One outcome of the chaos after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis is that police are at the center of almost everyone’s attention, even to the point where some communities are talking of turning their police departments upside down. In this Boomer Opinion piece, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs argues that not all cops are bad cops, and he’s afraid the pendulum might swing too far.
“A Policeman is a composite of what all men are, mingling of a saint and sinner, dust and deity.”
Those are the first words of a three-minute oral essay called “Policeman” by the radio legend Paul Harvey. For the better part of his 60-year career (including years when baby boomers were growing up), Harvey was the biggest voice on American radio. He was conservative, but unlike his successors in broadcasting today who are provocative and incendiary, he was pensive and insightful.
I know, because for 2-½ years at the start of my career, I was his editor.
“Gulled statistics” Harvey went on to say in his essay about the police, “wave the fan over the stinkers, underscore instances of dishonesty and brutality because they are ‘new.’ What they really mean is that they are exceptional, unusual, not commonplace.”
Today, when police get painted with a broad brush they don’t all deserve, I agree.
This has to be put in context, of course. First, because Paul Harvey’s father was a lawman, a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who was killed in the line of duty. All the time I knew Paul, he revered those who took the pledge to serve and protect. And second, because Paul Harvey is long gone, and never knew the names of Michael Brown or Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor or Freddie Gray… or George Floyd. The way they died is bound to shape many citizens’ views of policing.
But how fair is that broad brush? Harvey made a claim in his essay that might be hard to support:“Less than one-half of one percent of policemen misfit the uniform. That’s a better average than you’d find among clergy!” He threw out that percentage— President Trump put it at “99.9” percent— but neither man could know whether it’s true or not. In Harvey’s defense, we didn’t have the viral media coverage that we have today to focus attention on police misconduct. We didn’t have cell phone cameras.
Yet in my experience as a journalist, which probably includes more observations of and interactions with police than most Americans have, most cops aren’t bad cops. To me, although it’s hard to square Harvey’s words of worship with what we see today, they still ring true.
“He must make an instant decision which would require months for a lawyer to make. But, if he hurries, he’s careless. If he’s deliberate, he’s lazy. He must be first to an accident and infallible with his diagnosis. He must be able to start breathing, stop bleeding, tie splints and, above all, be sure the victim goes home without a limp. Or expect to be sued. The police officer must know every gun, draw on the run, and hit where it doesn’t hurt. He must be able to whip two men twice his size and half his age without damaging his uniform and without being “brutal.” If you hit him, he’s a coward. If he hits you, he’s a bully.”
I grant you, if you grew up in a neighborhood where police were more to be feared than trusted— and there are those neighborhoods and there are those police— you could take issue with Paul Harvey, and with me. If you watched those horrifying 8-minutes-and-46-seconds of a Minneapolis cop killing George Floyd, you could take issue too.
But it appalls me, when there’s so much talk today about discrediting, defunding, even disbanding police departments, that in many people’s minds, it comes down to taking sides: either you’re on the side of the police, or you’re against them.
If you don’t support police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death, you’re blind. We need reform in the fields of crisis intervention and use of force, in sensitivity training, hiring, accountability. Even a former big city cop, who’s now chief of police in the Colorado resort town of Vail, was this week quoted as saying, “We all have buttons that get pushed. We can let our emotions get the better of us.”
For the record, he keenly supports reform. He understands, every cop sometimes is confronted with a hair-trigger crisis. The bad ones turn to the trigger in their hands too fast.
But the good ones? Again, Paul Harvey: “The policeman must be a minister, a social worker, a diplomat, a tough guy and a gentleman. And, of course, he’d have to be genius… for he will have to feed a family on a policeman’s salary.”
Are Harvey’s notions outdated in the current climate? That is open to debate, as is virtually every aspect of police behavior today. But in my view, we are at risk of swinging the pendulum too far. With respect to those who disagree, when I read about these movements— I even heard a guy on NPR calling for “cop-free neighborhoods”— I think it’s madness. What in tarnation does he think his neighborhood is going to look like when it’s “cop-free?” Crime-free? Not unless we also can legislate against deviant unlawful behavior in every corner of the country.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, we’ve all gotten used to the phrase “essential services.” When they’re doing their job wrong, police are a menace. But when they are doing it right, they are about as essential as it gets. Goodbye law enforcement, hello anarchy.
Personally, I come down on the side of a Venn diagram that has been circulating on Facebook.
Or, you can take it from liberal satirist Jon Stewart of The Daily Show fame. He told a New York Times interviewer, “It can be true that you can value and admire the contribution and sacrifice that it takes to be a law-enforcement officer… and yet still feel that there should be standards and accountability. Both can be true.”
Back in the day, even Paul Harvey saw the conflict for someone in law enforcement: “He, of all men, is once the most needed and the most unwanted.”
If we can agree that we need laws to help keep us safe— in our homes, on our highways, around our streets— then we can agree that we need law enforcement. Thankfully, bipartisan public opinion is driving police toward reform. But that’s where it should stop: at reform, not relinquishment. And not indiscriminate condemnation either.