Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Biggest Danger of Police Work Is Not What You Think

I may edit this later to be a proper, stand-alone article, but for now, I'm just going to paste it and give you some background. I used to be a cop, and my little brother and his wife still are. My brother's Facebook posts are pretty much limited to pictures of American flags and memes celebrating the heroism of police and military personnel. It's the kind of starry-eyed, patriotic stuff I might have posted when I was a ten-year-old Cub Scout if we'd had Facebook back then. On one of these recent posts--a video monologue by a young woman gushing about how wonderful police were and attacking anyone who felt less intensely about it than she did--one commenter dared to offer that, while police work was indeed both dangerous and noble, it wasn't the most dangerous job in the world, statistically speaking. Specifically, he cited construction work as being more dangerous. Predictably, there was a vicious dogpile as law enforcement officers and those who love them tore the man to shreds for having the temerity to share such an offensive fact. The poor guy scrambled to clarify that he had no ill will towards the police, but it wasn't enough. They got nasty, so he got nasty back, and it completely fell apart. At that point, I posted this:


John, just walk away. Reason won't work here, and now you're letting them drag you down to their level of throwing profanities. You're dealing with emotional people who've had their identity threatened by an out-group member, and the blind panic it causes is making them resort to what psychologists call "splitting." They only know how to see you as one of two things: a cheerleader who's 100% supportive, 0% critical, and 100% right, or a traitorous monster who's 100% against them, 0% supportive, and 100% wrong. You're not willing to be either one of those things, and they're incapable of seeing you as anything else, so you might as well disengage.

You can't just say they're good people taking big risks to do a good job, the same as many other good people who take big risks to do good jobs. You have to say they're FUCKING AWESOME!!!! people doing THE MOST DANGEROUS JOB IN THE *WORLD* to SELFLESSLY AND HEROICALLY PERFORM MIRACLES BY SAVING UNSAVEABLE LIVES AND DEFENDING FREEDOM AGAINST THE FORCES OF EEEVUHL!!!!

Construction is dangerous, John. So are logging, farming, and a bunch of other things, including law enforcement. I know this from experience. I worked a construction job where I carried a gun to work (because of attacks by union protesters) and a police job where I wasn't allowed to. I injured my back seven years ago doing farm work, and it still hurts. I've needed stitches from doing demolition. And while I've gotten hurt in training, the only thing that happened to me on-duty as a cop was that I got fat sitting in a car waiting for something to happen. There's a big difference with law enforcement, though, and it's not about physical danger, even though a lot of LEOs would like to think so.

The difference is social isolation. People don't stop being your friend because you become a construction worker. When people feel frustrated, trapped, and oppressed, they don't blame construction workers. When people are angry at the government, they don't form militias and fantasize about killing construction workers. Right-wing radio talk show hosts don't instruct their listeners on the best part of the body to aim at when shooting a construction worker. If a construction worker kills someone in self-defense, left-wingers don't take to the streets yelling that all construction workers are murderers. If a construction worker breaks the law, people don't say that construction is a corrupt occupation.

Nobody expects construction workers to have superhuman powers. Nobody says construction workers should be held to a higher standard than everyone else. Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" didn't get on the New York Times best seller list by claiming that construction workers should be expected to have psychic powers that allow them to instantly distinguish threats from things that only look like threats. When comic book writers create superheroes to fill the role of modern mythological gods, they don't have Superman and Batman doing construction. They have them doing the things cops do.

So cops have these two huge burdens--on the one hand, everybody holds them to an impossible standard, and on the other hand, everyone hates them for not living up to it. Even people who don't actively dislike them, who say they appreciate the work the police do, usually don't actually want to be friends with cops. At the same time cops are being scorned and isolated by most of society, they're also trying to protect and serve that same society. It's like trying to be a loving, generous parent to a teenager who tells you every day that she hates you...except she never outgrows it or feels sorry for it, ever, and now and again, she might try to back over you with a car. That's what being a cop is like.

People who've been rejected and bullied their whole lives at least have some coping skills in place for dealing with this. But if you take someone who's always been popular and fit in with their peers--the kind of conformist who's most likely to get hired as a LEO--and you put them in this position, they don't know how to deal with it. They get desperate for external validation, and they quickly learn that about the only place they'll get it is from other cops, families of cops, and maybe a small handful of cop groupies.

So when you, as an outsider, come along and say something about cops that's not completely fawning and uncritical, they're going to feel like you're out to get them. Given that the training environment for the past 25 years has been to overemphasize street survival, rehearsing how to deal with unexpected deadly threats, and encouraging officers to regard the slightest hint of resistance as being a threat to their lives, the net effect is that if you contradict them even a little bit, their emotional reaction is going to be the same as if you had tried to stab them in the throat. If anything, they're to be applauded for their restraint.

So, John, just apologize for the disturbance, thank the nice officers for their brave and selfless work, and disappear...because that's the best outcome you're going to get.

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