Magazine | September 22, 2014, Issue

A Job Like No Other

On policing

The problem with some issues is that everything is true. Both sides of the question have merit. Which truths do you emphasize? Which truths seem most important in a given year or on a given day?

I sometimes think that everything people say about immigration is true. Hawks (like me) are right; so are doves, or immigration liberals, to a degree. Lately, policing has been in the news. This is because an officer shot and killed an unarmed young man in Ferguson, Mo. The officer is white; the victim was black. That’s why we know about the case.

The police have come in for a very hard time on left and right. Are there police abuses? Of course. Do the police need to be policed, night and day? Of course. Does a badge make a person a lord or a god? Of course not. Should every government agency, be it ever so humble, have a SWAT team? No.

To speak personally for a moment, I have had family members on the wrong side of the law. I have not had a family member who has worn a badge. I know about police abuses, and, even more, about fear of such abuses. I don’t think I need any lectures. Me good civil libertarian.

But: I sympathize with the police. I am grateful for them. And I try to slip into their shoes, or those of their families.

The police have a difficult, sometimes impossible job. They have to act defensively most of the time. (This “action” can be more like inaction.) They have to engage in rope-a-dope. Do you remember this boxing technique? It was popularized by Muhammad Ali. A fighter sticks to the ropes, letting his opponent punch him, absorbing the blows, hoping the opponent will tire and slip up.

“The best defense is a good offense,” goes an old saying. As I understand it, this option is seldom available to the police. They must wait to be struck.

And they have to wait till the last possible second — certainly before pulling the trigger. Once they’ve done so, there will always be people who say, “It wasn’t the last possible second. The cop didn’t need to pull the trigger.” For PR purposes, the cop may be better off dead. He can say from beyond the grave, “See, I told you I was in danger!”

I once had the experience of umping a baseball game — calling balls and strikes. It was miserable. I had always played baseball, and watched baseball, and I knew the game exceptionally well (if I say so myself). But I’d had no idea umping was so hard. From then on, I had greater sympathy for umps and refs. I thought that athletes, and maybe fans, should have to ump or ref a bit. That would make them less judgmental.

And I’m just talking about games! What about life-and-death situations out on the streets? Maybe we should all police, for an hour or two. And not in some cute Mayberry but in explosive communities. Anyone can theorize about policing — but, as in war, theory can go out the window when real life is confronted.

Speaking of war: “Demilitarize the police!” is the cri du jour. Fine. Demilitarize the police. But when a military or quasi-military posture is called for, don’t let the police stand there, demilitarized. Don’t sacrifice them to suit a more traditional view of policing. Call in the actual military.

It could be we want the police to be like the bobby in Mary Poppins. “The constable’s responstable.” I think that would be lovely. The police could concentrate on truancy and a little shoplifting. But America is a terribly violent place, and our lives are made worse by the racialization of everything. We ask our policemen to put their necks on the line, for us all.

The truth is, I think, we want the police to appear when we want them to appear, applying exactly the amount of force we deem necessary. We want them to be invisible, until we are threatened, when we want them to swoop in out of nowhere to save the day. We want them to be perfect — according to our own views of perfection. In this sense, a policeman’s job is thankless.

I think of an oft-quoted verse from Kipling, about Tommy, the soldier who is despised until he is desperately needed. “…it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’/But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.”

In recent weeks, I have heard people snort about the uniforms policemen wear: Our cops, suffering from warrior envy, or delusions of grandeur, think they’re Rambo or something. I myself don’t think police should strut around like special-ops specimens. But I also think of another verse from that same Kipling poem: “Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep/Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap.”

#page#Above, I (sardonically) mentioned the PR advantages of dying. There is scarcely anything more moving than a police funeral. The men march somberly in their dress blues, to the wailing of the bagpipes. Who can fail to tear up? “Our finest! Our finest!” we say. Sure. But sometimes our finest have to scramble to stay alive, and protect our behinds. They have to make snap decisions in harrowing circumstances.

But it’s their job, you can say. True. But what a job. Well, they didn’t have to sign up for it. They could work in a hardware store. Again, true. But thank heaven someone is willing to do this work (and I wouldn’t sign up for it).

The police face two criticisms, it seems to me. The first is, they’re agents of a police state. Anybody who believes that America is a police state, or anything remotely like it, should be sentenced to live in a police state, for at least a day. The second criticism is that the police are lazy doughnut-scarfers, like the cops in The Simpsons. There are no doubt such cops, and power-crazed brutes, too.

But let me introduce you to a non-theoretical cop: a National Review reader in a major midwestern city, and an occasional correspondent of mine. In the midst of the debate about policing occasioned by the Ferguson affair, he wrote to tell me about his day.

“We went to serve a drug and gun warrant. The house had surveillance cameras and reinforced doors. Which means they had plenty of warning that we were coming. As the TAC team makes entry, a suspect peeks out the window, sees the cover team standing outside, and fires a round at us. Lucky for us, he’s a bad shot. The TAC team soon takes all four occupants into custody without further incident.”

A TAC team, as I understand it, is a paramilitary unit similar to a SWAT team.

“Two guns and cocaine were recovered from the house. The house was notable only for the abundance of human feces on the floor and the dead mice everywhere….The neighbors lived in fear because of this house, but didn’t call the police. Similar scenes play out across the country countless times a day.”

Giving vent to some frustration, my correspondent continued, “I keep hearing that the police are the problem, that our paramilitary dress agitates sensitivities. If we simply wore friendlier uniforms and had a lighter touch, problems would disappear.” Chastising some conservatives, he said, “The same people who mock the Left for demanding an assault-weapons ban based solely on the aesthetics of a firearm are now demanding that we conform policing to aesthetics. If only we turned in our M-4s for wooden nightsticks, America would revert to some Tocquevillean ideal, and we could all live in a Norman Rockwell painting.”

He said that police were seeing the effects of deep social problems. And “until we deal with why someone would so casually shoot at the police, I’ll take my military-style tactics and equipment and I’ll go home at the end of the day, whether my appearance has offended political sensitivities or not.”

This is what I want for the police: that they be able to go home at the end of the day, to their families. I want them to have lopsided advantages over the criminal element. I don’t want a fair fight, I want an unfair fight: in favor of the cops. I realize that some of them will “fall” in the “line of duty.” (“Fall” can be an annoying euphemism.) But I want them to have every chance of standing. And if they are stripped of necessary tools, I want them to quit, rather than be sitting ducks.

My correspondent said to me, “This was my day today,” and then explained that he was shot at. I reflected on what was my biggest problem that day. I was at the Salzburg Festival, doing some annual jobs. What was my biggest problem? That I was too hot in the world’s most beautiful concert hall, the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum, listening to a Schubertiade? Or that I had consumed one or two sweets too many?

When it comes to policing, as to other issues, many things are true. Post-Ferguson, when the police are being hammered, I feel more appreciative than ever.

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