Targeted by Uniform: Law Enforcement as a “Race”?
I’m going to ask you to bear with me through what is a difficult and inflammatory topic in today’s world. Right now, our country is in turmoil regarding the role of police, and what actions they take, in regards to an individual’s race or ethnicity – with some alleging that bias is rampant, others saying that it doesn’t exist, and what is most likely true, that the answer (as with most of humanity) lies somewhere in between. Within this blog, we're discussing the extremes of both sides of the argument, but some of the points may have relevance across the spectrum - and none of the statements herein are intended to minimize or discredit the concerns of any individual or group.
The act of categorizing officers as if they themselves were one singular group across the country is no better than those who say that “all” of a certain ethnicity or race behave in a certain manner – something which is core to some of the arguments of those who are leading the “movement” against police nationwide. Law enforcement is a diverse and stratified profession, represented by those from all walks of life socially, economically, ethnically, racially, and in terms of gender, and to say that “the police” are “the problem” is ignorant not only of that fact, but of the nature of officers as human beings and citizens as well.
It is impermissible to simply look at someone in today’s society and make a snap judgement on their character based upon how they choose to dress or appear, say many of the protesters. And yet, they themselves would likely be found guilty of that – for example, with someone in an outlaw motorcycle gang wearing their "cut," or with an individual who openly dresses consistently with the “uniform” of a violent street gang, either of whom might be considered a threat by many who see them, and which might cause that individual to change their behavior or actions.
Why do people do this type of thing? Because that individual has chosen to broadcast their affiliation with an entity which might, based upon its history and membership, pose a threat to the health or wellbeing of the person who sees them. We make these kinds of categorizations out of necessity, part of a long species-wide history of grouping together our perceptions and knowledge into a condensed form which is necessary for our own self-preservation. How we present ourselves outwardly is a marker of who it is that we identify with, and all of us in the public choose a uniform when we dress ourselves every day – be it laborer, office worker, musician, punk rocker, or any of the other innumerable “styles” which represent a particular group within our culture.
In the case of the police officer, they are dressing in a uniform to present themselves to the public as members of that public who have taken an oath to protect others in their community – which, after all, is the reason that the vast majority of officers take the job. That uniform says to our public, “here is someone who will protect you, your property, and your rights,” and in most of the cases, that’s the truth – there are, as with any profession, those who will violate that role, but more than any other profession we actively seek to weed those people out, from disqualifying most of the applicants we receive who do not meet the standard, to going after those who do the wrong thing with a vengeance (even if not publicly.)
“You’re All the Same”
Now, however, that uniform has been twisted by those with a political motive, to try to make it into a symbol of repression as a distraction from the true problem: the difference between having the “American dream” and having a legitimate path to achieve it, something which is widening in the opinion of many analysts. Instead of being recognized as what they are, enforcers (not creators) of the law and rules of society, many are treating police as if they are the ones making a decision, as a whole, to crack down on or repress those who are the least fortunate, or who belong to a specific social, ethnic, or racial group.
Anyone who’s worked for a police department, however, can tell you that we often have trouble coming to a common policy within our own agencies, much less coordinating a nationwide program to repress any one group at all. No responsible officer wants to do anything more, in the ultimate sense, than enforce fair justice and ensure that the actions of one individual do not impinge upon the rights, safety, or welfare of another – a mission which is core to all of public safety.
In essence, those who try to promote that message regarding the “evil” nature of the police are, themselves, guilty of "ism" in some form – by stating that all officers are a member of a single group, with “expected” behaviors based upon their appearance. In doing so, they are guilty of the same dehumanization that they are protesting against, discounting the value of someone’s identity and professionalism in favor of a blanket statement that gives no fealty to anything except anger. We unfortunately saw that manifested recently in the outright murder of 5 innocent people who had made the choice to wear the uniform of the Dallas Police Department, but have also seen it in the increase in the number of officers who are being ambushed, shot, stabbed, beaten, and generally targeted because of how they look.
The Reality of the Problem Is…
None of this is to deny that there are problems, in some instances, with members of an ethnicity, race, or group being targeted due to who they are – by the police, by others in their community, or just in terms of humanity as a whole. It’s been true throughout the course of human history, and in many cases it’s far, far worse (and on a larger scale) than simply assuming someone is more likely to commit a crime based upon one of those factors.
The great thing about the United States, however, is that we actively work towards not accepting those practices, as evidenced throughout our own history (Civil Rights, suffrage, the abolition of slavery, etc.), which has given the world a model of what a true melting pot of society can be. As part of that, we do in fact accept those from all walks of life into the ranks of the law enforcement officers we appoint to oversee those values, and the time has long since come to recognize that whatever problems we do have stem not from that uniform, or the people who wear it, but as part of our society itself and how it chooses to interact with and see each other. Maybe then those who protest, as well as those within law enforcement to whom it may apply, will then finally realize the truth of the matter, and the only meaningful solution: that the only path to ending discrimination is not to practice it yourself, no matter what level it may rise to.