Open Letter to Police Chiefs Across America (2016)

Open Letter to Police Chiefs Across America (2016)

  For a few years now, I have not been able to help but laugh when I see a police vehicle emblazoned with the phrase “To Serve and Protect.” And, believe me, in every one of these occasions, it has brought me no happiness to laugh; each time, what I am now calling a laugh was more of an uncomfortable, painful chortle accompanied by a wince or two.

   To serve and protect. That should be the only reason for your existence.

   The job of a police force, at least in our country, should not be to intimidate or otherwise harass certain segments of the population. I agree that you perform an important—why not, let’s call it noble—law enforcement duty. But that’s where it should stop. 

   Harassment and intimidation are not part of your job description—or are they? No one in America should fear a police officer; on the contrary, any decent person ought to worship the ground a police officer walks on.

   You must defend yourself at times—I give you that (for there are “bad apples” out there. I posit that life, and lack of education and opportunities, can turn any one of us into a bad apple, which is not an excuse for behaving badly). However, by “defend yourself” I do not mean that you should have a license to indiscriminately murder every other Black, Latino—sometimes Whites, and too often the mentally ill—man you come across in the performance of your duties.

   A properly-trained police officer’s aim—pun intended—should not be to shoot to kill a person who is threatening him or her with, say, a knife. Moreover, even if an assailant is wielding a gun, a police officer should, if he or she has been properly trained and time permits, deescalate the situation in such a way as to save his or her life without wasting another human being’s. A properly-trained police officer should be a good-enough shot to put a bullet in someone’s shoulder or arm to disable the person (thereby deescalating the situation).

   America is not Afghanistan; we operate under the rule of law, not the rule of the fittest. American citizens, especially those who are not Caucasians, should not be automatically regarded as the enemy in every cop-civilian encounter.

   Another thing our police officers should not be in the business of doing is shooting people in the back or putting two bullets in an old lady’s chest (especially when all she’s “armed with” is a baseball bat, and only a baseball bat). I just don’t think it is an honorable thing to do.

   We are Americans all of us. Those who are not US citizens did not come from Mars. They are, as far as you and I should be able to understand it, fellow humans! Believe it or not, we are in this together.

   No one is perfect. This, I understand, and I also understand that people make mistakes. But don’t you think that for too long already too many of us have gone about our lives judging, and not accepting, others without first stopping to consider what it would be like to walk in their shoes?

   Sometimes, we do it to people of our own ethnicity—if the other person is, say, in a different income bracket than we are. But we are particularly good at this “sport” when the person happens to be of a different ethnicity.

   We need to shed this habit.

   We should also stop coming together as a nation (and feigning acceptance of those who look different from us) only when there is a national catastrophe—think 9/11.

   Every person ought to be able to expect— especially in this country of ours! —to have their dignity respected. Contrary to what those in the Sergeants Benevolent* Police Association (SBPA) think of anyone who criticizes the use of certain police tactics, I do not believe for one minute that most police officers get up every day bent on inflicting pain and suffering, on top of humiliation, either on a fellow American—race aside—or on any other person present within our borders, regardless of immigration status.

   No, I do not believe that all police officers are bad. I immigrated to the United States almost thirty years ago, and, so far, I have remained a law-abiding citizen. I have never been “in trouble” with the police; I have never been in jail; I have never been detained; I have never been questioned for violating any federal, state, or city law or ordinance. (Caveat: I always get stopped by Customs and Border Protection whenever I arrive back in the country after an overseas trip. Supposedly, it happens at random. As “luck” would have it—if you can believe it—I get “randomized” every single time. I’m talking eight to ten times in a period of less than two years. Random, uh?)

   From my interactions with the police, however, I know that many an officer currently in the force joined with ulterior motives, and it is the same with our armed forces. Some joined because, had they not, they would have felt insignificant; others because they had delusions of grandeur. And others, believe it or not, joined because they were mandated to do so—by a judge somewhere. Complicated. Is it not? In “saving” someone with a dubious record, our American justice system puts the rest of the public at risk.

   But getting back to the subject: those officers, the ones who did not join the force out of the goodness of their heart, when given power… they tend to abuse it. I wonder if it would be possible to put in place a system to keep that sort of people out of law enforcement. 

   I think that such a system would be beneficial in all sorts of ways; not the least of which would be that it would keep the bad apples from giving good police officers—and the whole policing system—a bad name.

   Of course, there is also the issue of a system being more corrupt than the individuals who comprise it. In the case of the police, this was made evident by the indictment of more than a hundred retired New York City cops, firefighters, and corrections officers in 2014. Perhaps you can remember? The case involved false claims of depression and anxiety in connection to 9/11. And that is just one case.

   The system—any system—can corrupt a certain breed of people, and law enforcement, in our country and elsewhere is not the exception. It is a long, complicated subject the proper examination of which requires much more than a few thousand words, but we must start somewhere. Do you agree?

   I do not think that I am alone when I say that our current system of policing is failing us all. As is the case with racism, however, we will not be able to take one single step toward fixing it until we recognize that a problem exists in the first place.

   “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” some like to say.

   Well. The American system of policing is broken. Things may appear fine on the surface, but all is not well. As in the case of an internal wound, the wounds of too many communities across the nation have been festering under the surface.

   Suppuration is imminent.

   If nothing is done to decrease the divide between police officers and the people whom they are charged with “serving and protecting,” the us versus them mentality both sides have been driven to subscribe to will persist. Not only will police officers continue to regard African Americans and other minorities as the enemy, but whole pockets of our society will continue to regard the police as just another gang, albeit one cloaked in a uniform.

   *be/nev/o/lent

[according to Merriam-Webster]: adj. 1. kind and generous; 2. organized to do good things for other people.

   “Probably, eighty percent of our police officers are kind and generous,” I would declare to anyone who asked for my opinion on the matter. What I could not speak to is whether the SBPA considers that only police officers are entitled to the “good things” that this organization is organized to provide. Neither could I ascertain whether those in minority communities, the people whom you are supposed to be “serving and protecting,” can expect any fair—not favorable, just fair—treatment, and a modicum of respect to our dignity, were we to have the misfortune of interacting with a police officer—especially if we’ve committed no infraction.

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