I’ve been engaging in a series of enlightening conversations with a currently retired, self-described “intimidating cop” I work with. We tend to be on opposing sides on issues such as gun control but are able to have mutually respectful discussions. (For the record, we’re mostly working, and we also are mostly working.) I’m not interviewing him, we’re just talking, so I’m not comfortable sharing too much, but I’m comfortable sharing this.
I told him how the other day I was walking through town with my headphones on, in my own little world, and I noticed a man in his car honking and yelling out his window at another driver. Both cars had been at a green light waiting to turn left but traffic the other way kept coming, through the yellow light and even a last car came through on red. The woman was barely into the intersection and remained stopped. Well, this guy thought she should have turned. Probably he would have turned too. He got out of his car and took a step toward hers, shaking his fist.
I said, “Especially these days with all the stories of road rage incidents, that might have been a traumatizing experience for that woman.”
He said, “I know. Well, look at how you were traumatized. You just said you were in your own little world enjoying your music, and then you saw that happen.”
That, to me, seemed very revealing of the stress police officers must experience. It hadn’t even occurred to me to think of that as something that happened to me, but he was right. I had already prepared to intervene, if the guy had taken another step toward the woman’s car. And I was still coming down from the jolt of stress that preparation had sent to my, in this case, fight instinct. (Not fight, likely, but confrontation with a hot-headed complete stranger) I told my mom the story, later that day, and I was telling him because I was still processing this event that, supposedly, hadn’t happened to me.
From some of the stories he tells, this is a man who endured enormous stress working in high crime areas. His tactic was to develop an intimidating persona. He wanted “bad guys” to be afraid of him. I don’t necessarily agree with him that that’s a good strategy, for a lot of situations, but I listen well and value his opinions because he has experience in situations I’ve never encountered, once, much less experienced on a daily basis for years.
We’re able to converge in the middle and openly discuss an important issue that’s often presented through the media and social networking as a battle between two extremes, the one summed up by “cops are assholes” and the other by “all police officers deserve to go home at the end of the day.” The first is an offensive generalization and the second is everyone’s wish but a way of skirting the issue. It’s not actually saying anything. All farmers and all garbage collectors deserve to go home at the end of the day but these are dangerous jobs, both statistically more dangerous than being a police officer.
Although being a police officer likely feels many times more dangerous to a police officer than being a farmer feels to a farmer. I would imagine police officers approach suspects highly cognizant of the reality that any next one could be armed and ready to kill. Farmers might approach animals less cognizant of the reality that any next one could kick and kill them. And that difference between statistical likelihood and subjective concern manifests itself as a tangible stress. So we take steps that address that stress. Already there are procedures and protocol in place to help police officers handle the stress of their difficult job and keep them functioning at a high level that keeps everyone safe. Why can’t we praise them and insist that be improved, at the same time? That just seems like sensible meeting in the middle. Not to present us as a model, but that’s what my work friend and I manage to do, and probably plenty of other civil discussions are taking place, face to face, among people across the country, but then we all get online and start arguing from extremes and just get further divided.