Police officers are extremely powerful and important government officials. The character and quality of our democratic society depends mightily on the skill and discretion of those professionals sworn to “serve and protect.” Despite the undeniable import of law enforcement, and despite the outpouring of sympathy and professed respect Americans lavish on police officers in the wake of tragedies like the recent murders of police officers, American police officers remain under-paid, under-trained, and under-appreciated by their fellow citizens. They are extremely visible on our streets and highways. They are the subjects of more movies and TV shows than any other profession by far. They are our friends, relatives, and neighbors, and yet we continue to expect these men and women to perform one of the most difficult and essential functions in a free society with inadequate compensation and training, and without the respect we afford to other professionals among us. Make no mistake, defensively rallying around the police after a tragedy is a very poor substitute for the genuine respect owed to professionals.
That most of us are at least subconsciously aware of our collective failings in this regard may help explain why we are so uncomfortable when called on to judge the performance of police officers. Unfortunately, because their role is so crucial to the maintenance of a free society, we cannot allow our collective guilt to prevent us from judging police conduct objectively and critically. Police officers are professionals and professionals (by definition) must abide by rigorous codes of conduct. Professionals must live up to standards that would be unfairly imposed on non-professionals, which is to say, on people not properly educated, selected, trained, compensated, and recognized as legitimate authorities. When we equate the conduct of professional police officers to that of private citizens (protesters or criminals perhaps), we are seriously insulting police officers and subtlety condoning unprofessional police conduct. We are essentially saying that those who mistreat police officers deserve police mistreatment. Can you imagine saying this about other professionals? A lawyer who doesn’t give her best in the defense of the guilty has violated her professional code of conduct. A doctor who fails to assist a wounded murderer has equally failed to live up to his oath. We might understand how an unethical lawyer or doctor felt in such circumstances, but we realize the potential perils of excusing their offenses.
What is the cost of our failure to make policing a genuine profession, complete with the rights and responsibilities of a profession? Ultimately, the cost may be catastrophic. The professionalism required of those responsible for enforcing the “rule of law” is considerable. Today in America, communities of color are systematically discriminated against by police. The objective evidence for this is overwhelming as is the proper locus of blame. Citizens are responsible for systemic police failures. Our unwillingness to admit this, and more importantly, to pay the considerable cost of remedying it, perpetuates the problem. Because the majority of Americans do not face routine mistreatment at the hands of police officers, and because many of the few who do are easily mischaracterized as at least partially responsible for their own mistreatment, there is little political will to seriously address this problem. Indeed, the most influential political will on this issue is explicitly focused on preventing objective assessment of police conduct. Sadly, too many politicians prefer exploiting racial resentments to giving sworn police officers the resources, remuneration, and professional respect they deserve.
The majority of Americans only become aware of insufficient police professionalism when particularly egregious cases of alleged misconduct come to light. Insidiously, because these are “particular” cases, Americans judge them particularly, which is to say, as individual cases in which individual actors (police officers and victims of alleged police misconduct) should be judged as individuals. Efforts to highlight the fact that individual cases are symptoms of a larger cultural or systematic problem are too easily dismissed as irrelevant to the immediate case at hand. Ironically, this rhetorical sleight of hand is made easier by our legal tradition of due process and our cultural affinity for individual responsibility. Charging our policing institutions, or our “culture of policing,” with systematic failings isn’t the same as blaming all or any individual police officer for these systemic failings. It is NOT an attack on all police officers. Nonetheless, some police officers and some police leaders (egged on by rightwing pols) routinely react to such charges as if all police officers were being indicted, or as if admission of bad policing would unnecessarily complicate the jobs of good police officers.
The really hard part here is that this knee-jerk reaction by some police is not entirely without merit. In order to have proper authority to use force, police do require citizens to recognize that authority. Anything that mitigates citizens’ confidence in a police officer’s legitimate authority will, no doubt, increase the level of difficulty required to be an effective law enforcement officer. The thing is, there simply is no way to avoid the fact that it IS increasingly difficult to be an effective law enforcement officer in America today. Police officers in 2014 must deal with infinitely more complex situations, social problems, and even criminal capabilities than they did only a generation ago. Has police funding, recruiting, training, and compensation kept up with this increasing level of difficulty? Were police ever properly recruited, trained, and paid for the practice of their profession?
Unfortunately, some police officers, their leaders, and pandering pols react to allegations of police misconduct, or violence against police officers, defensively and aggressively, which only make the problem worse. The ease with which unprofessional police conduct and reactions to alleged misconduct become headline news is a problem. The police officers who maintain their bearing and refuse to allow pride, fear, or politics to color their conduct on the job or their reactions to high profile instances of police misconduct (or violence against police) do not make the evening news or go viral on the internet. Instead, the highly UN-professional police reactions dominate the news and serve to fuel racist demagoguery and garden variety racism among ordinary citizens unable to recognize and/or unwilling to acknowledge their own complicity in the maintenance of a system of policing that fails to treat officers like real professionals. We never see doctors or lawyers responding to high profile condemnation of some of their peers, or of the health or legal systems, the way some police officers (and politicians pandering to those emotionally connected to police officers) respond to criticism of police conduct. This is because doctors and lawyers are properly trained, properly compensated, and properly respected professionals practicing professions that American communities do recognize as such.
While it’s easy to marvel at the number of police officers that, despite inadequate training, compensation, societal respect and recognition, conduct themselves professionally and well, we cannot continue to pretend that the law enforcement profession in America is exempt from the increasing complexity, and therefore difficulty, of most professions. Because every professional law enforcement officer is also a public servant, a government official, we also cannot continue to ignore the fact that as communities of citizens, voters, and taxpayers we are ultimate responsibility for the conduct and professionalism of our police forces, and we will have to make considerably greater financial sacrifices in order to prevent our police and fellow citizens from indignities ranging from inconvenience to death. Until police officers are recruited, trained, and compensated in ways commensurate with the level of difficulty and importance of the duties they perform, we will continue to endanger both the men and women who walk the beat, and the citizens with whom they interact on the job.