By Jonathan Dopp
The cops. The ones you hate. The ones that only exist to violate your rights or murder you needlessly. We are everything you fear. We are everything you hate and despise. We act recklessly, with no regard for life or public safety. This is the popular view in America right now.
The police officers of America have been on the constantly swinging pendulum of American culture. We have been hailed as heroes and we have been demonized as monsters. Unfortunately, America now views their police officers as monsters again.
No one cares about the good we do. Very few ever even hear about it. They don’t understand what we do, and they don’t want to understand. Ours is a job that most people know needs to be done, but would rather not know how.
Statistics show that police work is not as dangerous or deadly as say, commercial fishing or a host of other professions. The dangerous part of our job, the part that people never factor in, cannot be measured in fatalities in our ranks. It comes from the psychological damage caused by living within the dark side of society, the side that most people only see—or think they see—in movies.
The stress caused by the things we see on a daily basis is immeasurable. Added to that is the knowledge that the people we serve really only care that we exist when they need something from us. They expect that we will run toward them in their time of need. But they also expect that we make life-changing, split-second decisions with a surgeon’s precision in the middle of the night, while we are scared to death. Then they will spend months dissecting the decision we had barely seconds to make.
In his Dec. 7 article, Pierre Tristam claimed that cops “get away with murder” and asked, “What white person has experienced the assumption of threat that every black man has to live with in moist whites’ eyes when they see him on the sidewalk, entering the elevator, waiting his turn at the ATM?” Coincidentally, the police have experienced this very attitude. We are judged, not by who we are as people, but by what we do for a living.
Everywhere we go we must question those around us and wonder whether or not they support what we do. We must question whether or not the man next to us is about to murder us, because of what we represent. Most police officers do not even openly admit to what they do for a living outside of their trusted circles for these very reasons. We don’t want people to know what we do because we know that throngs within society despise our existence and what we represent.
What the police represent varies, depending on who you talk to. To some we are saviors, to others we are oppressive militants. But, in general, we represent “Big Brother.” We are that arm of the government that occasionally infiltrates peoples’ private lives. We are there to tell you what to do, so to speak, and people don’t like that. It is important to remember, however, that there are rules we must play by. We are not able to trample your rights unchecked, contrary to popular belief. Furthermore, without the efforts of law enforcement, the weak, the innocent and law-abiding citizens would be left to fend for themselves against the “wolves” of society.
If there were a national conversation regarding the moral competence of any other group of people, it would be considered racist or prejudiced. We as a society are not allowed to discuss groups of people in generalities, because it is wrong. It is presumptuous and it is unfounded without knowing each individual member of that class and examining their personal behavior. Why is it then, that a whole nation can engage in this sort of behavior about “the cops?” Why can we be judged based on the color of the uniform we wear to work while no other class of people can be judged unilaterally?
There are some things that society as a whole needs to recognize about the police. First and foremost, we are human beings too. We have hopes and dreams, we love, we laugh, we cry and we get scared. It is no easy task to walk into many of the situations that we must walk into every day at work. We must swallow that fear and channel it into healthy focus. Society needs to recognize that we are not mindless robots programmed to kill young black men. But when threatened, we get scared and we react the same way that any other scared person would react. We go into self-preservation mode and do whatever it takes to survive.
The other thing that I feel compelled to point out is that we are not required by law to be victims. I strongly encourage the questioning of the police. I believe it is fundamental to the American justice system and that it is a basic right of any American citizen. But questioning the police is a far cry from assaulting the police.
Furthermore, the acceptable arena for these questions, especially in complex situations, is in a court of law. As a young deputy, I learned many lessons sitting in a courtroom, lessons in law and in humility. I have made mistakes in my career and have taken the stand to testify in “bad cases.” These cases were not bad because I intentionally violated someone’s rights. They were bad because I, as a human being learning a new career, made mistakes. Regardless of whether the defendant was black or white, my mistakes were made evident in court. This does not mean that the defendants in these cases were innocent, because I know they weren’t. But due to an oversight in a rule of law, the case against them was dismissed. Proof that the justice system does work, generally speaking, and allows guilty people to walk free when the police make mistakes.
Another thing that I feel that people need to understand is that we will defend ourselves and, generally speaking, we are good at it. If you are told that you are under arrest, “don’t touch me” and “no I’m not” are not options for you. Again, the proper forum for these challenges is in court. If you decide to contest these matters with violence on the street, we will defend ourselves and use necessary force to affect an arrest.
It also needs to be understood that there are scenarios in which a police officer is fully justified in shooting an unarmed person. Many factors come into play here. Unless you understand the law and factors that weigh into these decisions, you should reserve judgment until the facts of the case are clear and you have a chance to actually read and understand the applicable laws. This is real life. We do not shoot guns out of people’s hands. We do not shoot people in the leg. We shoot to stop a threat to our safety or the safety of others. If we are shooting at you, it is because we feel we are justified in the use of deadly force. Deadly force, as the name implies, is deadly.
The rule of law is paramount in this country. Without it, we would quickly slip into scenes mimicking “The Purge.” We will not retreat from an arrest. We will not accept that you think we are wrong and just walk away. Of all the people I’ve arrested in my career, none of them thought they should be arrested. Judges and juries make those decisions, not you. That is the rule of law in this country. If the police were to retreat from making an arrest simply because the offender thought he or she was wrong, there would be no rule of law.
The police in this nation are willing to be whatever society needs us to be. We have been heroes and we have been villains. We have enforced unpopular laws and have restored order to communities, even when we agree with the anger of the mob. We will be your scapegoat and we will be questioned and ridiculed. No matter what you need us to be, we will always be there for you. We will put on our uniform and do our best to play the role society needs us to play.
There is one thing, however, that we will not be for you. We will not be victims. Our principles won’t allow us to be so. Our desire to go home to our families at shift’s end is too strong. Cast stones and question tactics. Poke us in the eye with your jokes. Mock us behind our backs. That, we can take, as we have for a long time. But don’t expect us to be victims. We are the ones you call when you have been victimized by crime or wrongdoing. When you ask us, your protectors, to be victims, what does that make you?
Jonathan Dopp, an eight-year veteran of the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, wrote this as an individual and a career law enforcement officer. The opinions represented here are his own and not necessarily those of the Sheriff’s Office.