Breaking the cycle of mistrust

Like all stereotypes, the idea that all cops are uncaring, tyrannical bullies is inherently flawed

Over the past several weeks, the relationship between law enforcement agencies and some members of the public has become increasingly tense. While the reasons for this are more complex than voices on all sides of the debate seem comfortable confronting, it is worth noting that there is at least one idea that should be uncontroversial: No individual should be evaluated by anything other than their own willful actions or inactions.

This idea is so profoundly apparent it is hard to imagine almost anyone – be they protester or police, liberal or conservative, civilian or elected official – not exclaiming, “Obviously!” And yet, so many people these days feel judged and, to various degrees, persecuted on the basis of their group identity. While feelings are subjective and are therefore bound to often paint an incomplete picture, surely all of these people aren’t wrong every time they feel this way? It certainly seems unreasonable to assume they are. So, what is going on here?

People all around the world have once more stood together and spoken out against the injustice of racism. The notion that any person or group of people should be treated differently based on skin color is an absurdity that collapses under the weight of the slightest dose of rationality. As such, the people marching in the streets justifiably feel compelled to demonstrate their opposition to it.

Now more than ever, every interaction with a member of the public presents an opportunity to build or destroy trust.
Now more than ever, every interaction with a member of the public presents an opportunity to build or destroy trust. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

Meanwhile, police officers across the nation find themselves the direct recipients of vitriolic anti-police sentiment. They are verbally accosted, spat at in the street and assaulted. These acts are perpetrated by people who do not know these officers as individuals but are instead reacting to the actions of others, associating those acts with the entirety of police culture, and then responding hatefully to anyone who fits that demographic. This pattern might sound familiar.

The collusion cycle

Here is where it’s important to clarify a couple of things. First, while the process described above indeed appears rooted in a mindset ironically similar to the one racism is based in, that analogy breaks down at some point. For starters, every cop signed up to be a police officer, while no human being chose the race they were born into, nor can they change it the way a cop can take off their uniform. Furthermore, by no means am I claiming these are the behaviors being demonstrated by the vast majority of the protesters; nor do I believe these incidents in any way invalidate those that have been protesting from a place of compassion.

All of this is of course the same style of sentiment expressed by many defenders of the police. For example, something along the lines of: “By no means do we believe the actions of Derek Chauvin are representative of the vast majority of police; nor do we believe incidents such as this in any way invalidates those that have been policing from a place of compassion.”

It would be somewhat hypocritical for a person to hold this sentiment in one of these cases and not the other – yet some people on each side persist in doing so. It’s these hasty generalizations that are the hidden enemy, and they breed.

For instance, how many of the cops being spat on and screamed at consequently develop the expectation that the next person they pull over or otherwise engage with, will have this same attitude? How might this affect the officer’s demeanor? How might this demeanor affect the individual’s experience with the officer? How might this experience affect their perception of police in general? And how might they spread this perception to others?

On and on it goes – a persistent feedback loop, fed by increasing volatility. This collusion cycle seems to only be getting stronger and louder as relations between police and their communities appear to grow more and more tenuous. So, what can be done?

My suggestion is simple: We, as individuals, chose not to take part in perpetuating the collusion. And while it would be ideal for every citizen to make this effort, law enforcement officers, as civil servants, not only bear more of this responsibility but also have far more opportunities to do so.

An internal battle

The average person rarely interacts directly with an on-duty police officer; while conversely, all police officers come into contact with members of the public every working day. Because of this overwhelming disparity of opportunity, we as police are uniquely positioned to countermand this cycle of collusion in ways the average citizen is not. However, we must remain cognizant of certain realities.

It is important we recognize, as enforcers of the law, that every day we come into contact with people at their worst. Because of this constant exposure to the worst aspects of society and humanity, it is easy to become cynical, and from there it’s even easier to become resentful. This is what we must fight. The true battle to be waged is an internal one. We must declare war on our biases, fears, prejudices and loyalties that we often leverage to justify our mistreatment of others.

Here are some reminders of how we can accomplish this.

We must remind ourselves to be empathetic to the unique concerns of those we meet. It can be hard to see these concerns or even these people, as unique after routinely confronting repeated episodes of violence and criminality. It’s all too easy for these things to seem commonplace and even mundane over time. Whereas for the individual victims involved in each situation, these things are likely considerably unique and traumatizing events in the scope of their lives. By failing to appreciate that, we cast ourselves as callous and indifferent, needlessly damaging people’s opinions of our profession in the process.

We must remind ourselves it is our job to enforce the law. We judge behavior, not character. Becoming hostile toward a suspect because of the reprehensible nature of their apparent crimes or behavior is not only unhelpful, it is all but guaranteed to escalate what is already a bad situation. There will always be instances where the use of force will be necessary for the safety of police and others, but this reality does not negate the fact that acting from a place of aggression or vindictiveness is harmful. Furthermore, being rude, unsympathetic, or impatient is detrimental to our efforts to strengthen relationships. People will often judge us by how we treat the most challenging members of our community.

We must remind ourselves that the people we encounter are human beings first, and everything else second. People are never a mere means to an end, but an end in and of themselves. And, while it is our sworn duty to apprehend criminals, failing to respect their humanity is not only unethical, it’s dangerous. If you don’t allow yourself to try to understand and respect what might motivate a person to act criminally, you consequently fail to respect the threat they may pose. Respecting the humanity of others does not at all require you to condone or forgive their crimes. Instead, simply respect the realistic notion that this person was not born evil, and consider that you might not have turned out so differently had you lived their life. Your obligation to detain them is a vital public service; however, doing so with disdain undermines our collective efforts.

We must remind ourselves that we have the capacity to help almost any situation to be slightly better, simply by being attentive, respectful and empathetic. Not only does this have the potential to improve the present encounter, but it may also help improve a person’s attitude regarding future police interactions as well, creating a positive feedback loop.

We must remind ourselves that our frequent exposure to some of the harsher aspects of existence is not indicative of the bigger picture. For every victim or perpetrator of a crime that we meet on a given day, there are countless other human beings engaged in, and/or the recipients of, acts of kindness and compassion. In remembering that, we can find the motivation to act similarly, even when faced with the most inhospitable circumstances. By doing so, we stand a real chance, the best chance, of bringing the unpleasant situations to which we often respond ever so slightly closer to a place of hope and harmony; a place where cynicism and resentfulness will not flourish.

We must remind ourselves, now more than ever, that every interaction with a member of the public presents an opportunity to build or destroy trust, and squandering those opportunities needlessly will only serve to erode support and detract from the important work ahead of our communities; work that will require ever-increasing collaboration and humility.

Lastly, we must remind ourselves we made the choice to uphold the law. We chose to dedicate our lives to serving and protecting. We were aware of the risks and inconveniences that come with that duty, and we were promised no reward or appreciation for our efforts. By choosing this vocation we accepted we were to be held to a higher standard. It is important we live up to that higher standard now. We owe it to the communities we’ve vowed to protect to do what we can to break a cycle of mistrust and disrespect.

Again, no individual should be evaluated by anything more or less than one’s own actions or inactions. To generalize someone based on anything else is intellectually unsound, damaging and dangerous. Like all stereotypes, the idea that all cops are uncaring, tyrannical bullies is inherently flawed. One way to dispel that untruth is to disprove it at every available opportunity.

NEXT: Reforming law enforcement starts with law enforcement

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2023 Police1. All rights reserved.