Hugs for Cops

My wife and I attended the Ferguson Police Rally on Sunday. We didn’t go to support or protest Darrin Wilson, Michael Brown, Eric Garner or anyone else. We went because for the last several months we have found ourselves wanting to hug every police officer we see.

It’s been a little different, being a Ferguson resident in the midst of the Ferguson Protests. I have enough African American friends to know that “Driving While Black” is real, and enough friends living on the margin to understand the cascading impact of high fines for minor traffic violations. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to require an independent prosecutor in cases of use of lethal force by the police. Many of the reforms that have started, as well as the larger conversation about race and opportunity, will help our society advance – they will help us be a better United States of America.

We appreciate that the protests sparked what will be important changes in policing. But the protests also made us more appreciative of the women and men in uniform, the human beings that make up the police force. Part of this is from being on the other side of the protesters’ anger – actually hearing a protester say your neighborhood needs to burn for the cause of social progress, not surprisingly, makes one appreciate the police. But even more so was the restraint and grace under pressure that the hundreds of individual police officers exhibited during the months of protest.

The great majority of the protesters were peaceful and treated the officers decently, if angrily. But a small subset of protesters were not peaceful – they were actively trying to push the officers over the edge, to cause a response. They did so by treating individual officers in a manner that can only be described as “hateful”. They attacked the officer’s integrity, intelligence and character and sometimes even added subtle or explicit threats against the officer’s home and family. And in what is surely one of the great ironies of the Ferguson Protests they heaped extra abuse on African American officers, encouraging them to quit the force even while their leaders were demanding increased hiring of African American officers.

The protesters justified their actions by noting the hatefulness that minorities are often subjected to by police. They had a slogan – “The whole damn system is guilty is hell”. The protesters treated every officer as if he or she was guilty as hell, a racist bully that looked forward to abusing African American citizens.

It’s just not true. The whole damn system isn’t guilty as hell. I can imagine that somewhere a protester reading this is shaking his or her head and muttering that the fact that I don’t believe all cops are corrupt is a sign of White Privilege. But by almost any statistical measure, the whole system does most things reasonably well. US policing is among the most transparent and fairest in the world. Our police aren’t corrupt, they don’t arbitrarily abuse people and yes, most of the people in the rest of the world would love to have police as peaceful and professional as ours.

It’s not true at the human level either. Yes, there are a few officers that are racists and brutal, and we need to do a better job of getting them out of the system. And yes, we have made policy decisions that weigh more heavily and unfairly on African Americans. But the great majority of police officers are conscientious, hard-working and respectful. There are a few bad apples, but most are decent people doing the best they can with the rulebook they were given.

Yes, most officers are well-intentioned humans doing the best they can, just like the rest of us. They just chose a job that is much harder than most jobs but much more fulfilling. They don’t get paid a lot, live with extra pressure and have to deal with the most unpleasant and dangerous situations in society. But at least they know that what they do matters and they are contributing back.

And this is why we are going to the rally. Change is needed and reforms must continue. But at the human level we wanted to let the men and women of the police force know that we appreciate the very hard job they have chosen to do. We appreciate the grace and honor with which the police officers of St. Louis serve.

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