We Are So Afraid

Teaching cops to see themselves as the last line of defense against a roiling mob of lawbreakers intent on raping and pillaging across the land has, shall we say, consequences: 

The most important thing for a police officer is to be sure they “go home at the end of the day,” they tell themselves repeatedly, including in police trainings on use of force. “It’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six,” is a common refrain every police officer has heard repeatedly throughout their careers. Officers and their union representatives have said it to me dozens of times over the years.

In reality, though, the people who pick up your garbage are significantly more likely to die on the job than police officers. That doesn’t mean police don’t have difficult jobs, that they aren’t subject to lesser assaults, or that they are never justified in using force. But in terms of going home to their families at night, construction workers, truck drivers, farmers, and fishermen all have more dangerous occupations.

Much of this exaggerated fear stems from how officers are trained. Amber Guyger had received deescalation training as mandated under Texas’ “Sandra Bland Act,” but she said she never considered following it over the course of her encounter with Botham Jean. And Dean had just completed 40 hours of CIT training aimed at dealing with people with mental illness; in essence, CIT courses are a version of deescalation training.

However, deescalation tactics are not typically included in the general use-of-force curriculum officers take at the academy. They’re treated as an extra, an add-on, not as a fundamental philosophy that should infuse every encounter where force is used. In addition, there is a sizable cottage industry of fear mongering cop trainers teaching officers to adopt a “warrior” mentality.

Is it just cops, though, when so much of our entertainment culture is about law enforcement? I mean, honestly, I see so many people who aren’t cops adopting the framework of “readiness” and buying “tactical” and “survival” shit for themselves, though the most they’re in danger of is missing out on a ground beef sale at the Hy-Vee.

That’s all they see all day long. That’s the conversation we’ve been having since 9/11 at least: How to prepare yourself for war. I was watching broadcast TV the other day, to catch the football game and every single promo for a TV show was about the police or military. SEAL. SWAT. Chicago PD. NCIS. SVU. Criminal Minds.

Not just cop culture but hyper-dramatized cop culture, where every moment is a life-or-death sitch, where it’s kill or be killed on the mean streets of whatever town. Nobody’s filling out paperwork or chipping in for an office cake or getting hassled about desk assignments. It’s just a parade of horrors, of us-against-the-horde life-or-death fights, and that gets inside your head, and the kind of people who who respond to those types of scenarios with FUCK YEAH LIGHT ‘EM UP are not who you want on the wall.

I think about this all the time. My neighborhood Facebook group, ordinarily less racist and paranoid than NextDoor, descended into chaos recently because a woman raised the alarm about rowdy kids in the park. Wasn’t anyone else worried, she asked, about how unsafe the park felt these days?

Were the youth shooting off firearms? Doing heroin? Torturing farm animals in ritual sacrifice to summon a flesh-eating demon from the Hellmouth?

Nope. They were swearing. Loudly.

Sixty-seven posts later, we had a thread featuring a parent opining that it was unwise to let a 12-year-old walk more than four blocks by himself here in Mayberry, that “we pay taxes” so therefore no kids should be in the public park absent everyone’s approval, that “the world” was “not like it used to be” and it was “time to move!”

Move where, no one could say, but presumably somewhere whiter and older, because that’s the only way to be safe. From the kids. Swearing.

I wanted to reach out to the 12-year-old who’s not allowed to walk anywhere by himself and offer him some drugs and a stripper in the gender(s) of his choosing. I wanted to bake the kids swearing in the park cookies and teach them some of David Simon’s dialogue, like if you’re gonna do this do it right. I wanted to tell everybody to get a fucking hobby and quit peering out your window looking for something to be upset about.

I wanted to scream that walling yourself off in your house and watching endless law enforcement shows about how the city’s going to kill you and gibbering online about not being able to control the behavior of everyone around you leads directly to exactly where you are, and you hate it here.

This supposedly smart mindset, where you’re always expecting the worst and prepared to meet it, guns blazing, doesn’t make you feel safe. It makes you fucking miserable, and miserable to your neighbors as well.

We are so goddamned scared of each other. And I understand why, when it’s direct trauma you’re responding to. You got mugged late at night on that street and you don’t want to go down it, that’s fair. I lock my doors and windows at night. I live in the city and I’m not saying anybody should be an idiot.

When our garage got broken into and some lawn stuff got stolen I called the cops with a middle-class white chick’s supreme confidence and watched them do their job with proper gratitude.

But not everything’s a crisis. Our cities are not going down the tubes because cops are too reluctant to shoot people. The parts of our cities that are in crisis are in crisis in no small part because we’re terrified of one another, all the time. We’ve convinced ourselves that the only way to deal with that terror is to knight a group of people to protect us, give them military-grade weapons and almost no training, and send them out into the streets to face what we tell them is basically The Purge.

If they’re scared, too? If they’re more scared than we are? Then where do we turn?