Then they enter training, where a core theme is that it’s a threatening world out there. Recruits are told that a guy with a knife 21 feet away can run up and stab you before you have the chance to draw your gun. Even when your gun is drawn on someone with his back turned, he can pivot and pull his trigger before you have the chance to fire. Recruits listen to the desperate radio cries of officers killed in the line of duty, and the message is: Don’t ever let this happen to you. When in doubt, as the saying goes, it is “better to be judged by 12 than carried by six.”
About 70 percent of police officers say they have never fired their gun while on the job, but on average, 71 hours of their training are devoted to firearm skills and 60 hours to self-defense, according to a 2013 Bureau of Justice report, while only 43 hours are spent on community-policing measures, such as cultural-diversity training, human relations, mediation, and conflict management.
Annie Lowrey: Defund the police
Many training programs take recruits out of civilian life and put them in a boot-camp atmosphere. Years on the job have a tendency to reinforce this separation. I left the University of Chicago to become a police reporter on the South Side of that city. The first thing I learned, during that brief stint, was that the detectives in the Chicago Police Department were just as intelligent as the professors back at school. The second thing I learned is that cops have a profound sense of service, but have to spend their days among people who are at their worst moment, and often among individuals when they are at their worst—responding to domestic violence, rape, drug dealing, and murder.
“Because police officers are frequently exposed to traumatic events such as death, being shot at, and physical assault, rates of PTSD among police officers have been reported to be as high as 15 percent," the epidemiologist Erin McCanlies and her co-authors wrote in a 2017 paper. The pressures are intense. Though quotas are illegal in some states, many cops are urged by their superiors to ramp up their production—issuing more tickets and making more arrests. Officers are also encouraged to respond to calls more swiftly. Constant hyper-vigilance and stress become the background tone of life.
The organizational culture of their departments too often turns them into street warriors, occupying soldiers. Decades ago, the social scientist James Q. Wilson wrote that there are three types of police officer: the watchman, the legalist, and the service provider. Today there’s a fourth, the gladiator.
In the videos, we saw cops armored in riot gear. American law-enforcement agencies have acquired billions of dollars in surplus equipment, including bayonets and grenade launchers.
Casey Delehanty, Ryan Welch, Jack Mewhirter, and Jason Wilks have studied the relationship between militarization and public safety. In The Washington Post, Mewhirter and Welch wrote about their findings: “When a county goes from receiving no military equipment to $2,539,767 worth (the largest figure that went to one agency in our data), more than twice as many civilians are likely to die in that county the following year.” Problems are more likely to be seen as acts of war. The person on the other side of the equipment is rendered less visible.