COLUMN: Insight into ‘what were they thinking?’
“Walk a mile in my shoes...”
That phrase probably goes through the mind of police officers every time another excessive force case hits the media, unfortunately reflecting on law enforcement in general.
I feel for those officers whose reputation and morale is affected by what seems to be a sustained string of police brutality incidents.
Policing is one of the toughest jobs going, and this just makes it that much tougher.
I know, a lot of people aren’t overly concerned about that when they see video clips of these situations, and say, “What were they thinking?”
Actually, I think I know something about that. I wore a Matsqui Police uniform, as a reserve constable, for almost five years in the early ’80s.
No, it wasn’t full-time policing, but it drew me into the cop community, and unless you’ve walked in those shoes, I suggest there is much to understand.
Most police recruits enter the field with a defined sense of right and wrong. They want to make a difference—to make the world a better place.
It doesn’t take long to learn the world often doesn’t want to be a better place.
And right and wrong?
What’s right about a man pounding his wife into a bloody mess, only to have her beg you not to arrest him? What’s right about a mother and child lying broken and lifeless in a car wreck caused by a drunk driver? What’s right about seeing a guy who has brought grief and insecurity to countless victims with his break-ins, walk smirking out of a courtroom a free man, on a legal technicality?
There’s nothing right, either, having to put up with the verbal and physical abuse offered up by drunken louts.
It takes a special person to absorb a steady diet of those scenarios and worse, while maintaining a calm and courteous demeanour, along with a personal sense of purpose and achievement.
It’s not like that all the time, of course. There are hours of boring patrols, switching from day to night on 12-hour shifts made longer by tedious paperwork.
And, in a matter of seconds, it can all explode in raw adrenaline, flight versus fight, training versus emotion.
That’s what most people find difficult to understand.
Police officers are trained to react to chaotic situations. They should have their feelings in tight control.
True enough, except the people inside those uniforms are still human—they’re not robots.
Some are better than others at bottling up the stress. Some have been doing it so well for so long, when a crack opens, the bottle breaks.
Some perhaps should not be in policing at all, or any longer. They are the ones who arrived with an acidic us-versus-them attitude, or they developed it along the way.
It can be hard not to.
The job is often miserly with its rewarding moments—the sincerely expressed gratitude from a citizen; the interaction with excited, earnest kids; the slam-dunk court case; the feeling that indeed, you’ve made the world a better place.
That lopsided equation is sometimes a path to frustration and isolation.
You’ve seen cops sitting together during coffee breaks and meals. Policing is a tightly bound community. It offers internal support and understanding, because often, the community being served is short on both.
And yet, I’ll suggest that good officers—which are the vast majority—are just as disturbed as the public by these incidents, and perhaps in a way, even more.
Does that justify or mitigate excessive force by police? No.
Does it make you think a little deeper into, “What were they thinking?”
Andrew Holota is editor of the Abbotsford News, a Black Press publication.