We hear a lot about 2016 having been a bad year for black people, particularly youngsters. And it was. Shame on us because 2016 wasn’t all that different from 2015, or 14, or 13. And 2017 has started off with a bang and more blood.
2016 was also a bad year for cops. Very bad. More cops were killed in the line of duty in 2016 than ever before (68) and that’s just the dead ones. Many more were maimed and otherwise seriously injured. Without taking anything away from the plight of black America, let’s look at those in blue whose life’s blood was spilled in the line of duty.
Many decades ago, law enforcement was used by immigrants as an entry point and power point into American society. The stereotypical “Irish Cop” speaks to the time when Irish families gave many a son, and later a few daughters, to the badge. Then we came to the era of the “Italian Cop.” In cities where the population holds them we have seen the entry of the Chinese and Vietnamese into law enforcement and in other places, like Miami and Los Angeles large and growing numbers of Latino officers.
There are roughly 77,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. They employ approximately 900,000 sworn officers and well over a million people total. It could be said that there are too many jurisdictions and not nearly enough cops.
It should be noted that even when law enforcement was a “white” job that many African Americans pushed the system, took menial, dangerous jobs paired only with other African Americans, and sent only to African American neighborhoods. but they stuck it out until the doors opened up. There isn’t a corner of the country where there are not black chiefs of police and black sheriffs.
Represented by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, with its 59 chapters, black officers represent about 16% of the total number of cops on the street. As with most of the larger majorities they represent a smaller percentage in law enforcement than their population in the nation. Most all non-white officers are found in areas where there populations are largest, so rule of thumb would tell us that the fewer non-whites in a jurisdiction the fewer the non-white cops are to be found in that jurisdiction. That has major implications for the nation because diversity and cultural exchange don’t take place. What tends to take place is the perpetuation of stereotypes.
Today, interviews indicate that young men and women become cops for one over-riding reason: they want to make a positive difference in their communities. The statistics also tell that, like a career in the military, the over-whelming number of cops do “20 and out” without much more than “getting their hair mussed” a few times. The overwhelming number of cops retire having only discharged their weapons on the firing range.
I’ve had the honor to have done almost 40 years of service with law enforcement as both a civilian volunteer and civilian employee in several different states in several different regions of the nation. I have been an adjunct trainer specializing in diversity, and I’ve been in some very hairy situations when out with cops taking calls. So I can tell you this, it is true that cops are different. It is true that cops hang with cops. Why do cops hang out with cops. Because cops are different. Only monstly only cops understand that. Why are they different? Let me count the ways, or at least a few.
First, they are trained to be different. The police academy is a para-military training institution. Like those who go through boot camp together, many cops form life-long bonds with their academy mates.
One of the hardest parts of becoming a good cop is unlearning something that is deeply wired into our human hard drives, to reverse the instinct for flight rather than fight. People, smart ones anyway, turn tail in the face of danger, not a car crash or a fire but gun shots, explosions, hit and runs where people are laid out on the pavement having flown through windshields–that kind of stuff. And that’s the kind of stuff cops are trained to run towards. And that run towards danger has to include remembering one’s training. The unfortunately 21 year old in Alabama didn’t. He was in a foot chase with a robber and he forgot to stop as he rounded the corner of a building. He ran into a bullet in the brain.
Cops are trained to ask questions, either to themselves in their minds or to individuals, not answer them. Thus unless in the company of other cops, many cops make pretty bad conversationalists, not because they can’t make conversation, but because they are trained not to. Cops can be very funny but the humor is dark; it isn’t for everyone.
Cops have to deal with two things that very few others, except those in the military, have to deal with. One, particularly for cops, is dealing every day with the worst society has to offer. Sometimes it’s blood and guts crimes. Sometimes, it is white collar criminals who destroy peoples’ lives by fleecing every last cent from them. Sometimes it is the youngster who like a kid on the merry go round keeps going round and round in the justice system. He or she never seems to grab the brass ring that would get them off and going in a different direction. To internalize the reality that their job is only to enforce the law that its up to the lawyers, judges, and juries to do the rest is not easy when one keeps arresting the same people over and over again. It is disheartening. It breeds cynicism.
The cynicism, which seems to crest about year seven, is paired with an administration that can be rife with politics, cronyism, and backstabbing. Unless well guided by a mentor, “rabbi” is the term used for reasons I have no idea, many an idealistic young cop becomes a more hardened personality as he or she realizes how difficult it is to make and implement career decisions. Nor do stripes or a bar on the shoulder make things better, they only make for new, different issues. Each rank has its challenges and those challenges tend to re-enforce the ease with which an officer can become one who is counting the days. And too, no one gets rich being a cop, not legally anyway.
Finally there is this. Except for a combat soldier and a fire-fighter, cops are the only people who when they say goodbye to their family to go on shift face the real possibility of it being the final goodbye. Books have been written about what that, and the above, does to the officer and the officers’ family.
So know this, that law enforcement officers have well above average problems with drugs, alcohol, suicide, marital misadventures, and divorce. And they tend not to live into old age and retirement. “Lifers” have been known to have a very short shelf life after retirement because of what all the stress over 20 or 30 years has done to their bodies and minds, things mostly that they’ve never dealt with. It’s just been festering and eating them up year after year.
There are bad cops, some very bad ones. There are however hundreds of thousands of good men and women who every day go out and face the possibility of having to take a life or seriously injure someone and make the decision on instinct, training, and make it in a split second. Nor is there much of a break. The police department is never closed. Never. Not one day in 365.
Do I make it sound hard? Well it is.
It is a job very few can do, but many more are needed to do.
It is a job that needs to be understood and respected.
And in the face of that job every citizen should take heed of the advice from Sheriff Ric Bradshaw of Palm Beach County. “When a cop tells you to do something, do it. The details, rights and wrongs, can be worked out later. For the safety of the individual and the officer just do what you are told.”
Bill Gralnick’s book, “Mirth, Wind, and Ire,” currently #4 on Smashwords’ best seller list” can be found at: http://smashwords.com/book/view/6925 or by going to smashwords.com and entering “Mirth, Wind, and Ire” in the search bar, clicking, and then clicking again on the book cover.