Good Cop Bad Cop: Why America Needs A Lesson In Nuance

Yellow police tape says 'police line do not cross' is set against blurry background.
Yellow police tape says 'police line do not cross' is set against blurry background.

Imagine a young black soldier coming home from war.

After a bloody tour abroad, he returns to America expecting, on some level, the same regard for his personhood that he received as a uniformed enlisted man overseas. In the ensuing weeks, he sees fellow black Americans abused by police and maligned by neighbors. He becomes disillusioned and angry. He and his comrades realize the promise of returning home "safely" was a false one. In combat, at least, "if death should come, it would come with honor, and without the complicity of their countrymen."

The young man goes downtown one night--he has been drinking, maybe--and he gets into an altercation with white police officers. Rumors circulate, but one thing is sure: the soldier ends up shot dead, and he is not the only casualty.

Though the narrative is familiar, this is not the story of Micah Xavier Johnson, the now-infamous Dallas cop killer. Johnson killed five police officers and shot seven others on Thursday, and he wound up dead. He was also a decorated Army vet: a "good guy with a gun." We do not know the words that Johnson left in his "manifesto;" it has not been released.

The words above are James Baldwin's, excerpted from his seminal 1955 work Notes of a Native Son. Baldwin narrates the shooting of the young American soldier, and he examines the paradox of black World War II vets returning home to a segregated America. The shooting helped ignite the Harlem race riots of 1943.

I begin with Baldwin, because I am a writing teacher. I believe that words are as important as weapons in the current iteration of the "race war."

In 1955, Baldwin wrote: "Harlem exploded."

60 years later, Dallas exploded.

I wonder: how is it that we are still telling the same stories?

Despite how damn familiar it is, the narrative of men in blue vs. men that are black continues to claim premier real estate in the American consciousness. And by picking sides and participating in online screaming matches, we rob the conversation of all complexity. This is a writing teacher's nightmare.

By now, we should know that the "good guys" aren't always good, and the "bad guys" aren't always bad. My brother-in-law, a police officer in Nashville, routinely uses reason instead of force, when the latter may be tempting. But there are cops like Michael Slager, who shot Walter Scott in the back in South Carolina. The late Alton Sterling wasn't a model citizen--he was a sex offender with a criminal record. But Philandro Castile was by all counts an admirable man: a public school cafeteria worker, beloved by students.

Do noble cops mean there isn't a racial bias in our police force?

Do previous offenses mean black victims deserve a death sentence?

Here, I offer no subtlety. It is a resounding "NO."

In America, the reality of everyday violence has made us desensitized to the potency of our words, and the danger of using the wrong ones. How does the rhyme go? AR-15s and bomb-dropping drones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me... The problem is: words DO hurt. And more than hurt, words shape consciousness; they spark movements; they fuel biases.

Last weekend, Chuck Canterbury, President of the Fraternal Order of Police (the largest police union in the US), issued a press release titled "Hate-Fueled Violence Kills 5 in Dallas." Canterbury is on a campaign to get the definition of "hate crime" changed to include acts of violence against police officers. It's more than a little ironic that hate crime legislation was enacted to protect marginalized groups--like racial, ethnic, and gendered minorities--from more powerful perpetrators. While the U.S. police force is growing in diversity, it is still about 75% white, and armed to the teeth. "M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, silencers and more -- are ending up in local police departments," The New York Times has previously reported. In fact, Johnson was taken out by a "bomb robot" dispatched by the Dallas police.

That doesn't sound like a marginalized group that needs to be protected by hate crime legislation.

In the release, Canterbury blasts President Obama as giving "tacit approval for those who spew their hate and contempt for our nation's law enforcement officers." He conveniently leaves out the fact that the President just called the incident a "vicious, calculated, despicable attack on law enforcement," and issued a press release "Honoring the Victims of the Attack in Dallas." Describing this response as "tacit approval" is lazy at best, more bluntly: an inflammatory lie.

Canterbury's rhetoric hammers home a narrative of police victimization. He calls the killings of Sterling and Castile "police-involved shootings of armed suspects" (Suspect of selling bootleg CDs? Suspect of having a busted tail light?), yet describes the killings in Dallas as "hate crimes." He describes the Pro-Black protests in Ferguson as "hate speech" directed at Officer Darren Wilson, who was "cleared of any wrong doing." The fact that Wilson was cleared of wrong doing offers no evidence that he was innocent of wrong doing. Last year, the FBI recorded 990 police killings of civilians, and zero on-duty police officers were convicted of manslaughter. No convictions.

Perhaps the most rankling are Canterbury's sweeping generalizations: "All of this violence began or was triggered by hate spewed on social media," he claims, and implicitly points the finger at the Black Lives Matter movement, whose leadership has remained non-violent. "We're being treated as the enemy," Canterbury writes, "not because of the color of our skin, but because of the color of our uniform." Equating a uniform--something you can take off and throw in a washing machine--to institutionalized racism that has enslaved and oppressed people of color in America for hundreds of years is shockingly irresponsible.

The phrase "enough is enough" appears a total of three times in the press release, and it states forebodingly, "We have to end this."

But want to hear the most frightening part?

This release was disseminated to police officers across the country on Friday night, before they went out to "keep the peace" at Black Lives Matter demonstrations nationwide. If I were a white police officer, feeling anxious in the wake of Dallas, reading this press release would offer me just the rhetorical ammunition I needed to "end this," were I challenged by a particularly persnickety protester.

Make no mistake: we've seen violent, hateful words on social media from both Pro-Black and Pro-Police activists (which are not mutually exclusive, it needs to be said). But there is a big difference between this language being used by cretins in corners of the Internet, and perpetuated by the head of the biggest police organization in the country.

I am not a police officer, nor am I a black person in America. I do not know fear or violence like these people do. But I do know about the influential power of words. I do know about the impressionability of people in crisis.

This week, a clip has been circulating of New York radio station Hot 97's Peter Rosenberg rhetorically unleashing on a cop who called in and refused to condemn police brutality. Rosenberg says, "Police officers never want to say 'y'all did a bad job,' and that's the reason the public thinks you're all bad."

But it's not just radio personalities and English teachers that need to respond to statements like Canterbury's. I can't send the President of the FOP to detention, or give him a stern talking to after class. More crucially, I don't have the authority to implement mandatory body cameras, or to retrain officers with regard to racial bias, or reconsider quotas that motivate so many arrests.

Officers: we know that it is difficult to be scrutinized and attacked. We appreciate that being in danger is frightening. There are plenty of Americans that can empathize. But we ask for the highest level of courage from our police. I hope we can expect to hear more and more brave men like Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who has spoken out this week on gun violence and policy issues.

It is a logical mistake to conclude that you are all "bad cops." We desperately need to hear the voices of the "good cops."