Democracies need cops, period.
And not just because some people are criminals. But because monsters really do exist. I’ve seen what they do, first-hand. I’ve been the one who delivered the news to their victims’ families, in the middle of the night.. And I definitely want cops in my communities. Good cops.
Most cops I’ve known are good people, just trying to do a difficult, strenuous, and sometimes-harrowing job.
This isn’t a truism. In future blog posts, I’m going to show you numbers that support this, from right here in Deschutes County.
Sometimes cops really do have to use force (again: especially in America).
And sometimes they even have to take lives. Most of them hope like hell that they never have to do it.
When the shit hits the fan, things really can go from “OK” to “worst-possible” in the blink of an eye.
Cops don’t normally show up unless something isn’t hunky-dory. So, maybe the best they can hope for is that things are “OK.” We ask cops to make instantaneous decisions under very difficult circumstances. In public. Every day and in the dark of night too. And we judge them for it. Often, long before all the facts are even known. They don’t get it right all the time. (I’ve been on the receiving end a few times, and for the most part, I’ve never held it against them.) That’s a tough job. I ain’t up to it.
The stresses of the job can take heavy tolls.
Heavy tolls on cops’ physical and psychological health, as well as their relationships, marriages, and families. People who choose this career don’t choose an easy path. And it doesn’t necessarily offer a lot of alternative paths to exit on.
I think about these kinds of things a lot when I think about cops.
None of these things are apologies or excuses for police misconduct, brutality, or racism. They’re the kinds of acknowledgements that critical thinkers have to keep in mind when we think about cops and problems in law enforcement.
As critical thinkers, stereotypes of cops (good or bad stereotypes) interfere with thinking objectively about problems in law enforcement. That’s why I keep making the distinction between cops and cop culture. Cops are individual people. Cop culture isn’t. It’s the parts of the social system that govern cop behavior.
Cop culture is a social science abstraction, a conglomerate, of real things. It’s the real laws, regulations, policies, and informal rules that cops have to live with while they do their jobs. It’s the criminal justice institutions like jails, prisons, courts, unions, and guild associations that they work with. It’s the other professions and guilds, like prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, parole officers, advocacy groups, church congregations, and first responders. It’s the citizens, the suspects, the criminals, the victims, and the witnesses — and all their families and neighbors. And it’s other cops that a cop works with: the partners, union reps, commanders and supervisors, fellow church goers and bar mates.
So cop culture is real. But cop culture doesn’t put its life on the line for us like cops do.
As a citizen, I’m damned angry at the history and current state of law enforcement in this country. But not at the average cop. I’m angry at cop culture. It’s at the root of what’s wrong with American law enforcement and the American criminal justice system.
As a citizen, I have zero tolerance for police brutality and racism. I react with strong emotion, every time it happens again and most days in between. And every time it happens again, I’m left with less and less respect for law enforcement. I struggle just to be polite about it.
But I’m also an anthropologist. And that means I also try to understand the world through my education, my training, my experiences and critical thinking.
So to me, few things about cop culture are as simple as the stereotypes would have us believe. Including the stereotypes held by cops and critics alike. Including my own stereotypes.
One thing I am clear on: like most anthropologists I know, I have a strong ethic of defending underdog communities and oppressed peoples — as well as those whose lives and culture I’ve had the privilege to try to learn from.
In law enforcement, that includes both victims and cops.