Sunday, December 21, 2014

Life Simply Is... Complicated

I have a unique perspective. I don’t mean to suggest I have The unique perspective. Just A unique perspective.

I am a tree-hugging, feminist, activist, former law enforcement officer.

Until now I haven’t spoken up on behalf of law enforcement for two reasons: I believed it was of paramount importance to show solidarity with #blacklivesmatter, and because cops aren’t a marginalized group.

To the first issue, there is institutional racism, and police brutality does exist, as does police profiling and racism. These issues are as old and entrenched as the history of Africans first being stolen from their homes and forced into slavery. Today in this country black young men’s lives are in danger. That is truth.

It is not truth that most police officers are corrupt, power hungry, and racist. It is not truth that all law enforcement is corrupt and therefore anyone who joins does so with ill intent. To make such a sweeping generalization is as bad as any other hateful and vitriolic generalization. Not all police departments are the same; and police officers are individual humans.

I have seen an attitude backlash that nauseates me. One friend posted something heart-warming about Shop with a Cop, where police officers take needy kids to get holiday gifts. But the caption sarcastically insisted that this event hadn’t received any press: “I guess because no one was shot.” The story stood on its own, but the caption was mocking and provoking. Yesterday two police officers were assassinated; I saw posts announcing this but demanding to know why this was getting more press than murders of non-cops. If you hear of someone, anyone, being taken down in cold blood and your response is not horror, you may want to take a step back and reevaluate – because your response is lacking basic humanity and compassion.

This issue has us so divided, we aren’t seeing clearly anymore.

I you think that most police officers join the force so that they can carry out their desires to exterminate racial minorities, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Most police officers are idealists and believe in their duty to protect and serve. Every single American reading this has had an experience, or knows someone who has, of a police officer who has gone above and beyond to help someone in need. These are regular people not unlike you who have answered the call to serve the public.

Are you arguing in your head, thinking of examples of abuse of power? Yes, abuse of power exists: gross, horrific abuse of power. It is sinister and pervasive and we need to fix it now, before any more innocent people die. And that is not the entire story.

Putting on the uniform and the badge, wearing a firearm, is an awesome responsibility. Not awesome like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Awesome like the most sobering responsibility you can possibly imagine. Every day when I went to work with my firearm in my holster, I was wearing the weight of the world on my hip. I knew that today might be the day I’d be called on to make a Life and Death decision in less than a second. I knew that today I might have to take action, and that even if it was the right action, it would forever strip me of my innocence. I had taken an oath to protect the lives of others, knowing that if that required me to take someone else’s life, it would probably destroy my own.

It is easy for the general public to vilify the police. They are the ones with the power. But it is a high-stakes, difficult job. Jerks provoke you. Strangers hate you. Nightmares leave you in a cold sweat. Unless you are a big city cop, if your jurisdiction is a small town or a park, people mock your law enforcement title. But during my years as a park ranger and just after, several park rangers and small-town cops in Washington and Oregon were shot dead in cold blood; one just a dozen miles from me. It felt like open season on law enforcement officers in the Pacific Northwest.

I went through law enforcement academy primarily with young, white, church-going Christian men. It isnt likely we would have become close under any other circumstances. But for 3 ½ months we spent long hours together in academy classes, firearms and defensive tactics trainings. We ate meals together, ran laps and did hundreds of pushups and sit-ups, stayed at the same hotel. During defensive tactics we made forays to the department stores to stock up on extra-large bottles of Tylenol and Advil. When the guys asked why I was one of the only two cadets who didn’t have to share a hotel room, and I explained that the female cadet assigned to be my roommate was uncomfortable rooming with a lesbian, I could almost see them adjusting their moral clocks. Within seconds I felt their warm and accepting gazes return to me. During our law enforcement scenarios they had my back, and during times when I faltered, their unwavering confidence in me kept me going. These are good, honorable people, dedicating to protecting and serving. I have seen their hearts, their true selves, and I would trust them with my life.

We need to set aside our discomfort and our reactions, withhold judgment, and see things for what they are. When police officers are doing good things, we need to see that for what it is. When we see evidence of police corruption, we need to accept that (I admit this was hard for me; I didnt want to accept that it could be true). When we see that our justice system is racist, we need to really face that head on. When a black man trying to surrender is killed by a cop, that is a senseless tragedy. When a police officer is assassinated, that too is a tragedy. Too many wives, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children are grieving loved ones. How can we close our hearts to any of their suffering? How can that ever be right? And how can we start to change, start to heal, if someone’s murder does not compel us to pause and grieve for our collective lost humanity?

When I was in my late 20’s I worked for Planned Parenthood. It was my job to schedule volunteers to be outside clinics when we had or anticipated protestors. We had regular protestor activity, multiple times a week at several clinics, so I was busy. This experience provided a number of teaching points that help temper my judgment to this day.

One clinic in particular was rather volatile, and protestors would gather around clients’ car doors reaching arms into open windows with graphic pictures of dismembered aborted fetuses, screaming about murder and sin and Hell. As a rule the police didn’t intervene. It was easy to believe that they let the protestors get away with misbehavior. We would talk about the obvious bias this police department had, that they were clearly selectively ignoring the law because of their own views on abortion.

During this time I was invited to join a gay and lesbian protest at a conservative politician’s fundraising event. A dozen of us milled around the gated driveway with LGBT signs and as guests drove up, some of my fellow protestors stopped the cars by reaching in through open windows, yelling and waving leaflets in their faces. The police officers acted exactly the way they had at the women’s clinic – they did not intervene. It was an important moment for me, realizing how easy it is to paint a different picture depending on which side you are on.

When some of my compatriots’ obnoxious behavior started escalating, and I was reminded of the more disrespectful clinic protestors, I took my leave. Once again I saw the parallels of behavior, being exhibited from both sides of the political spectrum. It was illuminating.

I’ve been to political rallies, I’ve trained in civil disobedience, and I’ve trained in law enforcement response to civil disobedience.

I have been there with my people, fighting for my cause, when giddy protestors scream over the megaphone that they just saw a police officer arrest someone, hand cuff someone, or pepper spray someone, without provocation; that they saw police officers acting aggressively when protestors were trying to comply. I have been there and I have observed the protestors gross exaggeration and misrepresentation; and this before I ever had the perspective of the law enforcement officer.

It is easy to vilify cops. It is easy to exaggerate their aggression. But to say that most people who become cops do so because they want the authority to carry out their bigoted, vitriolic missions? You don’t know what you’re talking about.

We individuals are complicated and complex. So how can any group of people be otherwise?

#Blacklivesmatter is still my rally cry. Because we have an issue in this country so profound that, unless you’ve lived it, you cannot really grasp. Because black men have died, are dying, tragically; because justice has not been served. Because the time has long since passed that this needs to change. But when any of us, no matter our rally cry, do not pause and mourn the passing of a human being, of someone who died too soon, then perhaps it is time we take a long, hard look in the mirror.


  1. Thanks for this. I read a wonderful article years ago that asserted that police officers are, in fact, disenfranchised, precisely because of the work we ask them to do on our behalf. I wonder - just as we may have lost some humanity by asking others to slaughter the animals we eat *for* us, and so don't have to think about what that actually means - are we allowed to not think about what the job of a police officer entails, and this we have lost compassion and gratitude?

    1. Katrina, that absolutely makes sense to me. Being a law enforcement officer is often a thankless job, and for all those who do good work tirelessly, it is a bitter pill that so many members of the public make sweeping generalizations about their/our lack of morality.