Politicians and pundits have a new Topic A. They are all touting the need for a “national conversation” about police and race relations, with related memes such as the “overmilitarization of the police”, “police brutality” and so forth. That’s all well and good, but there are a few points that are getting lost in the course of the “national conversation.”
First of all, in the interest of full disclosure, here’s where I’m coming from: I’ve been an assistant district attorney since 1987. I went to law school because I wanted to be Perry Mason, ardent defender of those innocents suffering wrongful prosecutions at the hands of the Hamilton Burgers of the world. Now, on the other side of a quarter century, I’m still an ardent defender – but my place is to defend citizens who want to live their lives in peace, to have their homes and their very bodies be safe from invasion and injury, to enjoy the fruits of their labor without some thief stealing them away, to be able to let the kids play in the yard without worrying about stray bullets.
I embarked on my career as a newbie ADA with not a little bit of the typical grad student’s snobbishness. The idea that an advanced degree was the sine qua non of a person’s ability to function in any meaningful way in society had been drilled into me by parents who were in the first generation of their family to attend college, as well as by a host of professors over seven years of undergraduate and law school. To my surprise, I quickly met law enforcement officers who knew as much or more about criminal law and the rules of evidence as I did, not to mention the practical aspects of how the criminal justice system works, how to talk with all sorts of people, and a whole host of other valuable skills and practical, real-life knowledge. My eyes were opened. Some of these local officers – most of them with no more than a high school education and whatever on-the-job training they’d received over the years – were among the cleverest and hardest-working people I’d ever met in my life. To the extent that I’ve enjoyed some success as a prosecutor and trial attorney, I credit at least as much of my own training to those officers as to my fellow members of the bar.
My job has given me an excellent vantage point from which to observe many law enforcement officers over the years – local, state, and federal. As in any sample of the population, the law enforcement community is made up of a few brilliant stars, a larger number of middle-of-the-packers with varying work ethics, and some damn fools. Yes, I’ve seen brutality. And bigotry. And corruption. And overreach. And arrogance. And stupidity. But, outside of the military, I’ve never seen any single group of people in our society that displays more valor on a daily basis, more dedication, more practical common sense, and more compassion than that displayed by the men and women who wear the badges of local and state law enforcement agencies. Federal agencies . . . well, there are some good folks there, too, but that’s another topic for another day.
You want to have a “national conversation” about law enforcement? Sure, glad to be a part of it. I’ll tell you about the hard-bitten 20-years-on-the-job detective with tears in his eyes as he stood over a crib holding the tiny, emaciated body of a child, dead from the unspeakable cruelty of her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. The child’s father was nowhere in the picture. I’ll tell you about the detectives who went without sleep for days, barely seeing their own families, because they would not rest until they identified and arrested the rapist who brutalized his victim so badly that she almost bled out from her vagina, and will likely never have children of her own. I’ll tell you about the patrol officers who bought and moved a refrigerator into the squalid little apartment of the paraplegic shooting victim who was trying to raise four small children on her own from her wheelchair. The children’s milk kept going sour because she didn’t have any way to keep it cool during the summer in Georgia. I’ll tell you about having to look at the autopsy photos of an officer friend of mine who was shot in the face by a couple of drunk, stoned-out, crack-dealing thugs during the execution of a search warrant, because he took a split second to warn them, “Don’t do it”, instead of shooting first. I’ll tell you about officers sitting at their desks and writing their statements about that incident with the blood from their fallen comrade still drying on their clothes. I’ll tell you about having to look at the autopsy photos of another officer friend of mine who was shot – at close range, in the back – during a very routine disorderly conduct arrest at the Waffle House. That officer was black and the killer is white. I mention that only because there hasn’t been any national news coverage of this murder, and neither the White House nor the Justice Department sent any representatives to town. I’ll tell you about standing in the cemetery and wiping away my own tears while listening to “Taps” and the “End of Watch” call. I’ll tell you about the traffic officers who stood on the interstate blocking traffic for hours while the accident investigators and coroner searched in the dark for the various body parts – severed arms, legs, and heads – that were all that were left of the two grandparents, their daughter, and their grandchild, all killed by the privileged little 20-something college student who was driving home from a local nightclub drunk on her ass. Witnesses said she was doing better than 100 mph before she lost control, went airborne, crossed the median, and sheared off the top of the minivan the family was riding in. I’ll tell you about crime scene investigators with roaches crawling up their arms and legs while they dug through abject filth, maggots, and the urine and feces of all sorts of animals, including humans, to make sure they found all the physical evidence needed to bring to justice the murderer who savagely beat an 81-year-old disabled man to death and left him in a pool of his own blood in his kitchen. I’ll tell you about the officers who have called or come to my office over the years to tell me that the 18-year-old burglar or car thief they arrested has really had a pretty rough life, and they’d like to see him get some drug treatment and a second chance. I’ll tell you about a certain intensely-driven drug investigator of my acquaintance who took money from his own pocket to buy a bicycle for the little boy he met during his part-time job working security in a local housing project. Because unless you’ve heard about these officers and countless others like them, and factored their actions and reactions into the discussion, then you aren’t having an honest “national conversation” about law enforcement.
This brings me to another point that’s been completely missing from the “national conversation” about law enforcement: We’re getting way more value than we actually pay for.
Salaries vary, depending on agency and experience level, of course, but if you want to have your eyes opened, call down to your local police or sheriff’s department, ask to speak to the recruiting officer, and inquire as to what the men and women who answer your 911 call in the middle of the night make on an annual basis. There’s a reason why folks graduating at the top of their university classes don’t take jobs in local law enforcement agencies. There’s a reason why many law enforcement officers – like the aforementioned drug investigator – work one, or two, or three part-time jobs to supplement the really pathetic salary that we pay them. I’ve heard many defense attorneys talk about “the unlimited resources of the state” – but 27-plus years later, I’m still waiting to see some of those. The reality is that most local officers don’t have the political support, the equipment, or the basic resources they really need to do their jobs without constant frustration and even outright danger to their personal safety. Special note to Eric Holder: Maybe the federal agents in your Justice Department could do without the raised printing and gold foil on their business cards. Maybe you could leave some of that tax money in the cities and counties so the local officers could have $39 digital still cameras in their patrol cars and computers manufactured in this decade.
So – before commenting on your Facebook, or sounding off during your nice safe cocktail party or cable news segment about some law enforcement officer’s less-than-totally-patient-and-professional demeanor, lapse in judgment, mistake, or overreaction – know this: Our law enforcement officers deal with the very worst that society has to offer on a daily basis. They see, hear, touch, smell, and taste horrors and the kind of brutishness that would cause most of you doing the commenting to simultaneously toss your cookies and run screaming from the scene . . . and then they do it again the next day. The dangers are real and the stresses are intense. We put them on the street with a high school education and twelve weeks of mandate training, and expect them to discern – and make correct split-second decisions based upon – legal principles that battalions of lawyers and judges in their warm, comfy offices and courtrooms will spend countless hours parsing and second-guessing. It’s a rare officer who makes it through a career without suffering a knee, shoulder, or back injury that will make its presence felt on cold or rainy days for the rest of that officer’s life. Extended sleep deprivation, constant concerns about money, and frequently missing the renewing benefits of time spent with loved ones all take their toll on both the mental and physical well-being of these men and women. They are cursed, punched, kicked, bitten, and spat upon. They are criticized constantly by race-baiters, and those whose policies and actions have created the very breakdown of societal norms which the officers must then bear the responsibility of dealing with. Officers are expected to stoically take it, all the while maintaining a smiley, happy face, the patience of Job, and the compassion of the Pope. That officer you perceive as having a bad attitude may well be in the kind of pain that ibuprofen won’t touch, worried about the mortgage, and running on caffeine because he hasn’t been to bed in over 24 hours; he worked all night last night, had court all day today, and went right back on duty tonight. Oh, and he’s currently celebrating his birthday by eating a hamburger alone in his patrol car, or missing his first-grader’s Christmas concert at school, or his high school senior’s last basketball game . . . all because he’s on the job, doing his duty. He’s trying, in the face of almost insurmountable odds, to protect you, your house, and your community from the anarchy that would ensue if he weren’t there.
You want better police-community relations and “more professional and compassionate” law enforcement officers with better qualifications and better training? Fine. Instead of making their jobs even harder by staging “die-ins” and blocking traffic, show up at your next city council or county commission budget hearing and protest that salaries and resources for local law enforcement officers should be commensurate with the fact that they are essential to a civil society.
You don’t get warrior poets for peanuts.