My Struggle to Feel Empathy for Police
It's natural to get angry and even numb when it comes to police shootings, but we need to rise above those feelings.
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I invited white police officers to the class I teach at Davidson College in North Carolina because I could feel my empathy for cops killed in the line of duty fading, and it frightened me.
It had reached a point where I had to remind myself that I needed to feel grief—not just anger—when police officers were gunned down during horrific ambushes in Dallas and Louisiana last year. This was new: I didn't feel that way when officers were gunned down in 2014 while eating lunch in Las Vegas, or when I worked for a daily newspaper and covered the murder of Horry County police officer Dennis Lyden in the summer of 2000. Empathy then was natural, automatic.
I have argued in favor of police officers who roughly handled an unruly, small-time mayor in our area suspected of a DUI, saying that officer safety was paramount, that we must provide them a bit of leeway so they could make it home to their families. A friend of mine is a white woman police officer who shot a black man after a chase. I prayed for her privately and publicly defended her in print. I had no problem saying that any attack on a law enforcement official was an attack on us all because it was an attack on democracy itself.
But in recent years, I've begun to change. I could feel myself wearing down just a little each time a police officer shot a Tamir Rice and walked away without being charged, or choked an Eric Garner, or killed a Philando Castille after he did everything we are told we are supposed to do. My resolve crumbled even more when I saw Sandra Bland being treated horrifically on the side of a road for no good reason and finding out about the shooting of Laquan McDonald and what amounted to a coverup of his killing by police and Chicago officials. Then I watched as officials in my region of South Carolina stood by cops who shot a young black man multiple times over a little marijuana, paralyzing him for life, falsely claiming that he fired a gun at them and that they identified themselves before knocking down his door, then walking away without being charged after an "independent" investigation absolved them of responsibility.
The list of such incidents is long and growing, yet such deaths have not moved enough Americans to ensure change. But they've affected me to the point where a liberal white friend recently told me I was being too radical because I said a police officer's irrational fear should not be prioritized over a man's life.
"You're turning an ally into an enemy," he told me.
That was my state of mind when I brought two white cops to my journalism class at to interact with my diverse group of students. Less than a year earlier, social unrest had erupted in Charlotte, roughly a 20-minute drive away, after yet another shooting involving a police officer and civilian, in that case both of whom were black men. Some of my students had participated in emotional debates and discussions and protests that disrupted traffic through the middle of town. My job as a teacher is to force them to think critically, no matter what they are feeling, and having two white police officers explain their side of things seemed like a great way to make that happen.
And it worked, just not in the way I expected.
I thought the students would be mesmerized when they heard one of the officers tell a story from the 1990s, long before the ongoing debate about policing, brutality, and excessive use of force erupted. He had been placed on leave because he had shot a black man. After coming back, while on patrol, he stopped two black men in a car. While waiting for his backup to arrive as he processed the driver for a few violations, he noticed the passenger acting strangely and tried to keep him calm. In a flash, that passenger reached for a rifle. The officer grabbed the rifle with one hand and pulled out his sidearm, pointing it at the man's head, with his other. But he re-holstered his gun in the middle of the encounter, not because he was trained to re-holster in such circumstances, but because he did not want to be known as a white cop who shot yet another black man.
"He kicked my ass," the cop told my class. He sustained non-life-threatening injuries; after his backup arrived, the man was arrested, placed in custody, and charged. Everyone walked away alive.
He told the class he was sorry he put his gun away. "My regret is putting myself and other community members at risk," he said. "Luckily it worked out back then. It doesn't always work out that way."
His story moved the students and made them consider the issue in ways they hadn't before. I was happy with that outcome, but then a student asked a question that has stuck with me: "Why would he regret not taking a life?"
Later, I asked him to expound on his thinking.
"Yes, I believe the black man had been a criminal. Yes, I believe the officer's safety was at risk," he told me. "What I also believe is that though there could've been casualties, there weren't any. Someone could've been killed, and if the officer had shot that black man under those circumstances, it would have been legal, and probably even moral. But no one was killed. A society where a man is taught to feel regret for such an outcome is a broken one indeed."
It was then that I realized I had forgotten how to feel that passionately about the protection of life—all human life, even those who do awful things—even though I've spent years lamenting the unnecessary killings during officer-involved shootings. I had forgotten to keep challenging a conventional wisdom that has sprouted recently, particularly from the Blue Lives Matter crowd. Police officers must be held accountable when they do wrong even as we expect them to effectively deal with high crime rates in struggling communities. We should compromise on neither of those goals.
We should want police officers to make it home safely to their husbands and wives, sons and daughters. But their safe return home is not more important than the lives of those with whom they encounter while on duty, and demanding that they find the most non-lethal ways to keep communities safe and to affect the arrest of dangerous men and women must remain a priority, no matter how many times we are falsely called anti-police. It is imperative that while we make those demands we don't allow ourselves to become so angry we become numb.
Last year, 66 police officers were killed while on duty by felons. While that number remains at historic lows, it is a 61 percent increase from 2015 and the second-highest total since 2011. That should concern us all. But it doesn't mean our showing empathy for police officers killed and those facing daily dangers means we must go along with unnecessary new "blue lives matter" laws or stop relentlessly trying to root out systemic problems within law enforcement organizations that have led to an epidemic of police brutality and the harassment of communities of color.
I will grieve for police officers for are taken from us too soon—even as I continue waiting on America to grieve as much for those unnecessarily killed by police.
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