OPINION: Cops don't deserve this abuse
Editor's note: The views in this opinion editorial are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Campus Reform or of its parent organization, the Leadership Institute.
Eighty percent of registered voters think the country is “out of control” according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. You would hope that in a time of national crisis faculty at America’s colleges and universities would be helping the public to make sense of what is happening, but that is not what I have observed at my school.
I teach at the University of Washington and in the most recent term, I taught a small group of honors students and spent some of the time discussing the challenge of sense-making in the modern world. I teach a computer science course, so we particularly focused on the conundrum of how we can find ourselves so confused at a time when technology has given us more access to information than humans have ever experienced.
We read the book Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything: A Theory of Human Misunderstanding by Bobby Duffy. He ended the book with practical advice that can help us to better understand the world we live in and I find his advice highly relevant to the crisis we face today.
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He warns us not to focus on extreme examples that lead us astray and encourages us to figure out what’s real. Each one of us who watched the George Floyd video has felt a deep sense of outrage and sadness. But we have to be careful not to allow our emotion to take over and cloud our judgment. We must question whether this is a common situation or an outlier.
Kentucky University Associate Professor Wilfred Reilly provides an answer in his book Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About. His first “Taboo Obvious Fact #1” is that, “The Police Aren’t Murdering Black People.” He carefully examines the data to conclude that, “there is no ‘epidemic’ of African Americans being murdered by police in the U.S.A.”
But why take Professor Reilly’s word for it? The Washington Post allows anyone to explore their database of police shootings since 2015. You can verify that between 2015 and 2019, a total of 1,194 blacks were killed by police, which is an average of 239 per year. This is less than four percent of the number of blacks killed in the country during those same years. You can also verify that only fifteen unarmed black people were killed by police officers in 2019.
Duffy also advises us to “accept the emotion but challenge the thought.” Like many others, I found that watching that video made me angry at police officers. Duffy’s point is that we can’t stop the emotional reaction and shouldn’t want to, but we also need to be careful to use reason to consider whether our response is appropriate. I recommend two thought experiments to activate our rational thought processes.
First, I would ask people to consider whether they have encountered any police who they believe are well meaning and behaving uprightly. I spent hours glued to the TV watching local coverage of the protests and I saw many police who were reaching out to protestors and negotiating with them. I was particularly impressed with the Chief of Police from Bellevue who went to the front lines to talk to protestors when his city was targeted by looters.
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Second, I would ask people what percent of the police force they believe are well-intentioned and trying to do the right thing. It’s easy to give a flippant answer that there are only a few good cops, but if you think about the tens of thousands of police involved in operations all over the country, it is difficult to conclude that the incidents we have seen of police misconduct are representative of the entire force. I estimate that at least ninety percent of the officers are behaving honorably. We might question their tactics, although we should also recognize the extreme pressure they are experiencing.
We have been bombarded with a flood of emotional video in the last few weeks starting with the killing of George Floyd and then the intense protests and chaotic rioting and looting of one major city after another. I came away with a desire to see order and the rule of law restored and that made me appreciate police even more.
I attempted to express that support in an email that I sent to our local mailing list of the AAUP (the American Association of University Professors). My call for honoring the police was met with derision. I was accused of failing to listen to the voices of black and brown people who suffer at the hands of the police and I was called a racist.
I was disappointed that my faculty colleagues could not agree that stereotyping of any group, even a group as unpopular as the police, should be discouraged. Nobody seemed to care that here in Seattle our buildings are being spray-painted with the slogan ACAB, meaning “All Cops are Bastards.”
This reminds me of how we treated returning Vietnam veterans. The war was unpopular and we had been repeatedly lied to as a nation. We knew that many military officials had behaved badly and we were all too familiar with outrages like the My Lai massacre. So we gave the returning vets no parades and did not thank them for their service. If anything, we made them feel ashamed to have taken part in the war. In retrospect, most Americans feel we treated them shabbily. Most of the vets were well-meaning individuals who had answered their country’s call to military service. They didn’t deserve that.
I agree with my faculty colleagues that in this moment we must recognize the anger being expressed by protestors and take the time to listen to the grievances of black and brown people who feel they have been abused by the police. But we need to balance the conversation by listening to and honoring the hundreds of thousands of police officers who risk their lives to maintain order in our society.
Stuart Reges is a principal lecturer of computer science at the University of Washington.