It’s Not About the Cops

ne of the pitfalls of being a writer, particularly a political writer, and especially a political writer who writes forcefully about the most controversial, emotionally-charged, and life-or-death issues of the day, is that you’re liable to miss a whole lot. From the perspective of those who know what you’re missing — on account of having lived the life you haven’t — you might even come off as an aggressively flippant ass. And that perspective might even enjoy the benefit of being truthful every now and then.

The other day I posted an article on Facebook from The Atlantic titled, “The Obscene Brutality of Police Culture in Baltimore.” The piece honed in on some of the most atrocious cases of BPD violence and suggested the track record is “just as egregious as what the Department of Justice documented in Ferguson, Missouri.” Not too long after the posting, I received a comment from a Marine friend I haven’t heard from in some time. The content was moving, if (justifiably) angry. He started off by listing his connections to Baltimore. He had lived and worked in the neighborhoods in question, off and on, since he was nine. His brother has served as a cop there for over a decade. He knows of Baltimore police officers who drive “around their own block two to three times before pulling in to their drive way for fear of being followed.” He concluded:

Police vehicles are rammed, pissed on (yes, actually urinated on in broad day light), spit on, and walked over on a daily basis, in a city that continuously boasts one of the highest annual crime rates in the nation. I could go on and on but I don’t have the time or energy to do so. I’m not going to sit here and justify the actions of the few officers that make article writing like the ones above easy. I will however stand up for the thousands of GREAT officers who literally risk their lives on a daily basis. You’ve been in a war zone for over 6 months, imagine living it every day. Imagine for one second that you are wearing the uniform and everyday you leave your house and kiss your family good-bye that you may never see them again. I have a lot of respect for you Lyle, but please, go and live the life on either side of the law in the ‘City that reads’ before sharing such a one-sided story and fueling the hatred towards the Baltimore City Police Officers.

Despite the sting, I’m glad my friend took the time to write this. I think it raises some key points that deserve a hearing, which is why (in part) I’m posting it here. It also allows me the opportunity to make clear that I’m grateful for the thousands of officers doing necessary and dangerous work on a regular basis. I’ll never forget the time an anarchist buddy of mine, brought up dirt poor in NYC, confessed to me his surprisingly sympathetic perspective on cops. His dad beat him and his mom throughout his childhood, and the only thing standing between his father’s fist and their helpless bodies was an officer in blue. For every story involving a policeman (they’re always men) applying excessive force, there are dozens upon dozens of unreported incidences like this one. To the extent my Facebook page, blog posts, or published writings imply otherwise — criticism duly noted.

That said, I would like to use this opportunity to raise some key points of my own:

1. Earlier in my Marine friend’s reply, he asserted that “[s]ince 2010, there have been over 100 police deaths in the city of Baltimore and numerous other attempts at the life of the officers.” I found this statistic shocking, so I looked it up. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a total of 136 Baltimore police officers have fallen in the line of duty since… March 15, 1808. Since 2010, the number stands at five. The Wiki page for the BPD states that “As of 2010 there have been 120 police officers killed in the line of duty,” which perhaps explains the confusion. In any case, despite Baltimore’s depressingly high crime rate, it does not amount to a war zone in the same way that the Helmand Province, Afghanistan, does, or at least the casualty rate of the putative “good guys” doesn’t equate with one another. The same, arguably, cannot be said for the casualty rate of the “bad guys,” however.

2. I bring up these statistics because it gestures toward a broader trend in recent decades. To put it simply, just as crime in general, and homicides in particular, have plummeted, police violence has skyrocketed. Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (2014) — a book all Americans ought to read, along with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012) — makes this abundantly clear. As the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund bears out, this includes a considerable drop in police fatalities. There is no doubt the life of a cop in the United States can still prove arduous, risky, and even lethal. But this does not explain the increasingly troubling behavior of certain cops showcased in Ferguson, North Charleston, Baltimore, and elsewhere.

3. So what does account for such behavior? There’s the bad apple dynamic, no doubt, something that can be found in any organization. There’s the bipartisan love affair with police unions, something right-libertarian commentators have done a good job interrogating (although I question their insistence that we do away with police unions, or unions in general, altogether). There’s the NRA-sponsored explosion of an unregulated gun market, something that doesn’t seem to have culminated in any identifiable rise in violent crime, but maybe contributes to the fears and conduct of urban police forces. For my money, I’d bet the drug war has played the driving role in corrupting the mentalities and practices of those charged with protecting our most impoverished communities, something (again) Radley Balko and Michelle Alexander flesh out with frightening urgency and grit.

4. Perhaps the most involved and nuanced explanation for what has happened in cities like Baltimore the past 40 years can be found in The Wire, a show that was referenced by my Marine interlocutor. Instead of portraying the residents of such crime-ridden neighborhoods as “thugs,” “animals,” or “scum” (to borrow the parlance of the racist right), or the cops as “pigs” (to borrow the parlance of the activist left), David Simon and his team depicted the majority of the show’s characters as largely decent people caught up in the ugliest forces of their time. These forces included structural unemployment, poverty, mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, a satirically bureaucratic (but endlessly tragic) war on drugs, and an all-around dysfunctional political and economic order. If there is any connection to be drawn between the streets of Baltimore and the foothills or deserts of Afghanistan, it is on these terms. In both cases, otherwise good (or at least ordinary) people have been thrust into awful (and extraordinary) circumstances. As a military man might put it, they have all been set up for failure rather than success — U.S. service members and cops on the one hand, and their insurgent enemies or policed populations on the other.

5. If there’s any hope for a better future, it will not come from demonizing cops, just like it won’t come from demonizing black urban youth or Afghan insurgents. It will come from addressing, once and for all, the structural and historical forces at play. I’m not going to claim I have all the answers. Far from it. But as someone who spends a good amount of my time reading what the experts have to say, and occasional moments working with the poorest communities in Rochester, I will assert, with confidence, that the status quo is unsustainable (not to mention profoundly immoral) and that there are a myriad of promising alternative policies available. It’s on behalf of this policy debate, rather than the inevitably destructive discussions about the state of individual souls, that I keep writing.

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