We seem to be living in a bipolar age, a time when “all” or “nothing” are often the only options offered. Masks, or no masks. School, or no school. Trump, or no Trump. And then there was the national schism that cracked open following George Floyd’s “death by cop” last May — Defend the Police vs. Defund the Police.
As virtually everyone around the world knows by now, Floyd suffocated when his neck was pinned down by the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, even as he repeatedly protested “I can’t breathe.” The crime for which he received this unofficial death sentence was trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store.
Had this been an isolated event, the uproar would probably have been limited to the city where it occurred. Over the past decade or so, however, it seems that every other week brings news of someone in a police uniform killing someone else unnecessarily — you may well be able to recite the litany of names. These outrages have exposed an obvious tear in the fabric of police culture, not to mention highlighting the knee-jerk manner in which most of these affected departments close ranks around the perpetrator.
Therefore, if “Defend the Police” means clinging to the status quo, that’s not looking like a good choice. On the flip side, though, it’s hard for any rational person to think society would function quite nicely with no police at all — not at this point in our human evolution.
The problem with an “either/or” mentality is that true change usually takes place somewhere in between. In the case of the police controversy, the main sticking point appears to be an obvious and longstanding disconnect between the police and the taxpaying citizens who supply the police salaries.
It’s an odd relationship, when you think about it. The police work for the rest of us, yet they also have authority over us. Sometimes we’re glad to see them, at other times their appearance can ruin our day — or our life. This naturedly leads to an “us vs. them” attitude on both sides.
One small way that is displayed is the flashing of drivers’ headlights to warn other drivers that a police car is in the area, a practice that amounts to taking care of “us.”
Meanwhile, if you saw the video footage of a 70-year-old man being shoved down by two Buffalo cops during a protest last spring, you couldn’t help but notice the reaction of the other officers who were walking just behind. One of them looked for a moment as if he was going to check on the victim, who was lying on the sidewalk with blood coming out of his ear, but then he stopped and simply walked away with the others. The disconnect was obvious, and chilling — the injured man was part of “them.”
It doesn’t help that police officers are constantly exposed to the worst side of human nature. Or that they are often faced with situations for which they have not been adequately trained — the suicidal person poised on a ledge, the mentally ill individual who resists commands and becomes threatening, massed protestors on the street.
Two other factors have widened the gap in recent years. According to a number of surveys, more and more police officers now live in the suburbs, which alienates them further from urban populations. Moreover, a decision by the federal government to send excess military equipment to some local police departments has led to a rising self-image within law enforcement of waging an us-against-them “battle.”
Complicating policing even more is that officers are often directed to enforce unpopular laws. For example, the fact that so many people have sampled marijuana — including, I’m sure, quite a few police officers — means that using it is not really considered a crime by the general public. Yet even with lightened penalties in many places and outright decriminalization in some states, police are still putting people in jail for marijuana possession.
In these and many other instances, however, it seems unnecessary for the police to make a hands-on arrest. That physical contact is often where an escalation begins.
None of the stories I read about the George Floyd case told me whether Floyd had just one bogus bill in his possession or a pocket full of them. Although it hasn’t happened to me, I’ve heard stories about people who honestly had no idea that one of the bills in their wallet was counterfeit. How often do we carefully scan all the money we receive in the course of a day’s mundane transactions?
If that was the case with Floyd, why couldn’t he have simply been given a summons to appear in court on the charge and told that that failure to appear would trigger an arrest warrant? Instead, four cops showed up to manhandle him for a $20 offense that hardly posed a threat to the community.
Post-Floyd, the Minneapolis City Council has been debating ways to police the police. A common thread seems to be drawing a line between genuinely protecting the public and peripheral duties better suited for other agencies.
One of the pro-police political ads that quickly emerged last spring amidst the “Defund the Police” clamor showed an elderly woman being menaced by an intruder, calling the police, and getting only a recording.
Obviously, very few cities are advocating this scenario. But what if community protection was carried out by an elite group of police officers who were rigorously trained not only in the use of firearms but in defusing threats without the use of lethal force? Every effort would also be made to screen out those showing the potential for anger, control or prejudice issues. Serious complaints against any officers would be heard before a group including local government and law enforcement officials, representatives of the police itself, and citizens of that community.
These “elite” cops should be well-paid to reflect the daily risks involved in their job. And wouldn’t it be a good idea if for them to make regular presentations to local groups on how citizens should best deal with a police encounter, or vice versa?
According to a majority of Minneapolis officials, many of the other jobs currently carried out by local police could be shifted to different in-house groups or social agencies. These would include dealing with the homeless and the mentally ill, as well as traffic control.
The latter would be carried out by another special police unit which would also focus on community protection — speeding, reckless driving and DUI. These individuals would not be empowered to search private vehicles on a whim. Instead, vehicles believed creditably to being used in other crimes would be stopped and dealt with by the community protection unit.
Meanwhile, the medical aspects of a police officer’s job are often ignored. Indeed, they are the first responders to many scenes of violence and vehicular mayhem, situations where live-saving aid is required immediately. So how about an agreement with a local EMS organization to supply EMT’s who travel with police units?
Finally, another separate unit could be created to deal with most minor complaints or disagreements among citizens. Domestic disputes carrying a threat of violence would be handled by the core anti-crime unit.
Richard Rosenthal, a criminologist at the University of Missouri in St. Lous, noted on the Website Vox: “In order to overcome lack of trust and confidence, the police have to make contact — door-to-door, face-to-face contact — with members of their community, The police will be rebuffed on occasion, but that’s the only way I see to, in the long run, rebuild trust or, really, build it for the first time in the police in members of these communities.”
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."