Cops & Fear

policeWhat does it mean to be afraid?

You’ve probably heard about the recent murder verdict in Minnesota. If not, here are the facts: a cop was convicted of second degree murder in the shooting of a civilian. It is the first time a police officer has ever been convicted of murder in Minnesota. Of the 98 officers in the US arrested for on-duty fatal shootings in the last 15 years, only 4 have been convicted of murder. And here is the context (you saw it coming): the cop convicted of killing Justine Ruszczyk, a White woman, in Minneapolis, was Mohammed Noor, a Muslim, Somali, Black cop.

Both Noor and Yanez, the cop who killed Philando Castile in 2016, said they feared for their lives and shot to defend themselves. I don’t doubt that for a second. Have you heard the video of Yanez? He’s clearly terrified. I have no particular reason to think either of these men had any desire to kill anyone, ever. But why is fear a justifiable excuse for shooting a civilian while on duty? And why only sometimes? Prosecutors in fact mocked Noor’s fear on the stand, asking, “The whole blonde hair, pink T-shirt and all is a threat to you?” Kind of sickening, right? Implying that a black man in a do-rag would have been a real, or at least a reasonable threat.

I’m not saying cops shouldn’t be afraid. They should be human. But they should also be held to a higher standard. Anyone licensed to carry and discharge a deadly weapon on the job should be held to an incredibly high standard. Every attempt should be made to draw out and minimize all implicit biases. Extensive mindfulness training should be mandatory, to keep them from reacting on base, baseless instinct. Instinct itself should stop being treated like some kind of gift and recognized for what it is: a reaction based on a lifetime of accumulated experiences, traumas, observations, and media input, supplemented with evolutionary impulses and only occasionally informed by the reality of the given situation. Is it okay to be afraid of a black man shooting a gun at you? What about a black man holding a gun? A black man? A black child? A black child running away from you? When does it stop being acceptable to justify violence with fear? Why is violence accepted as a reaction to fear? I could be scared walking down a dark street at night in what I perceive to be a bad neighborhood, but that doesn’t give me the right to kill anyone who approaches me. A black man could be scared when he’s pulled over by a police officer because he sees people like him being killed on the news with horrifying regularity, but that doesn’t give him the right to kill the officer when he approaches his window. It doesn’t even give him the right to run away from him.

I don’t pretend not to understand the elevated circumstances in which cops work, the unimaginable stress in dangerous areas, and the threats they often do encounter, but this fear defense is so fucking grey it seems to have no precise meaning at all. If they’re that afraid, they shouldn’t be cops. Or they should be treated for that condition before they’re on the street. If their training itself is telling them to be that afraid, the training is fucked. Maybe my barely thought out alternative is ridiculous, but it’s not unprecedented. Mindful police training is quietly happening around the country. It has the potential to help the officers live better lives and improve the outcome in all of their interactions.

I’m going to call toxic masculinity out in this one. What else could be the source of the belief that compassion and reason and equanimity and thoughtfulness are bad qualities in a person for whom a deadly weapon is an office supply? Or is it capitalism? The American Way? So many destructive ways of thinking.

I like the idea that there are only two emotions: love and fear. I don’t know if that’s accurate, but it makes sense that the more you love, the less you fear. If law enforcement can stop seeing love and compassion as enemies of the job, there might be less enemies of the job, and they might be able to actually, effectively, serve and protect all the people in their community.

3 thoughts on “Cops & Fear

  1. I’m so troubled that the first time a cop is convicted here, it’s a black man who killed a white woman. I’m not saying he shouldn’t have been convicted. It’s just that we’ve seen other cases that were at least as damning. And I totally agree with you about the fear element. Seeing Yanez’ panic in the Philando Castille killing was so striking and illustrative of a huge problem. I love the mindful policing link you shared and agree with you about toxic masculinity in law enforcement. Cops are often on scenes when someone needs comfort or calming more than they have ever needed it before, and the cops should know how to help these people rather than target them. I suppose the TL:DR version of this long reply should be “I agree with every word you say here.”

    Liked by 1 person

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