Monday, December 22, 2014

Why the controversy over police shootings is so ugly.

Joseph Wambaugh, a best-selling novelist and former LAPD officer, said that policing isn't a physically dangerous job if you look at the statistics. Being a cab driver, a construction worker, a farm laborer, and many other occupations have higher fatality rates.  But being a police officer is one of the most psychologically dangerous occupations by far.  More police officers die by their own hand than die in the line of duty.  Most of them start out as idealistic people who want to help others and the job is fun.  But they spend 8 hours per day seeing people at their worst and this gradually makes them cynical and pessimistic.  The cop subculture is their resource for dealing with these feelings because they all feel this way.  As time goes by cops develop an us versus them mentality. They get absorbed into the cop subculture where they come to believe that they are the thin blue line between naive sheep who don't understand how bad things are, and vicious predators. There is a lot of alcohol abuse and relationship problems are the norm. Over the years they come to surround themselves entirely with other cops.  They literally don't associate with anybody who isn't a police officer.  This leads to a profound sense of isolation from society, but they reinforce each other in these distorted perceptions.   Eventually they don't trust anybody who isn't a cop.  They become quick to get paranoid and angry and confrontational--and violent.  And they know that prosecutors and judges are terrified of their unions.  

This is why they cover for each other, even in the most inexcusable situations. It is why police unions relentlessly defend cops who killed unarmed civilians in situations that would lead to murder convictions for anybody else.

And if you look at the other side of the controversy, you see millions of people who are horrified at the thought that anybody with a badge and a gun can beat them senseless or shoot them full  of holes on the slightest pretext and face no legal consequences at all.  In African-American and Latino neighborhoods the rage, the sense that the time has come to say no more of this, is intense.  They have had over twenty years of "broken window" policing in their neighborhoods, where they get rousted for the most trivial reasons on the theory that this is how to haul in the people with warrants and weapons.  But think of all the bogus stops, the harrassment, the reality-based sense of being persecuted, that has built up in low income neighborhoods. It is intense. Read Matt Taibbi's take on that.  He says law enforcement is becoming illegitimate, because the poor are ground to hamburger by the law, but the rich can steal millions and face no consequences at all. It's like something out of Dickens.

And this is why the current controversy over police shootings and beatings has the potential to be so profoundly ugly. It will be hard to  find any middle ground, because maybe there isn't any.  

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