Fear Should Not Govern Law Enforcement Officers

Last year marked a growing and concerning trend among US law enforcement officers: That of ‘frightened’ police officers shooting unarmed Black civilians. While police-on-civilian violence has been a problem for as long as we’ve had police, and it has been a particular issue for people of colour, several notable cases last year sparked widespread protests, and discussions, about whether we had reached the tipping point when it comes to reforming police departments – and what policing should even look like in the United States.

I kept coming back to the same theme, over and over again: The claim, repeatedly, that police officers were ‘frightened’ by the people they shot, or choked, or brutalised to death. My anger at these deaths remains, as does my frustration with the fact that police seem to think they can get away with them – no small wonder, in a world where killer cops are almost always given the all clear by grand jurors, protected by their departments, kept insulated from repercussions beyond, perhaps, a simple suspension. They, along with those who use a ‘stand your ground’ (‘I was frightened!’) defense can also rest easy knowing that it is the lives of people of colour they are taking, and that society doesn’t value those lives.

Yet, this fear thing. Let’s return to it.

Law enforcement is a dangerous job. Whatever your opinion of police officers and other law enforcement officers and how they do their work, this must be acknowledged. People like Highway Patrol officers, for example, are at a greater risk of being involved in car accidents simply because they spend more time on the road. They’re at a greater risk of being injured or killed by vehicles because they have to step out of their units to address various situations.

In fact, the entire point of law enforcement, in many ways, is to get involved in dangerous situations. Public service can involve a great deal of tasks, but in many cases, people call the police because they are concerned about a situation that has become dangerous. They call the police during domestic violence disputes, when someone has a gun in an argument that looks like it might be escalating, in many other settings where people are doing or clearly considering dangerous things. Police also get called, of course, for things like vandalism and theft, but they don’t necessarily know what kinds of situations they will be called into.

This is why police officers are, ostensibly, carefully trained in the police academy to deal with a wide range of situations. They are, theoretically, trained on reading people and situations, and on determining how to react, even when very limited information and time is available. It’s why police early in their careers are sent out with seasoned officers to patrol, on the grounds that they need grounding and mentoring from fellow officers who have the skillset needed to advance their training and help them become better, strong, more effective officers. It’s why law enforcement officers often work in pairs, to create an opportunity for partners to make collective decisions about how to respond to and control situations.

Law enforcement is a dangerous job. When you open a door, you might be facing down a man with a gun, a meth lab, a domestic violence situation, a rape victim, a business owner upset about a brick thrown through her window. Dispatch might have provided as much information as possible, but dispatch is only as accurate as the report from the scene, and sometimes information gets garbled. Sometimes a police officer responds to a situation without direction from dispatch; a cop sees a robbery in progress, for example, or stumbles upon a scene where a man is threatening people with a gun.

Accepting danger must, perforce, be part of a law enforcement career. This job requires walking into dangerous situations, remaining calm, and making smart decisions. It requires being able to make rapid and accurate threat assessments, without profiling people. If you enter the scene of a bank robbery in progress, you can’t assume that the Black man at the end of the counter is the robber; maybe he’s being used as a foil by the blonde woman behind the counter while she rummages through the till. You can’t assume that the Latino strolling down the street is the vandal who tagged a window; maybe it was the white kid you passed without a second glance.

You have to judge people not by the colour of their skin, but by their behaviour. Maybe that Latino was loose and relaxed and comfortable until your car drove by, but can you blame him? He’s probably been hassled and harassed by cops before, is worried about what he’s facing next. Maybe that Black man looks nervous because a cop just walked into the bank and he’s worried that he’s going to get shot.

Law enforcement is a dangerous job. People who are easily scared probably should not be law enforcement officers, because frightened people make bad decisions, and people who are feeling vulnerable and uncertain tend to act rashly. People who are scared shoot first and ask questions later, they assume that someone reaching for a wallet or an asthma inhaler is going for a gun, they shoot a man who is walking away with his hands up. Frightened people make terrible, fatal, awful decisions, which is why, in the civilian world, we are constantly reminded to not act out of fear or panic; a lesson that is apparently not taught to police officers.

That’s not to say that officers shouldn’t have an appreciation for the dangers of their work, or shouldn’t be aware in potentially explosive situations. It just means that fear shouldn’t be on the law enforcement tool belt, any more, perhaps, than guns. Police are, according to their mission, here to protect the safety of the public first and foremost; people of colour are members of the public, not the enemy. Placing them as objects of fear isn’t just illogical, either: It’s also racist.

Image: Day 4, West Midlands Police, Flickr