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.