When you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything.
My uncle was Chicago police officer who died in his uniform (of a heart attack, but he was dressed for work nonetheless). My love and admiration for him was complete; he saved lives, he captured killers, and he took me to the comics shop when I was seven years where he told me I could get as many as I wanted. He drove through late ’70’s summers in a white ’67 convertible T-Bird, taking us to drive ins, drive thrus and fireworks shows on the lake. He loved Star Trek and Star Wars. He had astronomy books on his coffee table. He may have been the funniest person I have ever known. I have never heard my father laugh as hard as he did when Uncle Larry was alive.
There are terrible police officers. Plenty of examples can be found. Too many. Yet it is absurd to think that our contemporary free society could continue to exist without police who are sworn public servants. Courts and legislatures are irrelevant without an executive authority which can enforce laws, defend citizens, and carry out the will of the courts. The problem is when officers who systematically assault citizens are protected by superiors who break the law and defy the will of the courts. A police officer swears an oath that gives them limited privileges while demanding a higher risk in terms of both legal responsibility and their lives. A police officer who does their best to serve and protect is a guardian of civilization deserving the highest respect; a police officer who abuses their authority is a criminal. A police force that is trusted by the community it serves is serving well. A police force that finds itself regarding the populace as an enemy is dysfunctional. Criminals need to be removed from their jobs and tried in the courts. Dysfunctional organizations need to be reorganized. All this is easier said than done. Part of the reason it so difficult is that the nature of power and authority is corrupting. After wearing the limited privileges for a short time they stretch out and become comfortably unrestricted; each day lived meeting the risks becomes another justification for exempting oneself from the law. Corruption is the easy and natural path; if left untended, gardens choke with weeds. This is why oversight and professionalism is essential for a healthy police force.
Sadly, it is not jarring for this paragraph to be a pivot to the subject of race in regards to police forces here in the United States of America. I support the #blacklivesmatter movement and condemn conservative media attempts to conflate this movement with violence against police officers. FOX and other outlets have taken to labeling the movement a hate group, which is an absurd and cruel irony when one considers how cozy FOX and other conservatives have been with actual hate groups over the years. Criticizing police tactics and coverups of crimes committed by police officers in the course of their duties is not being ‘anti-police’. Calling out blatant racism and trying to eradicate it from our institutions does not constitute oppression of white people. Recently, African American folks have found themselves harassed or even arrested for making eye contact and laughing too loudly. White people complain about being politely asked if they could refrain from bringing their assault rifles when they buy a taco which under no circumstance constitutes being oppressed; seriously, when white people threaten police officers with weapons there are very different outcomes than what black people receive for failing to extinguish a cigarette. Of course, the immense messiness of the world means that a hashtag can’t possibly contain the entire truth of anything so complex as race in America but that isn’t the point; what is being sought is an agreement from society that ‘yes, black lives do matter’. This is why the response that ‘all lives matter’ is so infuriatingly deaf in its refusal to acknowledge that black folks are not feeling that they are included in that ‘all’.
Regardless of who it is, when someone is telling you that they don’t feel safe telling them that they are wrong because you feel safe is at the top of the list of the most useless things to say in that situation. When someone says that they don’t feel safe you need to listen to them and not waste your breath telling them how you think they should be feeling or cutting them off to explain how much safer you would feel in their circumstances. When someone says that they don’t feel safe accusing them of exaggeration or faulting them for speaking up means that not only are you not helping but that you are part of the problem.
Uncle Larry taught me that ‘when you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything’. When I was 21 I had dropped out of college, gotten married and was working in a record store. The police were recruiting and I applied to the academy. The process was long with lots of hurdles set up to discourage and weed out people who really weren’t committed. Every few weeks I would get a certified letter on a Friday telling me that on Sunday morning I would have to report at such and such as school or office building in a random neighborhood for testing, which could be physical, personality, medical, or an interview. I took several kinds of each test; most memorably was the day I stood naked holding my clothes and a clipboard in a line with hundreds of other men in the same state as me. We were in a grammar school gym with dividers that snaked through the room past different exam stations where our vitals were being measured and recorded on the clipboard. As I neared one corner I kept hearing these little whoops followed by a snap. Immediately around the corner was a row of old men in lab coats seated on low stools. Each of them had a large box of rubber gloves, a large tub of lubricant, and a large garbage can next to them. The recruits would hand their clipboard to the old man, turn around and bend over whereupon the old man would dip his finger into the jar of what appeared to be petroleum jelly and then dip his finger into the anus of the recruit which accounted for the yelping noise I was hearing. Then the old men would snap off their glove into the trash, make a check mark on the clipboard and hand it back to the recruit who would try to walk away with dignity. It wasn’t so much a rectal exam as a tribal rite of passage via shared humiliation and violation by the elder shamans; it was no mistake that this one of the last steps of the process. I endured and about a month later I received the certified letter informing me I was accepted and instructing me to get the letter notarized and report to the academy in six weeks. CNN was on in the background and while I stood there with the letter in my hand the footage of the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD began playing; it was the first time I ever saw it and it literally changed my life. I did not know what to do, and so I set the letter aside. Then I knew what to do and I never looked back.