We Americans love our cops. From Adam 12 to The X-Files, Marshal Dillon to Rick Deckard, law enforcement officers are part of the warp and woof of American cultural life. Most of us have grown up cheering their fictionalized exploits, and yet... well, can we all agree that policing in America is undergoing a tremendous public image crisis these days?
A man tells reporters that "My friend's dead. I'm shot up. We need justice," and the people he needs justice from are those sworn to uphold it in the first place. The police force of a major city is thrown into a frenzy of backing-and-filling after a hurried, botched raid leaves an elderly woman dead, and thanks to the irregularities already obvious in the case, it seems easy to believe that the teeny baggies of marijuana they hold up as justification just might be yet another fabrication. Elsewhere, questions linger over another SWAT shooting, this one in Fairfax, VA.
This is a republic we live in. We have crafted the laws we've asked these men and women to uphold. When their jobs grew more dangerous and "the opposition" got tougher, we've responded by giving them more and better tools, both physical and legislative, to help them undertake the task. But then it happens: At some point you see those tools misused. "The opposition" turns out to be us, or someone very like us, and we wonder if maybe we haven't created something of a Frankenstein's monster.
On the one hand, law enforcement has become trivialized to the point that we're watching LaToya Jackson get sworn in as a police officer so we can see washed up celebrities participating in a Bizarro-World mirror-image of COPS. On the other hand, its gotten so serious that a typical law-enforcement trade show has more sniper rifles, armored cars, and breaching charges than downtown Fallujah on a Saturday night. At some point the electorate is going to wonder, "Is this all worth it?" and I expect the backlash could be as severe as the enthusiasm that created the modern law enforcement culture in the first place.
We need to seriously re-evaluate what it is we want police to do, because the current setup is not working. If you want cops to sniff out every meth lab, bust every drunk driver, arrest every teenage marijuana seller, round up every prostitute, and ticket everyone not wearing a seatbelt, you're going to wind up with, not a police force, but an army of occupation. What I fear is that, rather than re-examining the task list we've handed police, we're going to focus on the tools and the tactics, and that's going in the entirely wrong direction. Now, Deputy Johnson down in Possumbelly County, Georgia may be a fine human being and a pillar of the community. He may drive drunken teenagers home from parties and visit shut-in little old ladies, but it's not going to help him one whit when lawmakers in Atlanta react to the backlash and leave him patrolling his rural beat with one bullet in his shirt pocket.
I don't care if Johnny Law has a scary looking assault rifle. Heck, I have one, so why shouldn't he? What I worry about is writing him a job description that makes it necessary to use the thing so much. We need to seriously re-think what constitutes an acceptable reason to send a policeman crashing through a door, rather than send him crashing through that door armed only with a nightstick and a whistle. We need the wisdom of Sheriff Taylor, before we wind up treating our police like Deputy Fife.