This is a column by someone who grew up in a cop family, for people who are members of cop families.
(If you are angry at the failings and abuses of law enforcement, I see and appreciate you but you are not the intended audience. You’re welcome to join, though.)
My dad, whom I love tremendously, recently retired after 35 years at the same police department. I’ve never seen him sit with his back to the door. He never leaves the house without a gun.
Law enforcement trained my dad to spend every waking hour in a state of constant hypervigilance. It is not a negative reflection on him to say that system should not operate in the way it does.
Law enforcement normalizes repeated exposure to traumatic events and slaps a “hero” sticker on it instead of providing a culture of ongoing care (because therapy is for wimps). It is not a negative reflection on the cop you love to say “we shouldn’t expect human beings to swallow that much fear without experiencing lasting damage.”
Some become cops because they want to protect their communities. Others do so from a place of economic hardship, seeking class mobility in a country where that becomes harder every day. The cop you love probably had good intentions of joining the force. They probably intend to do right by their community when they suit up for work.
That doesn’t mean that policing in the United States isn’t an oppressive and unworkable system.
We don’t have to take every criticism of modern policing personally. I promise, we don’t. The way federal funding structures incentivize throwing massive amounts of money at militarization instead of providing appropriate care to human beings in crisis? It’s not about us.
We are tough people, people who know what it’s like to worry about what our family members will encounter at work every day. We need to be able to channel that toughness and take a step back when we see people hurling their frustration at officers in high-profile situations. We need to be able to recognize that they’re not actually attacking our family; they’re being harmed by a system that fails to protect or serve and they’re angry about it. We need to be able to take a look at why people are so angry before giving in to the white-hot instinct to defend.
We need to recognize the obvious institutional failures and abuses and join in the fight to change them. We cannot dig in our heels and insist they’re not happening just because there are good people in the ranks. We can care about police as individual people without defending a law enforcement structure that is doing incredible amounts of harm.
Before you get defensive, take a deep breath. I’m not saying the cop you love is a bad person. I’m not even saying cops themselves are responsible for all of these problems. Many harms blamed on policing are issues for which judges and politicians should be getting the brunt of public anger. The thing is, we can highlight places where police are not necessarily the root cause of the problem without saying the problem doesn’t exist – or denying that the culture of law enforcement exacerbates it.
Because that instinct you feel to throw down the moment someone criticizes a cop you’ve never met? That’s part of it.
Humans band together as a survival mechanism. We get this urge to protect the brotherhood and some might say it’s a job perk (like how we never get speeding tickets). But mostly it’s part of a larger, more sinister plot to keep poor, working-class, and middle-class people fighting with each other instead of tackling the problems at the top.
The legal system is not designed to help average people, even if some cops try really hard to make it that way. If cops and the people who care about them could take a second to look at that, there might be space for some understanding. That understanding could lead to a better relationship with the public, and safer working conditions for the people we love. We might even be able to create a system that really does protect and serve our communities.
As a queer prison abolitionist who grew up worrying whether their cop dad would get home safe every night, I believe this would do more for cop families than any “back the blue” social media post ever could.
Bre Kidman is an artist, activist, and attorney (in that order), and the first openly non-binary person in history to run for the U.S. Senate. They would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the political industrial complex at [email protected].