When I was about seven or eight years old, I was momentarily separated from my mother on a busy sidewalk. I was very scared. A policeman was standing nearby and I somehow had the sense and courage to go up to him and tell him that I’d lost my mother. It was only a minute until my mother found me but I remember the policeman as being kind and reassuring. I decided that the police were good people.
When I became a teenager, I started smoking pot. I learned from people I was getting high with that the police were not good people. “All pigs are swine,” one said to me, a quote I found funny—and still do. But I internalized the message: Cops were bad—because now I was doing something illegal and could get in trouble if caught.
When I became an adult and bad things would occasionally happen—our apartment getting broken into, a serious injury, the time I got shot with a rubber pellet right down the street from the house I now owned and wanted to protect—I would call the police and they would respond and try to help. I wasn’t getting high in those days, and the police were good people again.
Those were all examples of simplistic thinking. My views on the police changed depending on what I was doing and what I needed. To my mind, they were all one thing or another. Simplistic.
Today, I hear that all cops are bastards. Simplistic. And also racist, in a way. Substitute the subject and hear how it sounds: All blacks are bastards. All Jews are bastards. All Asians are bastards. All Muslims are bastards. All women are bastards. If you say that all cops are bastards, then you’re simply painting with the same broad brush found in any racist’s arsenal.
Look, we have a serious problem in terms of the police in this country. They are undertrained and overmilitarized. Their first instinct is to react rather than respond, to escalate rather than diffuse, to shoot (or kneel on someone’s neck) first and ask questions later. Yet not all cops are killers. Not all cops are racists. Most cops take their jobs seriously; they really do want to serve and protect. These are the cops we need to support more than ever, because they are the people in best position to police themselves and to keep their colleagues from going rogue.
Another big problem we have in this country is that there are too many guns in the streets. The police know that and it scares them. And perhaps they have a narrow lens through which they judge who exactly represents a threat to them, but the threat is real. We need to overhaul policing in this country, but at the very same time we need to overhaul the gun laws. And at the very same time, we also need to overhaul the justice system to ensure that bad cops are given the penalties they deserve for the crimes they have committed. All these things have to happen together.
I have no patience, no tolerance, no forgiveness for police who murder. But we need police. We need good police. We need great police. To get there, we need to bury this “all cops are bastards” rhetoric. That’s not the way of love, it’s not the path to peace, and it’s not the road to justice.