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Law Enforcement’s Dirty Little Secret

The recent Philando Castile tragedy, where a black man in Minnesota was killed by a police officer as he was sitting in his car with a woman and a 4-year old child is just one more in what seems an endless list of examples of unprovoked deadly violence by the police. Castile was shot 7 times. A jury eventually acquitted the officer.

Armchair sociologists tell us that the primary reason cops kill unarmed (or armed but non-threatening) black people is because cops are, at root, “racists,” and that the reason juries acquit these trigger-happy officers, even when the evidence overwhelmingly supports a guilty verdict, is because the jurors themselves are, at root, racists.

Although no one is going to suggest that racial discrimination isn’t alive and well in the U.S., a couple things fly in the face of that “White cops kill blacks and Latinos because cops are racists” premise: (1) Black and Latino cops regularly engage in this same kind of savagery, and (2) cops also kill, harass, bully, and beat the hell out of their share of white people as well.

I had a friend who was a reserve officer in the LA County Sheriff’s Department. After college he considered becoming a full-time policeman but, from what I could gather, he decided that being a career cop job didn’t pay enough or offer sufficient opportunity for advancement.

The reason he wanted to become a policemen in the first place was because, in his words, ever since he was a kid, he’d “always wanted to be a hero.” Alas, pragmatism won out over idealism. Instead of joining the force, he went into white-collar management, and confined his “heroism” to being a reserve sheriff deputy.

Not that I’m an expert on law enforcement mentality, but his explanation for why police engage in “brutality” surprised me. In fact, because he had such high regard for policemen, it stunned me. While he didn’t deny that race was a factor, he claimed that most of these questionable killings were examples of nothing more complicated than old-fashioned “cowardice.”

He was adamant about it, insisting that there were too many cops out there who were simply “scared shitless.” Too many cowards out there too scared to do their job the way they knew it was supposed to be done; the way they were taught to do it. In his opinion, urban police departments are overloaded with “cop wannabes” who have no business being cops. Quote the raven.

As for juries acquitting these guys in the face of overwhelming evidence, he was convinced it was all based on the notion that being a policeman was so unbelievably challenging and dangerous (“Hey, I sure wouldn’t want to be a cop….”) that it was incumbent upon us to give them every benefit of the doubt.

But that spoke to his precise point. Indeed, that was his whole reason for viewing cops as heroes. The definition of a hero is someone who risks his or her personal safety for the sake of duty.

When you err, you’re supposed to err on the part of heroism….not err from the fear of possibly getting hurt. That’s why being a cop is dangerous. Shooting a man in the back, or shooting him 7 times point blank as he sits in a care—and claiming you “feared for your life”—isn’t being a hero. According to my friend, that ain’t even being a real cop.

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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