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The False Dichotomy of “Police Week”

There is no war on cops. Only a war on police misconduct.

May 16, 2018

This week marks the 55th iteration of “National Police Week,” a federal designation Americans have both celebrated and scorned since the Kennedy administration. This year the week of solemn reflection and commemoration, of candlelight vigils for fallen officers and local 5K runs to benefit police causes, comes again as police deaths remain historically low and community concerns about police brutality and racial disparities remain historically high.

This gulf, this disconnect, has grown wider since Donald Trump was elected president and Jeff Sessions confirmed as U.S. attorney general. From the start their “American Carnage” motif was based on the lie that violent crime is rising and designed not just to make us unreasonably fearful of one another but to undermine the police reform movement that took hold during the last quarter of the Obama administration in the wake of the Ferguson protests.

The Trump administration’s embrace of Police Week and all it stands for surely comes as no surprise. The Justice Department on Monday released a taped statement from Sessions praising the sacrifice cops make and on Tuesday morning the president attended a ceremony honoring the sacrifice of fallen officers. It shouldn’t be too long before he cranks out a Tweet extolling the virtues of rank-and-file cops and deriding those who criticize shoddy police work. The message couldn’t be clearer from this administration: they are here largely to forgive and forget police misconduct.

And also to shamelessly blame others for police brutality, misconduct, and work slowdowns that can mean life or death on the nation’s streets. Last week, in a speech in Tennessee, before a room of friendly law enforcement officials, the attorney general dubiously blamed the ACLU and police reform efforts for a spike in Chicago’s murder rate. “If you want crime to go up, let the ACLU run the police department,” he told his audience. “If you want public safety, call the professionals.”

It’s a preposterous claim given the extent and details of police discrimination and misconduct the Justice Department chronicled in that city. It’s also an insult to every man, woman, and child in that city who were and are victims of rank discrimination and corruption by members of the Chicago Police Department. And from Sessions it’s a signal to dirty cops everywhere that rather than be held accountable for their misconduct they’ll more often than not continue to be exalted as heroes.

On Monday night, in another speech to a friendly crowd of officers, Sessions doubled-down on that premise. You may have felt abandoned during the Obama administration, he told his audience, because “some radicals and politicians began to unfairly malign and blame police as a whole for the crimes and unacceptable deeds of a few.” Those days are over, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer then said. “This is the Trump era. We support law enforcement… We will not enter into any agreements or court decrees that outsource policymaking to political activists.”

We don’t need to look back to the days of the Obama administration and its efforts to fix policing in Chicago to understand how warped this administration is when it comes to police reform. We don’t need to find the kind of systemic discrimination and patterns and practices of misconduct that stained policing in Chicago and Baltimore and other jurisdictions. We don’t need to understand how dangerous it is to pretend that the problem with policing in America is that police are unfairly criticized. We need only look back to the past week when one officer after another reminded us why millions of Americans won’t be honoring police this “Police Week.”

Last week, when a police union official in Miami explained that the cop seen on video kicking an unarmed, handcuffed man in the head while the man lay face-down on the ground “showed great restraint” and shouldn’t be charged. Last week, when tempers flared in Indianapolis over the whitewashing of a police shooting last year in which another unarmed black men was killed. Last week, when a Georgia cop was forced to resign only after video of his mistreatment of a 65-year-old grandmother went public.

Last week, when a police officer in Wisconsin was caught on video repeatedly punching a teenager in the face during an arrest. Last week, when we learned about how a cop in North Carolina choked a man who got into an argument with employees at a Waffle House. Last week, when a police officer in Ohio in an online commentary blamed public perception toward cops on “politicians, media, and thugs.” Why are police so hated, he unironically asked in a piece crafted to salt anew the wounds between police and the communities they serve.

You don’t need to know anything about the origins of National Police Week to know that the police in America aren’t hated. They are revered and honored even when they don’t deserve it. Our laws have been bent to excuse their repeated misuse of deadly force, our public events are smothered in benedictions to those in blue, and our politicians continue to trip over one another claiming that the police, that most venerated of professions, represent instead some tortured minority needing even more legal protection than they already get.

The Protect and Serve Act, now circulating on Capitol Hill, is just the latest example of this madness. Federal lawmakers want to make an assault on a police officer a federal hate crime punishable by a longer prison term. The very effort is an affront to real victims of hate crimes, which are soaring in number under a white nationalist president who refuses to stand up to neo-Nazis and other racist groups. It is, as Radley Balko and others have said, a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

There is no more a war on cops in America than there is a war on Christmas. There are only those who benefit, politically and otherwise, from pretending there is one. No citizen is born distrusting or detesting the police. It is not taught in the nation’s schools. It isn’t preached in our houses of worship. It comes into the hearts and minds of people, when it comes into the hearts and minds of people, because of what they see with their own eyes. It comes from generations of abuse and neglect, from decades of misconduct and discrimination.

It comes when a bad cop gets away with kicking a handcuffed man in the head. It comes when prosecutors choose not to indict a cop who shoots an unarmed man. It comes when you watch a video of a woman tackled in a Waffle House or video of a prom date getting strangled. It comes when you read a police union official attack someone seeking to exercise a constitutional right. To blame the victim for any of this, or the media or politicians or the ACLU, is to deny the reality of American life and to cynically evade accountability.

It’s worse than that, actually. To equate criticism of the police with hatred of the police is to hide like a coward behind the hero-worship we’ll see this week in the nation’s towns and cities. We should reject the false dichotomy offered by Trump and Sessions and the police unions. It’s not a with-us-or-against-us proposition. The truth is that we can both love the police and also seek to hold accountable those cops who sully the profession. We can support our local police and reject the hoary defenses they use to justify their misconduct.  

I keep coming back to what David French wrote in the National Review last month: why do we as a nation not demand from our police officers the same discipline and self-sacrifice that our military leaders demand from our soldiers? Why, indeed. Police in America are as safe as they have been in a generation working jobs that are far safer than jobs in many other American industries. Until they stop complaining about how the world is against them, until they start holding each other accountable for the misconduct in their ranks, Police Week will be just another reminder of what divides cops from their communities.

(Image: ThinkStock)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.