But The Nice Officer Is Just Here To Help

Let me tell you about the time that I was presenting as male, was arrested, and was jailed with male prisoners.

Actually, let me not.

Let me talk, instead, about the widespread and rather touching belief that law enforcement officers are ‘here to help,’ and why it is that so many of us do not believe that for one minute. There are, shall we say, certain classes of people who express shock and surprise when informed that many of us do not trust law enforcement. These are the same people who insist that we should report our rapes, who suggest calling the police for help when we are experiencing psychiatric crises, who think of the police as supergreat folks who can do no wrong.

Here’s the thing. Many of the social attitudes and preconceived notions that exist in society also exist in a law enforcement context. Except that they are backed up with badges and guns, and that makes them a lot harder to confront. Being tasked with the protection of their communities, law enforcement officers sometimes interpret that mission in some rather peculiar ways, like, say, tasing people to death because they are mentally ill, shooting protesters in the back when they are attempting to comply with an order to disperse, detaining transgender prisoners in unsafe facilities, pulling people over because they are the wrong colour, hassling teens in full awareness that those teens are probably not aware of their legal rights, executing young Black men on subway platforms in full view of the public, and harrying the homeless for being in the wrong neighborhood.

I know people who have a very different perception of the police than I do. Their only interactions with law enforcement have been when they have called the police for assistance, and the nice officer came out to their homes or businesses and helped out. To me, the idea of going to the police for assistance is completely alien. The police are pretty much the last people I would call for help, because so many of my interactions with police have been so very sour.

Remember how we talk, a lot, about how we internalise social attitudes and they express in the way that we think about people, and how that is bad? How, for example, by being white, I hold both privilege and power and unconsciously exercise them, sometimes in unexpected ways? How, simply by living in the society that I live in, I have inherited and contribute to a lot of structural problems?

Well, in law enforcement, it’s not happening on a subconscious level. While there may be vigorous denials that profiling occurs, it definitely does. How do I know? Because I’ve watched my interactions with law enforcement evolve. I’ve seen how attitudes towards me change depending on how old I look, and my gender presentation. I have seen how a person who is identical to me in every way except one, the colour of ou skin, will be treated completely differently by law enforcement.

I have seen, firsthand, the presumption of criminality. Guilty until proved innocent. I have witnessed truly terrible injustices committed by law enforcement because of the attitudes that are not running below the surface, but actively encouraged, during law enforcement training. People die because of the assumptions made about them, whether we are discussing people shot and tasered by police or people in desperate need of help who are not helped because they aren’t ‘the right kind of people.’

I wish this wasn’t true. I really do. And I know and love some really terrific people who happen to be police officers, and who do the kind of policing I like, focused on building and respecting community instead of on profiling people. But I have interacted with and heard about too many examples of the other kind to find law enforcement trustworthy. In my experience, law enforcement officers have rarely acted in my best interests and have in fact actively exposed me to danger.

There’s a reason people don’t trust police. It’s not made up. It’s not ‘cultural’ and it’s not ‘taught.’ It is learned, through bitter experience. It is learned when the police respond to complaints from the neighbours about domestic violence and do nothing, over and over again. It is learned when you watch your parents repeatedly harassed because they look or dress the wrong way. It is learned when you are sitting in the interview room and you realise that the people on the other side of the table do not view you as a human being. It is learned when you attend funerals for people who ran afoul of law enforcement simply because they existed.

Trust is something that needs to be earned, not something that is assumed and effortlessly granted. Trust is not something that I assign to people without good reason, let alone to entire classes of people. If you happen to be a person who does trust law enforcement, it’s worth asking what the basis for that trust is, and what your experiences with law enforcement are like. Even if you are in a position of privilege and you have been taught to trust law enforcement and have had positive interactions with police officers, can you perhaps see how other people might not share that trust and those experiences? How people who are different from you may, in fact, have a very different history when it comes to interactions with police?

I will  never forget the day that a police officer informed me that he ‘owned’ me and that the State of California ‘owned’ me.

Tell me, why would I trust someone who thinks that?