Monday, December 22, 2014

The Blues: We Need to Make Our Cops Better

The recent controversy over police use of force brings my reporting days to mind. The first police standoff I covered took place in Gardiner, Maine. It was a chilly, Clinton-era day, and the owner of the house police were surrounding had drunk too much and barricaded himself inside with a gun. He said he would kill himself or shoot anyone who came in, whichever made more sense at the moment. I stood behind the line with other media types and concerned citizens and sipped the bad coffee the Red Cross brings in for such events.

The standoff lasted about four hours. It ended when the officer-in-charge told us to leave. The police made sure we were heading out, then put away their weapons, climbed into their cruisers, and drove away without lights and sirens. They had decided to let the man sleep off his drunk and come back to check on him in the morning. The next day, the man was arrested without a shot fired.
Contrast that with another incident I covered, about five years later, in Cambridge, Mass. Another standoff, a man barricaded in his house with a hatchet. The man was 59, mentally ill, off his meds, and a native Portuguese speaker. The police fired tear gas through his windows, chased him into his basement, and, when he came at them with his hatchet, shot him to death. None of the responding officers spoke Portuguese. None of them had training in dealing with the mentally ill. All of them were armed to the teeth.
I worked with the police a lot back in my reporting days, and I got to know some of the guys pretty well. The majority are good people. Some join the force out of idealism -- they truly want to be protectors, others because they didn’t leave themselves a lot of options.
Every day, they stare the worst humanity has to offer in the face, and it stares right back at them. People lie to their faces on a regular basis, even the people who call them for help. The job changes them. It makes them paranoid, suspicious, and unforgiving. Some of them started out that way, and being a cop makes it worse.
America doesn’t help much with that. We do not give the job the respect it’s due, nor do we recognize the value of the role police play in our communities.  We don’t pay the police well, we don’t train them properly, but we expect them to be beyond reproach. Our expectations are far greater than the resources we apply, so when the system fails, it is our fault.
We created the system that allowed Eric Garner to be choked to death scot-free and a 12-year-old boy named Tamir Rice to be gunned down with a toy in his hand. Michael Brown’s blood is on our hands. We helped to give focus to the sickness that inspired Ismaaiyl Brinsley to assassinate two police officers in New York.
Our police need to be thoroughly educated -- the equivalent of a master’s degree in psychology, criminology, forensics, law, and languages -- before we put a gun on their belts and send them into the streets in our names. Furthermore, we need to pay police officers commensurate with these higher expectations and qualifications. Training should continue throughout an officer’s career, and he or she should be required to recertify regularly. Therapy should be mandatory and frequent. More time and research should be done to make sure cops are safe, with less attention paid to how well armed they are. When your most-emphasized tool is a gun, every problem starts to look like a target.

My thanks to Caitlyn B. for editing this post.

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