September 2021


On Policing In America.

Twenty-Sixteen is turning out to be a pretty hideous year on a number of fronts – it would be impossible to list all of the bad events – Orlando. Brussels. Paris. Dallas. The seemingly endless list of black people killed by the police – or just arrested due to their skin color.

The only times I’ve been a visible minority were in South Africa, Swaziland, Armenia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Samoa – for a total of somewhere around 60 to 70 days of my life. And in South Africa, Swaziland, and Samoa, I came with automatic white-privilege, enhanced by the fact that I carry a US passport.

Consequently, I can tell you the number of times that I have been stopped by the police while driving (one time, Laramie, Wyoming, no ticket received) or while walking (zero).

I do not know what it is like to be afraid of the police – at least in the western world.

(I will admit that I thought that the police in Armenia were incompetent, just based on my quick observation of how they closed the streets for their Independence Day Parade in Yerevan. And once I encountered a crowd control situation surrounding a soccer match in Germany where I thought the local police were behaving in an exceptionally non-optimal fashion.)

But the news of the past week has plunged me into memory land, specifically of my University of Wyoming class on Police Deviance taught by the former Natrona County Sheriff, Ron Ketchum. His name is glued into my head because he talked about how annoying it was to have the rank of Captain with his name. He got promoted as quickly as he could.

As an instructor, he was exceptional – he talked a lot about policing and how he had evolved over the years since becoming sheriff.

The point of the course on police deviance was to talk about the consequences of police going bad – something that is, in Wyoming, not often considered to be even remotely possible.

(I would suggest that this is a Republican failing, in many respects. There tends to be excessive respect for policing and the assumption that the police are always right. I remember sitting next to a Republican friend as she watched a video of a police force violently violate the law – and it rocked her world. This was in a completely different context and I don’t want to confuse the issue here.)

Realizing that police can be bad is probably the first and most important step.

Once you realize that police are human beings, with human weaknesses, then things become a heck of a lot easier. Because you can manage and account for behaviors.

When he was sheriff he talked about, as I recall – remember this is going back 20ish years – having paperwork to fill out if a deputy pulled their gun from their holster. Never mind if the gun was shot.

I came away from that class with a great deal of respect for policing, as a profession – when it is carried out by professionals.

But when in the hands of people with prejudices, who are poorly trained, or come to work with an agenda that isn’t to serve and to protect, then trouble lies ahead.

There’s a point to this rambling somewhere – and I guess it’s to say that policing in America needs a radical rethink. Maybe not in every police department, but certainly in a lot. Policing shouldn’t be about adversarial relationships with the people being protected, it should be about building community. It shouldn’t be about having riot gear and being afraid of the citizens – in fact, maybe having riot gear is symptomatic of the problem at hand: policing needs to be about walking the beat and getting to know people.

What happened in Baton Rouge and Minnesota is terrible. What happened in Dallas is terrible.

Saying that BlackLivesMatter is not incompatible with supporting quality policing.

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