If you’re a serious person, having a serious discussion about police and policing in America, you better pay deference to just how difficult a job the police have, or else your ideas about police reform are not taken seriously.
I was reminded of this unspoken rule while reading this conversation between former NAACP president Ben Jealous and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie.
And… OK. If we’re all required to talk about how difficult and dangerous a job the police have, let’s get that out of the way: police have a difficult and dangerous job. Sometimes people do horribly violent things and we expect the police to respond. ABC News says being a police officer is the third-most-stressful job in America. It’s tough being a cop. Sure.
But a few things bother me about the constant injection of this caveat into discussion about racist and violent policing. First is that the process of humanization seems to work only one way. When a cop shoots an unarmed black person, we’re asked to consider the position of the officer—how difficult their job is, how they must make split-second decisions in order to save their own lives, how their high stress levels can be expressed in aggression, how they’re working-class citizens who only want to make a living. It’s a redeeming narrative never afforded to the victims of their violent behavior, violent behavior that is conducted in the name of the state, with legal justifications at the ready, and with little or no recourse available to those who suffer behind it. It’s the job of the person beaten or shot or killed to prove they didn’t deserve to be beaten or shot or killed because, hey, police just have it so hard.
Further, when we’re reminded of how difficult a police officer’s job is, the speaker seems to be telling us that they’re a compassionate person who cares deeply about the police as people. They’re not interested in denigrating the many brave men and women who don the uniform and protect our communities, just those “bad apples” that make it into this otherwise honorable profession.
But if we can’t have a conversation about the ways in which police target, harass, beat, shoot and kill black people at alarming rates without making it about individual police officers, we repeat the mistakes we make in every other conversation about racism. The personal morality of some police officers is thought to override institutionalized racist violence, and it simply doesn’t work that way. To echo the sentiments of a popular online discussion around the harassment of women, it may not be all police officers, but nearly every black person must fear that any interaction they have with police could end violently.
Let me propose a solution, for those who care about how stressful a police officer’s job is: give them less to do. In 2011, law enforcement made 12.4 million arrests, a rate of 3,991 arrests per 100,000 inhabitants of the US, a number that doesn’t include citations or traffic violations. Of those arrests, 1,531,251 were for drug-abuse violations. Imagine how much less work the police would have to do if drug use/possession was decriminalized (actually decriminalized, not the way New York City has said it would end marijuana arrests and hasn’t). There are between 70,000 and 80,000 people (mostly women) arrested on prostitution charges every year. If sex work were decriminalized, there’s another thing police don’t have to worry about, reducing their work and stress loads. If we invested in an adequate mental health care system, instead of making police our primary mental health care professionals, and provided housing for all people, instead of asking police to dispose of the homeless, they could just be police and not social workers, cutting their workload down significantly. And if they weren’t charged with preventing crime by arresting and serving citations to people for petty, “quality of life” crimes that pose no actual threat to safety, as is the prevailing theory behind the continued existence of “broken windows” policing, they might have time for a little relaxation.
If police weren’t responsible for keeping the city budget afloat through fines collected through traffic violations, as is the case in places like St. Louis County, or their own department’s budgets through civil assets forfeiture (legalized theft), or preventing people from exercising their First Amendment rights of speech and assembly through protests and rallies, they’d almost have a vacation on their hands. Subsequently, with so many fewer responsibilities, they wouldn’t need as many weapons, and therefore the stress of having to decide when are where to use them wouldn’t enter the equation.
To be clear, I think Ben Jealous would agree with most of what I’ve laid out here. But he still returned to that “police have a tough job” narrative without laying out why their jobs are so tough. We have created a police state, criminalizing innocuous behaviors (largely those associated with blackness) or those harmful only to the person participating. We have handed over responsibility of solving social problems like mental illness and drug abuse to police officers who are not equipped to do anything other than arrest or shoot. We think we can stop violent/serious crime by tasking police officers with cracking down on petty crimes, rather than address root causes of violence and inequality. We still have a society predicated on the control of black bodies. That’s enough to stress anyone out.
Instead of offering it up as an excuse for a job done poorly, give police less work to do. Then we can all relax a bit more.