It’s easy to say fuck the police. But we know we need them. We need the police to protect us, although quite often it seems like we need to be protected from the police. But when people agitate for more effective policing they are not suggesting the institution be eliminated, but demanding that police do their jobs better. But while it’s important to be critical of the police, especially in the midst of a national policing crisis, we cannot escape or even comprehend our policing crisis without knowing what the police are thinking.
Earlier this year I met a black police officer who currently serves on the force of a major American police department. Each time we spoke I was impressed at how willing he is to be critical of his fellow officers, and how blunt he was in assessing the state of policing in the United States today.
Most police officers are not allowed to give interviews, which is perhaps understandable, but also a shame, because it denies people the opportunity to add their perspective. My cop friend, who I’ll call Marc, agreed to let me publish one of our conversations, as long as he could remain anonymous. Below is our interview, lightly edited for clarity.
Toure: Why do you think so many shocking policing incidents have happened over the last year?
Marc: Some of it has to do with the petulance of police. What I mean by the petulance, and I’ve argued with some co-workers about this, we have to be held to a higher standard. We took an oath. The community didn’t take an oath to protect the community—we would like them to, we would like them to be part of the solution. But they made no promises and took no oath. We did. We volunteered for this job and we are held to a higher standard.
In a lot of the situations I’m referring to, we’re not talking about how police deal with criminals. We’re talking about unarmed people who may have committed some basic violation, or done nothing wrong, and then things go way off the rails.
That’s entitlement. Remember on South Park when Cartman started talking about, ‘Respect my authori-tah?’ And then he starts beating people? It’s an entitlement thing. You have to get back to the basic question of why do people want to do this job? And if you’re not from the inner-city but you wanna police the inner-city, I kinda have to question, why do you wanna do that? Not saying that that’s not honorable, but what are your motives behind that?
And I think it’s an entitlement thing. It’s like, ‘I’m wearing this badge and you need to respect me.’ So I pull you over and I expect your respect, but you’ve been harassed by police and disrespected and you have somewhere you want to go, so you give me a little bit of attitude. But instead of being an adult and controlling the situation and de-escalating it, now I escalate the situation and say shut your mouth. You say ‘Hold on sir, I’m a grown man. I won’t shut my mouth.’ Now we’re going back and forth and no one’s de-escalating the situation, it goes from zero to 100. And I think the police’s job is always to de-escalate the situation.
Like Sandra Bland, that situation irritates me because it was a simple ticket that shouldn’t even require anything. OK, she doesn’t like the police. People have a right to not like you. Get over it. It’s a God-given right for people to not like you. But, you can’t be disorderly to the police, so people need to understand the disorderly conduct thing.
But I also think cops have to understand not to take it too personal. I’m in a confrontational job and 99 percent of the time when I deal with someone it’s gonna be in a confrontational environment. Therefore it’s my responsibility to de-escalate the situation at all times.
But what we hear from the police is a fear of being overpowered or having their authority lost to a particular young, unarmed black man. You hear that narrative over and over.
It would be nice if everybody who is in law enforcement were skilled marital artists and skilled fighters. But unfortunately in a job that’s hard to get people to apply for anyway, there are people who are walking around this nation with a gun and a badge who have never been in a real fight. Never. Never been punched in the face before. So [they] don’t have confidence in that skill. So when a person balls his fist up or comes after you, the first thing you think is, ‘I know I can’t fight. And I have a gun on me.’ And there’s a fear that you’ll be overpowered and killed with my own weapon. A lot of cops have died this way.
They show you these videos in the academy. “How we die.” It’s not just fear of the black man, it’s fear of people within itself. But then we have the perception from the media that the black man is the animal. He’s stronger, bigger, faster, more aggressive. So the white person who never grew up around blacks, all he has is this perception that these individuals have this superhuman strength. And it’s like, before the fight even begins I already think I’m gonna lose. And the reality is if you can beat me up and overpower me then you have the ability to take the gun off my hip and kill me with my own weapon. That’s a strong possibility. And if I’m afraid for my life that’s all I need to use deadly force.
We hear cops saying over and over in these incidents, ‘He went for my gun, I feared for my life.’ It seems like there’s this playbook coming down from someone telling them, ‘If something happens say this, it’ll get you out of jail.’ Is there some reason why we keep hearing the same story over and over?
One of the main things they focus on in the academy is liability. You have to know the liability of the law. You’re carrying a tool that can end somebody’s life so you have to know when you can use it and when you can’t. It’s taught in the academy you can only use your weapon when you fear for your life or your safety, or the safety of others. It’s beat down that this is when you can use it. So officers across the nation will always say ‘Well, I was in fear for my life.’ You can’t say anything else because there’s no other reason to shoot somebody.
When you look at all these incidents which one makes you the sickest?
The Cincinnati one.
You can’t put yourself in harm’s way in order to use deadly force. Yes, we don’t wanna chase people and yes, if somebody runs from me it sucks to chase them, but you can’t just be bustin’ off at cars because they drive away. Especially if it’s not for something major. It’s not like this person was a rapist or a killer. We’re talking about a traffic stop. So that one was sickening. And South Carolina was sickening.
That was sickening. The guy’s running away. That’s called a chase. It’s time to run. Catch up to the person, tackle ’em, and then take ’em into custody. It sucks. God knows I don’t wanna run all the time but unfortunately that comes with the territory.
So this narrative of black lives being taken by cops, and then making national news so each incident becomes a big story on its own—has that had an impact on cops on the ground and how they do their job?
I think so. I truly honestly believe and think so. And I don’t think it’s just the movement, I think it’s a combination of stuff. They don’t feel like they’re gonna be backed by the mayors. I think one of the things we all want in our jobs is job security and the hope that we have bosses who support us. We all want supervisors to support us. And the community doesn’t support you, they never really have. If a cop dies there’s no national outcry, the community doesn’t really care. The mayor doesn’t support you because the mayor is a politician. The mayor, the county councilmen, they want votes. They want to win. So everybody has this fear they’ll set you up just to make national news and say ‘See we’re doing something.’
It’s almost like instead of saying ‘Lets get the facts,’ it’s, ‘Nah, lets make ’em [cops] guilty and we’ll figure it out later. To quiet the storm because we don’t want these Black Lives Matter people protesting in our backyard so we’ll hang the officer out to dry. Well who wants to be in a job where you’re hung out to dry?
Are you saying cops are going out on stops and feeling extra stress and tension and anxiety and thus officers are not de-escalating incidents, and they feel an anxiety because they don’t feel supported and they’re growing more aggressive toward citizens? Is that what you’re seeing?
Yes. I think cops are stressed out. It’s a stressful job anyway. And then it’s stress that your command will set you up just to appease the citizens. And the community now is more emboldened. More people are walking up to your face and sayin ‘f you’ and putting cameras in your face and almost becoming more disorderly. That’s happening now more than ever. You still have to be in authority cuz you don’t ever wanna lose authority. But you’re like why am I dealing with this?
Do you think policing biases officers against black people? That they’re so constantly interacting with or hearing about black men doing the wrong thing that they start to become biased against black men and expect that from them and any time they’re pulling over a black man they’re behaving more aggressively toward them.
Ninety percent of my job is confrontational. No one really wants to see me when I’m there. Therefore I’m not gonna [encounter] the best type of person. And over time seeing criminals, murderers, drug dealers, criminals, you begin to develop this baseline norm. This is why I don’t hang with a lot of cops. Because cops who hang out with cops then dwell in their own thoughts and perceptions of what reality is when that’s not reality. So what we end up becoming is an occupying force, no different than what our military does. Not to mention that a lot of law enforcement are prior military. I was in the military, too.
So they’ve now brought whatever aggressiveness and occupying force [mentality] into the department and deal with it the same way almost. I think all the community wants is accountability. I think police fail to realize that. And then the police say you’re not accountable to yourself so I’m not listening to anything you say because your points aren’t valid.
Essay originally appeared on August 27, 2015 in Vice.