I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb here and say that the job of police officer is the most oft-depicted profession in pop culture. Cops' jobs are so much cooler and sexier than normal jobs—there are guns, uniforms, fast cars, seedy behavior, moral quandaries, and high stakes. There might even be a naked fat guy's ass if you play your cards right. I'd say the second most popular profession to depict is "doctor," but they only get to save good people, not kill bad guys. Snore.
Fictional police officers can be stalwart protectors of the social order, crooked sociopaths, bumbling horndogs, cyborg monsters, futuristic fascists, or whatever the cartoon character Bonkers was supposed to be—a bobcat? Cops can be whatever you want them to be in fiction.
Real police officers aren't cartoon bobcats though. They're people like you and me, but with body armor and guns. For instance, let's look at the case of two cops in Dayton, Ohio, who were suspended from the force after an anonymous tipper leaked their personal phone records that contained a bevy of racist comments to the Dayton chapter of the NAACP. Captain Thomas Flanders and Detective Michael Sollenberger allegedly were fond of sending each other texts like "I hate niggers. That is all," and "What do apples and black people have in common? They both hang from trees."
Another of the texts apparently contains a threat to stab a "coon" who was just trying to enjoy a night out in a bar. The Montgomery County Sheriff's Department is in the midst of an investigation to determine the validity of these texts, but in the meantime, Flanders and Sollenberger are getting some time off. The part of this story that will really make you reach for the cyanide is that Sollenberger works in internal affairs, which means he's responsible for monitoring the conduct of his fellow officers.
I'm not afraid of police officers. I don't worry that they're going to start a fight and kill me just because I jaywalked or ran a red light. Maybe I should be though. NYPD cop Daniel Panteleo didn't have to answer for using an illegal chokehold to kill Eric Garner because he was selling loose cigarettes. Darren Wilson gets to smugly appear on television, taking his vile victory lap after escaping prosecution for the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Cops are apparently texting each other about how much they hate "niggers" and want to see them dead. I wish someone would explain to me how I'm supposed to go on blindly following the orders of the police when the evidence of their hatred of me (and people like me) continues to build up.
I've only been pulled over once, and that was for expired registration on my car. They were stern but fair and let me go with a "fix-it" ticket. As they ran my driver's license, all I could do was squint while they shined their impossibly bright hood-mounted lights toward my car. I wish I could say I wasn't terrified, but I can't. I had no agency or power in the situation. I was alone and at the mercy of two strangers with guns who may or may not value my life.
What if I was mistaken for someone else? What if I said the wrong thing or flinched in a "threatening manner"? These thoughts only seem irrational if you are willing to ignore all the evidence that a black male's fear of the police is very rational, if not necessary for survival.
Cops use a healthy amount of fear and intimidation to keep order. They have to appear tough to be certain that citizens respect their instructions. If we all collectively stopped being afraid of police, we'd start running over people on the sidewalk or murdering hookers like we were in Grand Theft Auto. Carry on with your mirrored sunglasses and scowls if that means I don't get chopped up by a Cuban drug lord with a chainsaw. But what happens when that fear becomes so great that you no longer can trust authority? The next time a black man is put in a choke hold, do you think he's just going to submit to the whims of his attacker or will he try to fight back because he's sure he's going to die?
The theory that we should all just do what the police tell us to do, even in the face of senseless death, is akin to telling a battered wife to let her husband keep hitting her because he loves her. I'm losing the ability to accept that cops just have my best interests in mind and will take care of me. Real cops are not robots or genetically engineered clones. They have prejudices, they panic, and they make mistakes.
If you are reading this and you are a cop, I'll be plain: I don't trust you anymore. Do not think that it's my responsibility to blindly follow you. Your job is to make me trust and believe in justice in the real world, not in the movies.
A previous version of this article stated that the officers worked for Dayton PD. They are Montgomery County Sheriffs. We apologize for the error.
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