There isn’t a national census of police officers in the United States, but most sources peg the total number at somewhere around 750,000. These officers have hundreds of thousands on interactions with citizens every day: crime victims, witnesses, drivers in traffic crashes, arrests, traffic stops, mental health crises, dog bites, missing persons, drunk drivers, arrest warrants, and so forth. Most of these are in relatively mundane circumstances, and some are in the most ugly situations imaginable.
Inevitably, a small number of these contacts will go badly. Some of those involve not mere error or misjudgment, but rather misconduct by a police officer: anger, hatred, lack of emotional control, maliciousness, reckless disregard. Officers are hired from humankind, where all of these bad motives exist, and where even otherwise good people do bad things from time to time.
In the context of the enormous number of police-citizen interactions, it is perhaps remarkable that so few tragic errors, lapses, and bad acts occur. We learn about this tiny number, however, almost instantly, and seemingly continuously, in this day and age of social media and a news cycle that never rests.
When malice or recklessness by a police officer is the cause of the bad thing, he or she deserves to be held accountable just as any other person—maybe even more so. We should rightly be able to expect more from our police, to whom we cede power and authority.
But rational people should understand that “the police” is a false construct. Rather, policing is composed of individual officers, organized into individual departments. The officers and the departments have differences in their skill levels, training, education, disposition, orientation towards the use of force, accountability systems, and cultures. To target the Dallas Police Department and 12 Dallas officers with violent rage due to the bad act of some officer elsewhere entirely is more than absurd, it is the most evil manifestation of stereotyping.
You will be hard-pressed to find this phenomenon with any other occupational group. Individual teachers, preachers, senators, presidents, and physicians commit bad acts, but no one indicts the entire field of education, the clergy, the senate, the presidency, or medicine.
Imagine you are the husband or wife of a police officer anywhere in the United States today. You’ve watched an assassin kill five Dallas officers who had nothing whatsoever to do with the events that created the grievance motivating his attack. Think about how you would feel when your loved one goes to work this evening, as you realize that the same mindless anger could be directed at him or her,
just because they wear a badge.
Isn't that the same process by which mindless anger is directed towards someone just because of the color of their skin, their religion, gender, national origin, or sexual identity?