After I graduated law school, I spent two years as the managing editor of a small, legal publishing company in Boston before I launched Pajiba. Part of my job there was to write and oversee newsletters apprising police officers about the evolving laws surrounding search and seizure, pat downs, stop and frisk, furtive movements, traffic stops, and what constitutes reasonable suspicion. In other words, the rules surrounding what beat cops spend most of their days doing.
It’s complicated. It’s evolving. It’s often contradictory. Add to that the heightened sense of danger involved in any investigative stop and the need to make huge decisions in a split second, and it’s easy to understand — before race is even a factor — why mistakes are sometimes made. It’s a much more challenging profession than you might think, and most cops nevertheless manage to navigate the system intelligently, efficiently, and fairly.
But then you get situations like Trayvon Martin, the shooting of Michael Brown, and the death of Michael Garner, which not only illustrates the racial injustice and systemic problems endemic in the nation’s police forces, but it also makes all cops look bad. Racist cops make the jobs of other cops more difficult because when entire communities rightfully have a natural distrust of the police, it adds a whole new layer of complications.
The This American Life podcast has done a really remarkable job with their two-part series “Cops See It Differently” (airing this week) of trying to provide the perspective of police officers dealing with these situations. What it’s done is to, once again, highlight racist elements within police forces, but — especially in the first part — it’s also demonstrated the day-to-day challenges police officers face on the steret. My takeaway from the series was that, Jesus Christ, there are some profoundly racist people working in the police force and there are a too many policies put in place that immediately put blacks at a disadvantage, but that there are also a lot of really good, honest people trying earnestly to do their jobs.
The series reminded of the amazing, under-seen, under-appreciated series, Southland, which ran on NBC and, later, TNT for five seasons. It wasn’t a procedural. There was no murder of the week. It was more like a fictionalized version of Cops using the naturalistic camera style of Friday Night Lights. What was impressive about Southland is that it honestly sought to capture what it’s like to be a police officer dealing with the day-to-day struggles, the traffic stops, the domestic disputes, the drug dealers, and the gangs. And what you find in watching Southland is that — just as it is the case with legal-aid lawyers and public defenders — there’s a huge part of the job that is just straight-up playing social worker. In addition to the split-second life and death decisions, cops have to do a tremendous amount of hand-holding, of negotiating, of settling disputes, of pulling children out of homes, and of consulting and referring and brokering peace. Their job, as Southland so capably demonstrates, is not to stamp out crime — that’s an impossible task — but to shift it around, to roll that goddamn rock up the hill every day and hope that you get one or two positive outcomes every once in a while without getting shot in the face.
The fucked up thing is, because of assholes like the one who shot Michael Brown, the public hates cops, and they have to work against that in addition to day-to-day challenges. It’s not an easy job, and every time some asshole cop loses his temper and beats up a black guy, it gets more and more difficult for the good cops to keep the rest of us safe(r). So yes, let’s highlight the problems, and let’s single out the rotten elements, and let’s push for better training and racially-balanced policies, but let’s also have a little respect for the men and women who risk their lives to carefully manage and control chaos. Let’s, for a moment, do what This American Life has tried to do: See it from their perspective. And the best way to do that, I think, is to spend five seasons with the flawed but noble police officers of Southland.