Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Police Officers' Fears and Actions

Growing up, we saw police officers as symbols of comfort and safety. Near our school, we had a uniformed officer directing the traffic to insure we children got across the main street safely. We looked up to him, literally and figuratively, and he smiled and shooed us along as we shouted our greeting to the regular officer. We viewed him as an extension of our family, like a caring friend who protected us. Sure, I saw one of our friends in blue accept his weekly "take" money from a Mafia boss, but that didn't dull my admiration for our street-crossing guy.

Recent events, probably over the past few decades, have seen a negative change in how some officers are perceived and it has led to an erosion of trust within some communities. Saying this is truly unfortunate sounds like I'm tossing it off as that community's problem and not one that should be concerning all of us. So, I'm not doing that.

It is everyone's challenge to change our feelings about our police, the way our police are trained, who gets to join the police force, but most of all, we need to change how we believe everyone should be treated.  Too often, it would seem, the police are used as pawns to maintain a community's intolerance of other cultures, or to deny civil liberties and rights and then the police find themselves serving not the people, but the powers that be. Managerial/administrative jobs are on the block and the protection of those jobs becomes the be-all and end-all. Watch "Orange Is the New Black" and you'll gain a new appreciation perhaps of this inherent corrupting force. Police officers end up being the pawns in this political chess game that is playing out all across this great nation.

We are a multi-cultural nation and we need only look back at how police actions or riots (think the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968), look at the NYC police riots or how police have been used by businesses to contain employee actions and help the hate mongers (think Jim Clark). Through it all, the police did their duty, but sometimes individuals within the ranks of the police took out their own frustrations and prejudices. This happens everywhere and it is the reason that potential candidates for this service are screened by professionals prior to their admittance. But people do slip through and the work, too, can cause an upwelling of brutish behavior.

Police officers are like you and me and they have the same fears and insecurities but they do carry guns and this brings something deadly into the equation.  I don't speak from an academic point of view, but of one where I've had personal experience with police officers. I've seen one go from being a mild-mannered young man, former military sergeant, into a cold, brutish guy who reveled in his power. Dragging a man up a flight of metal stairs with his head hitting every one was one of his wonderful accomplishments. Assigning rookies to hot beds of criminality doesn't sensitize them to the difficulties of the residents but skews them to the seamier side of these units. It is a command decision that is seriously flawed.

How much training do police officers receive, who provides it and when do they receive it are all good questions that require answers. I've been in a few training sessions on former psychiatric patients living in the community. One thing stood out in every session and that was both the lack of knowledge about mental health and of persons who had a condition. Myths abound and fear is just beneath the surface. I hope things have changed now.

Yes, we need to support our police but we also need to support them in training, freedom from political influence and those who would use them for their own power aspirations.


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