I am not sure that Henry Schulte’s article in last week’s News-Press, “Scary Time for America” (Voices, May 2) made me less or more afraid! What are the roots of that fear? Here is my take.
When I was a boy in Detroit, we had narrow alleys between the streets. Junkmen would come down the alley in horse-drawn wagons to collect or buy old junk, newspapers, etc., which they could resell.
One day I was in the alley where an off-duty policeman was washing his car. A black junkman came down the alley and asked him to move his car so he could get by. Voices were raised, so the policeman called his comrades. Soon there were two police cars present.
They forced the junkman to retreat, with the horse walking and pushing the cart backward! Something in my head said, “This isn’t right.”
Next, imagine this scenario: What if one of the other officers present at Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd had the thought: “Wait a minute. This isn’t right! That guy can’t breathe. My job is to protect human life.”
So, he pulls out his gun and tells Mr. Chauvin to get off of Mr. Floyd’s neck. If Mr. Chauvin doesn’t, he pulls him off. If Mr. Chauvin resists, the officer gives a warning. If he still doesn’t move, the officer tasers or shoots him.
This scenario — a cop, in the line of duty, shooting a cop — is unimaginable, even though it is what justice required. The attending officers clearly didn’t do their duty — to protect Mr. Floyd from someone who was trying to kill him. Why didn’t they?
First, there are bullies within police forces. Some of the younger police are bullied by older police. You don’t mess with them because they might turn on you just as easily. Secondly, there seems to be an “honor code”: “Never rat on your fellow officers, even if they are breaking the law. The brotherhood sticks together and protects each other. Don’t break this code — ever!”
Why does such a strong, and corrupting, culture exist? I suspect that the underlying reason — is fear within the profession. Consider if you had a job where every morning you tell your spouse, “I might not come home tonight.” Of course, anyone going to work could say that, but what are the odds in your job that you might be dead before the end of the day? Self-preservation is a real and serious concern of the police themselves. Police departments and unions build institutional defenses to protect themselves.
I’m not making any excuses for Mr. Chauvin or the police, but what is the underlying source of so many of the injustices police commit? There is no way to justify the brutality or sadism of Mr. Chauvin and so many other police. However, the culture of police departments always carries that real, unspoken fear underneath the surface — fear of death. Beyond that, many of them are infected with the prejudice that many Americans have towards people with darker skin than theirs. I suspect that fear is the source of that problem as well.
What happens when we are afraid? Adrenaline is produced, and our response to the perceived threat is either fight or flight. If you don’t flee, the adrenaline turns into anger and attack. That is the nature of bullies. Bullies suppress the fear, eventually bulk up and take out their anger on others, often randomly, unjustifiably, and uncontrollably as Mr. Chauvin did. Bullies are scared people hiding inside of scary people.
The quality of thinking that creates a problem is not capable of resolving it. That’s where we as citizens come in. We must support the good people in police departments, but maybe it’s time for all of us to reevaluate: What do we want our “protectors” to do? They must reform their jobs, not only by confronting the fear inherent in their profession, but also in confronting the prejudice in their ranks.
Beyond and above that, we citizens must confront our own fear of reformulating the entire concept of “police.” We need to have a corps that deals with the sources of crime: poverty, psychological needs, child-raising needs, job creation needs, etc.
Policing is only one aspect of taking care of people’s needs. Police need to be part of a broader prevention force that includes psychologists, social workers, job trainers, job-finders, re-educators, etc. who are not afraid to tackle and remedy the causes of crime.
The author lives in Santa Barbara.