenseless, protect us from oppression, guard our rights, and stand as a defender and ally to every gender, race, and creed alike. That’s the ideal I grew up admiring all my life. It’s about selflessness — putting everyone else first, no matter what.
Then George Floyd happened.
It’s taken me some months to figure out how the hell to write about this, because I had to work through my own emotions and biases first. I’ve also had to work through the filter of my own white privilege. (And look, I get it — “white privilege” is a loaded term. All I’m saying is I definitely have it. In spades. If nothing else, I can speak confidently for myself.)
The Cop vs The Police
After spending time to work through it, here’s where I landed: There are people and there is system. We cannot confuse the two. People exist within a system, but the system is nonetheless a thing to itself.
There are individual cops — at minimum, the two I grew up with, at least — who are not racist and who in fact oppose racism. (I was raised to fiercely hate racism, from the KKK to the skinhead to the local yocal who called Blacks “them people”.)
There are simultaneously individual cops who abso-freaking-lutely are as racist as the day is long as suffer no consequences. If you haven’t been living under a rock, you know this clear as day. No further explanation needed.
I have no idea what the proportion of each in the nationwide police population is. I don’t know if most are racist or if most are anti-racist or if most are somewhere in between. No clue. What I do know beyond any shadow of doubt is that the percentage of the police population that is racist is far too many.
Then there is the system itself. Regardless of individual stories, the system is where the root problem resides. American policing began with chasing down escaped slaves (I was this-year-years-old when I learned this myself). That’s hardly shocking. The South’s economy was wholly dependent on slavery, so of course the first police officers were hunting down slaves. It’s an ugly history, but a true one nonetheless.
I wish we could chalk that up to our screwed up historical origins and move on, but we don’t have that luxury. In the eras that followed, police more often than not stepped aside during post-Reconstruction lynchings, stood aside during Jim Crow, and stood in the way of 60’s era civil rights activists.
It should thus be no surprise that those roots are still peaking out of the ground again today. There’s no escaping that the cop who killed George Floyd murdered him. There was no “oops” — anybody with two working eyes and the slightest understanding of police procedure understands this.
It should likewise be no surprise that there’s a sudden explosion of various police departments outright waging war against peaceful Black protestors.
The system — shaped by laws, traditions, and generations of culture — is the root cause behind this. The system is bigger than any one cop. (The history of the system is a huge topic to itself. I’m touching on it then moving on, but I encourage diving more fully into this topic to better understand it.)
Good Apple, Bad Apple
As pro-cop as I’ve always been, the “it’s just a few bad apples” argument simply doesn’t hold water. Even after accounting for the reality that American media is bent toward sensationalizing violent events beyond actual reality, the number of incidents of entire departments turning against Black bodies is….mind-blowingly large.
This is also easily a topic to itself, so instead of sourcing every article over the last few months, I’m going to in good faith assume we’re on the same page by now. Instead, my point is that it doesn’t matter how many good apples vs. bad apples there are. Nor does it matter how good apples should or should not be fighting the bad apples from inside the basket. The problem is the basket. Individual apples do not hold the answer.
My cops were/are good apples. That I’ll argue to the grave. But it’s beside the point. The system is broken. When the system is broken, there’s only so much any one cop can do about it.
The Police Kill Cops
Herein lies my thesis. Remember, by “the police”, I mean the system of American policing, and by “cops”, I mean each individual police officer (particularly the “good apples”).
Let’s pretend, for a moment, that cops killing people of color wasn’t at all an issue. Slavery never happened and racism isn’t an American problem. Even operating on those assumptions, the fact remains that in today’s policing system, cops are essentially treated as nothing more than expendable canon fodder.
First, cops are underpaid. I absolutely understand they are overpaid relative to other professions (such as teachers), but the bigger problem there is that most everyone is underpaid to begin with (another topic for another day). Outside of that context, cops are underpaid if you assume that any job that requires voluntarily risking one’s own life should merit a pretty significant paycheck. (I always roll my eyes when I see a TV detective go home to his large, fancy, high-rise apartment.)
Cops are (often) under-trained. Again, assuming our make-believe scenario where no racism is at play, the way-too-many shootings we’ve seen reported can easily — very easily — be chocked up to poor trigger discipline if nothing else. (Soldiers don’t kill people in fear of their own lives near so easily.)
Police culture has many toxic dimensions to it, which have grown over time. First and foremost is the “us vs. them” mentality, which divides the entire population into “police” and “civilians” (i.e. everyone else), hence “the thin blue line” between them. (The irony is that American police are, by definition, civilians themselves.)
That aspect of the culture comes from a real place, mind you, and it’s important that we’re able to see this through empathetic eyes. Just as an EMT spends their days seeing exponentially more injured and mauled people than everyone else, cops spend their days seeing more evil in people than everyone else. You may live your entire life without ever (knowingly) encountering a rapist or murderer, whereas the police officer encounters one after another constantly (at least in large-population, metropolitan environments). The EMT and cop both experience different realities than the rest of us do, and they do so voluntarily so that we don’t have to.
That experienced reality is a poisonous one, nonetheless, simply because we humans, as social animals, are not built to weather such a harsh reality. It scars the soul.
This feeds into my largest point of concern: the suicide rate among cops is out the roof year after year.
Cops are killing themselves. If you remember that cops are human beings like the rest of us, then this informs you that something is deeply, deeply wrong on a purely human level. It means the system is failing and has failed. There is no greater evidence of systematic failure than this. Whatever your personal views on suicide, it’s the outcome of a mental health ailment that no human being undertakes lightly.
Time to be Creative
The American culture I grew up in taught me to value how innovative and revolutionary American thought is, and my faith informs me that our human creativity is part of that which makes us in the image of God. We are only limited in our creativity when we artificially limit ourselves with our own cynicism.
With this in mind, I’m all about defunding the police. But first, clarification, because, as the rest of the world seems to always be aware, we suck at language.
Defunding the police does not mean simply destroying our defenses and harkening in the chaos of pure unrestrained anarchy. It means re-imagining police or perhaps replacing the policing system with a new system not born of slave-chasing. If anything, the flaw in the phrase is that it ends in a period, when in actuality it’s “Defund the police, then do ________”. The idea is to build a better system to protect ourselves.
If our current system is not only killing Blacks, but also killing cops, then what leg does that system even have left to stand on?
There’s a lot of exciting new ideas in this movement, but one of my favorites is the idea of every cop (or whatever we call our defenders in the new system) being accompanied by a mental health professional. That alone means the following:
- Better funding: health professional aren’t cheap.
- Better cop experience: the cop is no longer forced to pretend they’re a health professional, then go home to deal with their own inevitable PTSD fallout afterward.
- Cops are exponentially less likely to kill the mentally ill in knee-jerk fear response: not only is that good for the not-killed, it’s good for the cop, who won’t have to carry that death with them the rest of their lives.
- A new not-born-of-Civil-War-racism system won’t breed racist cops and won’t kill Black lives.
- A community-driven, community-supported system tears down the “us vs. them” wall. That’s not just good for the community; it’s good for the cop. “Us vs. them” thinking is bad for the soul.
The policing system that has produced a majority of cops who suffer profound anxiety, depression, PTSD, and a myriad of other ailments is a system that has failed, just as is the same system that continuously oppresses and murders Black lives. No one is winning in the current system. Not the Black life. Not the cop life. No one. In the current system, no lives matter. Only the system matters (and only the lives that run and profit off the system matter).
_________ Lives Matter
All lives matter.
All lives don’t matter as long as Black lives don’t matter.
Right now, our society has demonstrated that Black lives don’t matter, thus all lives don’t matter.
All lives don’t matter until Black lives matter.
Black lives must matter.
“Blue” lives matter, except that phrase is a misnomer. You’re born Black; you aren’t born blue. Blue is not a race, so it’s inauthentic and in bad faith to hijack the phrase in such a way. Cops’ lives do matter — my cops’ lives sure as hell matter to me — but that’s not the right way to articulate it. Think bigger.
Defunding or re-imagining/reinventing/replacing the system of policing will save Black lives….and cop lives….and, ultimately, all our lives, if not our souls.