“The sword comes into the world, because of justice delayed and justice denied” (Pirkei Avot 5:8)
“Man bites dog,” they say, will make the newspapers; “dog bites man” will not.
And if “man bites dog” appears frequently in the newspapers it becomes another “dog bites man.”
The broad and condemning generalizations about police officers of late do not add truth and clarity to the volatile situation facing our nation. They worsen the situation and further pollute the air of rational discourse.
Police and Chicago
Many of us in Chicago already look at police officers through mud-tinted glasses: from the beatings in Grant Park in ’68 to Jon Burge and his reprehensible crew – and beyond – we know that some police officers abuse the power we vest in them and use it to harm innocent people they are commissioned to protect. What should be “man bites dog” has become our “dog bites man.” Sadly. Inexcusably. Many of us expect police officers to cut corners and be racist and abuse their power and hide one another’s sins.
But we also know that there are many, many fine officers who do “serve and protect.” They are honest and decent people who see their work not as a job but as a calling, for whom the good of the community is worth risking hatred, bodily injury and death. Who are willing to risk not coming home to a spouse or children or friends, when no one else will.
The recent events in Englewood and Michigan Ave. provided yet another opportunity for people to reach quick conclusions about the police action in Englewood. We don’t – and can’t – know the motivations of the people who participated in the crimes on Michigan Ave. But they drew a quick conclusion that the police were at fault. My understanding, at the time of this writing, is that the man shot by police was holding a gun in a park filled with children. Likewise, there are those quickly defending the police – again, without knowing the truth in this particular situation.
Are All Police Guilty?
Change has been dangerously slow and incomplete in the training and accountability of officers, particularly in Chicago where the force has failed to fulfill court injunctions and more.
Racism is probably endemic to police forces; it’s endemic everywhere else, so why not there? It is clear and true that people of color, in most places, have little if any reason to trust the police. Yes: there are racist systems and habits in operation within police forces that must be changed. Just as there are in the larger society.
But it is not honest, and it is not fruitful to condemn all officers. It is not truthful to say that no police officer treats people of color with respect. It is not proper to assume that, in the case of an officer-involved shooting with a person of color that the officer acted wrongly and with malice. And it is not helpful to demand, much less expect, the dismantling of police forces around the country.
The term “defunding,” even though it’s been used to describe other attempts at deep change in a problematic system, is a moniker that is counterproductive, at best. For the implication, reflective of the speaker’s meaning or not, is that all funding should be taken away from police forces.
I, for one, do not believe that such a utopic idea as eliminating police forces entirely is possible, and therefore discussing it is counterproductive.
What Is Needed?
Rather, as some understand, we need to direct increased funding to the sources of the problems that bring police to a neighborhood and that have raised the level of danger to a ridiculous level. And we need to reidentify those situations into which the police will be called for which they have no training or aptitude, situations better handled by mental health professionals, for example. And we need to reduce the high level of suspicion between people of color and police officers – in both directions. And we need to improve the training and disciplining of officers. And on and on. The list, unfortunately, is not short. And then we will be able to reduce the amount of funding needed by the police force to operate at its best.
White, elite Chicago ignores this at its own peril, as is being made more and more clear by events across the country.
Not all police are evil, just as not all African Americans are evil. Generalizations only muddy the waters. Let’s reject that tactic as it emanates from both far right and far left and move forward with a rational assessment of the situation and its problems – as well as each particular situation – so that we might create rational solutions to those problems, reach justice in each individual case, and move towards repair of the horrendous division that is in our midst.