Like a lot of people in journalism, I began my career, briefly, as a police reporter. As the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases have unfolded, I've found myself thinking back to those days. Nothing excuses specific acts of police brutality, especially in the Garner case, but not enough attention is being paid to the emotional and psychological challenges of being a cop.
Early on, I learned that there is an amazing variety of police officers, even compared to other professions. Most cops are conscientious, and some, especially among detectives, are brilliant.
They spend much of their time in the chaotic and depressing nether-reaches of society: busting up domestic violence disputes, dealing with drunks and drug addicts, coming upon fatal car crashes, managing conflicts large and small.
They ride an emotional and biochemical roller coaster. They experience moments of intense action and alertness, followed by emotional crashes marked by exhaustion, and isolation. They become hypervigilant. Surrounded by crime all day, some come to perceive that society is more threatening than it really is.
To cope, they emotionally armor up. Many of the cops I was around developed a cynical, dehumanizing and hard-edge sense of humor that was an attempt to insulate themselves from the pain of seeing a dead child or the extinguished life of a young girl they arrived too late to save.
Many of us see cops as relatively invulnerable as they patrol the streets. The cops themselves do not perceive their situation that way. As criminologist George Kelling wrote in City Journal in 1993, "It is a common myth that police officers approach conflicts with a feeling of power — after all, they are armed, they represent the state, they are specially trained and backed by an 'army.' In reality, an officer's gun is almost always a liability ... because a suspect may grab it in a scuffle. Officers are usually at a disadvantage because they have to intervene in unfamiliar terrain, on someone else's territory. They worry that bystanders might become involved, either by helping somebody the officer has to confront or, after the fact, by second-guessing an officer's conduct."
Even though most situations are not dangerous, danger is always an out-of-the-blue possibility, often in the back of the mind.
In many places, a self-supporting and insular police culture develops: In this culture no one understands police work except fellow officers; the training in the academy is useless; to do the job you've got to bend the rules and understand the law of the jungle; the world is divided into two sorts of people — cops and a- holes.
This is a life of both boredom and stress. Life expectancy for cops is lower than for the general population. Cops suffer disproportionately from peptic ulcers, back disorders and heart disease. In one study, suicide rates were three times higher among cops than among other municipal workers. Other studies have found that somewhere between 7 percent and 19 percent of cops suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The effect is especially harsh on those who have been involved in shootings. Two-thirds of the officers who have been involved in shootings suffer moderate or severe emotional problems. Seventy percent leave the police force within seven years of the incident.
Most cops know they walk a dangerous line, between necessary and excessive force. According to a 2000 National Institute of Justice study, more than 90 percent of the police officers surveyed said that it is wrong to respond to verbal abuse with force. Nonetheless, 15 percent of the cops surveyed were aware that officers in their own department sometimes or often did so.
And through the years, departments have worked to humanize the profession. Overall, police use of force is on the decline, along with the crime rate generally. According to the Department of Justice, the number of incidents in which force was used or threatened declined from 664,000 in 2002 to 574,000 in 2008. Community policing has helped bind police forces closer to the citizenry.
A blind spot is race. Only 1 in 20 white officers believe that blacks and other minorities receive unequal treatment from the police. But 57 percent of black officers are convinced the treatment of minorities is unfair.
But at the core of profession lies the central problem of political philosophy. How does the state preserve order through coercion? When should you use overwhelming force to master lawbreaking? When is it wiser to step back and use patience and understanding to defuse a situation? How do you make this decision instantaneously, when testosterone is flowing, when fear is in the air, when someone is disrespecting you and you feel indignation rising in the gut?
Racist police brutality has to be punished. But respect has to be paid. Police serve by walking that hazardous line where civilization meets disorder.