Column by Sharon Byrne
The Polarity Trap
A powerful, polarized argument is emerging in our collective consciousness:
The police are over-armed, paranoid, and trigger-happy. They shoot innocents, whose sole mistake was to be the wrong color, or in the wrong place at the wrong time. And they’re never held accountable for it.
Net: Police are Bad.
Police put their lives on the line for the public. They’re often outmanned and outgunned by dangerous criminals. They follow police protocols and procedures. In defending themselves and the public from harm, they face scorn from those they are sworn to protect.
Net: Police Are Justified.
It feels like we’ve lost respect for our officers, as defenders of the law, and started seeing them as oppressors, who use the law against us, a meme that is on fire in national media. Why? Because there are places where the police do not have good relationships with the citizenry, where there are elements of oppression instead of protection. And now that this notion has crystallized in our national consciousness, there’s no un-ringing that bell. Cops that do great work in their communities are tarred with this same brush.
If police tactics have escalated, perhaps it’s because police face increasing hostility. This was scrawled at Gutierrez and State:
Cops are hoisted up as de-facto villains in whatever play is currently being acted out by those with long-simmering frustrations. Cops are taunted and provoked, as though antagonists want police to lose control so they can point and scream, “Police brutality!”
There’s a time for diplomacy, and then there’s a time for threat assessment. Will there be more cop funerals if we insist they try diplomacy first in every situation?
Just Don’t Do Anything That Makes Us Uncomfortable.
In Santa Barbara, that tends to be the prevailing sentiment. Please, officers, keep us from having to encounter someone peeing in public, or shouting the odds in a severe mental illness crisis when we’re going past them on the street.
Our mental health system cannot cope with these individuals. The county just declined to adopt Laura’s Law, so we’ll keep turning the severely mentally ill back out onto our streets. There, the public encounters them, and it’s uncomfortable, to say the least.
Who will they call?
Responding officers will then face unpalatable choices: Is a crime being committed? If no, leave them where they are. If yes, then take the individual to the jail, the county’s de-facto mental institution. Hopefully they won’t resist arrest, because police tactics for dealing with the uncooperative and hostile look ugly to us.
Pressure to reduce crime, in full view of a more scrutinizing, yet simultaneously squeamish, public have wedged police into a rapidly narrowing pincer of conflicting public sentiment. Police should deal with crime and criminals, but be incredibly humanitarian about it so we can all feel good.
Is this realistic?
One way out is to implement more community-based policing. Cops that know the community, and are welcomed within it, are far less likely to mistake community members as a threat. It’s hard for taunters to gain traction in attacking cops that we see at the grocery store, at the gas station, and whose kids go to school with our kids. We know them. They know us. There’s a relationship.
Body cams and other new technologies can also help with increased accountability and transparency. Australia’s had them for years. The LA Police Commission just approved them.
We must restore a sense of trust between the police and the community they serve, and everyone needs to be part of that effort. The cop on the street is not responsible for every single injustice ever inflicted on any community. And cops need to know that answers of ‘procedure’ can be deeply unsatisfying to community members who feel wronged. Embracing transparency might be a police force’s fast-track route to casting off community suspicions and hostility.