Police, community: Can we talk?

“What the hell is wrong with cops these days??!!”

The question startled me. It was not that I hadn’t heard some version of it raised numerous times in recent weeks. The topic of racially motivated police brutality has led the national news, rocked social media and become a dinner table discussion at countless homes, including my own.

What struck me was that the person asking the question was my brother. This was the same person who had listened to more than a few of my cop stories over the years, always concluding that a) my job was too dangerous and b) criminals were being treated too gently.

So what changed? That is a question the entire country wants answered.

Despite the sound bites, the truth is that police work has made huge strides in the last few decades. Officers are more educated, more ethnically diverse, better trained and better equipped to handle a more sophisticated and heavily armed criminal element. Changes in criminal law have given us Miranda warnings and domestic violence legislation, while recent rulings have limited officers’ authority in search and seizure. Cameras are in patrol cars now, on individual officers in the near future.

Yet it is also true that those same cameras have caught cops behaving badly, even criminally. Who among us could watch footage of Eric Garner struggling to breathe under the weight of several NYPD cops, or of Walter Scott being shot in the back by a North Charleston officer, or of Freddy Gray’s limp form being hauled towards the paddy wagon (an ironically racist term itself) and imminent death, without becoming enraged? No one, I hope.

If nothing else, it is an exciting time to be a finger-pointer. With scant justification, police critics have painted virtually all of the white officers involved in these deadly scenarios with broad, racist strokes. Media outlets have spun their accusations into a vitriolic, one-sided debate.

With their backs against the wall (and late to the discussion as usual), police proponents have rallied. They claim that allegations against the officer in the fatal Ferguson, Missouri, shooting have largely been refuted by the evidence, and wonder about the racial overtones in Gray’s death when half of those officers indicted are also African American.

Yet everyone still wonders, “What the hell is wrong with cops these days??!!”

Rhetorical or not, race is a major part of this question. For officers on the street, ethnicity is a land mine that must never be jostled lest it blow up in one’s face. For members of the minority community, the brutality on the news only lends credence to their beliefs. The only common ground is the general weariness of the failed status quo, which of course is what prompted my brother to ask the question in the first place.

When I consider his question, two thoughts come to mind. The first is that omnipresent smartphones are a game-changer; these devices already record every aspect of our daily experience, which includes a fair amount of bad police work.

The second is my personal belief that racism is not at the root of the abhorrent police behavior. Instead, I have always thought that ultra-aggressive and unprofessional actions stemmed from contempt – contempt for individuals with addictions, with mental health issues, with criminal records, with a big mouth and a bad attitude. Those few who carry out their duties with this toxic mindset, unchecked by failed leadership, are responsible for much of the misery we’ve seen in the news these days.

A few years ago I wrote a smug column about the backlash against Egyptian police after their brutal crackdown on Tahrir Square protesters. In perfect hindsight I mused that those riots were expected, given the contempt with which Egyptian law enforcement treated the populace. I pontificated on the relationship built on trust and respect within our own criminal justice system.

In light of recent protests both peaceful and painfully violent in cities across the country – Ferguson, New York and Baltimore, to name but a few – my words have become bitter and hard to swallow. In metaphoric terms, the current atmosphere in many American cities is as explosive as a Molotov cocktail and as charged as a Taser.

Here’s what I know. From my first days as a cop to my last, I operated on the notion that there were two sides to every story and that people needed a chance to tell their own.

A failure to listen, let alone understand other viewpoints, has been at the core of this contentious issue. If we want to avoid the pointless destruction and bloodshed that has descended on too many families, that has split communities and alienated our police officers, then all of us need to do a better job of listening to each other.

We are all less informed than we should be. That explains how we have allowed the bridges between law enforcement and the community to erode. It also provides a possible answer to the question my brother asked me.

What the hell is wrong with cops these days? The same thing that’s wrong with the rest of us.

And we can all do better.

Brian O'Neill is a Gig Harbor resident and former police office. He is also a former reader columnist currently working on a crime novel titled “City of Destiny.” Email him at btoflyer@comcast.net.