An open letter to a protester.
We might sit down over coffee, and I would start by telling you that I have done a lot of good things in my short 5-year career. I was the first officer on the scene for a call at a college campus where a delusional person was wandering the halls of a dormitory with a gun. In that incident, we found the person responsible just as he was about to commit a sexual assault.
A few months ago, I went to a call for shots fired, ran after an armed person in the dark, and caught him with the help of my partners. A few weeks ago, I was part of a group of officers that caught an “armed and dangerous” murderer after a high-speed pursuit. In all of these incidents, no one was hurt. And none of them were on the news.
My interest is not to criticize the media, but simply to point out that for every negative news story involving the police, there are thousands of positive stories that proceed normally, without incident, and without recognition.
I would tell you my stories of doing good deeds. I have saved one life directly, and many others indirectly. I have given out many, many warnings when I could have given out citations. I have let people go home when I could have taken them to jail. Every year, I spend hundreds of dollars of my own money buying food for the hungry, transportation for the stranded and shelter for the homeless.
I might tell you about the time I paid the towing fee to get a DUI suspect’s car out of the tow yard after discovering that his impairment was mostly due to an undiagnosed brain injury. There have been a handful of times where I nearly shot someone, but didn’t, and mere milliseconds made the difference. I have never been accused of excessive force or brutality, and I make an effort to stay composed, even when people spit in my face or worse. More recently, even after someone coughed on me repeatedly while telling me that he wanted me to die from coronavirus, I stayed composed.
I would explain to you that not losing my temper is one small part of my job, as is the ideal of being superhuman. For any personality trait, I’m expected to know the exact range between two extremes, and I’m expected to know exactly how much of it to apply, and exactly when.
I would offer to take you on a ride-along and show you that my job is incredibly difficult. I have to record every single thing I do on camera, thereby subjecting myself to criticism from anyone and everyone, including myself. I have to be everywhere, all the time, and I have to be everything to everyone, immediately and perfectly.
I would tell you these things not to garner sympathy, but to provide you with insight into that which you might not see. I would do this to illustrate that most police officers are good people like me. I would explain how part of me cringes at the comment that I’m “one of the good ones,” as if I’m the exception to the rule. Because the truth is, I represent the norm.
I would be tempted to point out statistical realities to support this point, but numbers never seem to hold any gravity when compared to the raw footage of a bad cop making a bad decision. And the sad fact of the matter is, I am one person, and my range of control doesn’t extend very far beyond my own decisions. But I do what I can, and I try to lead by example. Still, I can’t possibly account for the actions of the 800,000 police officers in this country.
Most, like me, strive for good. Some, being merely human, make mistakes. Others, demonstrably sociopathic, commit ugly, abhorrent crimes for which they should be imprisoned. I would point out that all institutions evolve over time, whether it’s religion, government, or law enforcement. While institutional change in the criminal justice system is needed, I would suggest that one does not need to demonize “THE” police as a whole to achieve that end. Cops are not all the same.
I would ask that you judge me not by my uniform, but by the content of my character. I would point out that “us versus them” thinking is always bad, no matter which side you’re on. My patrol shift is remarkably diverse, and I am biracial. These demographic trends toward diversity in my department coincide with an overall shift in police culture, directed toward de-escalation and service to the community. I acknowledge that while my department may be ahead of the curve, my narrow experience isn’t necessarily indicative of the status quo. You and I would agree that law enforcement can be improved, and we could ponder about how things might look if there were no budgetary constraints at all. If only we could attain the selectivity and educational rigor of an Ivy League school, the yearslong training of a doctor, the insight of a cultural anthropologist and the broadened mindset of a philosopher.
With a sigh, I would lament with you that progress itself never comes as quickly or as completely as it should. I would describe how disheartening and strange it is to be hated by the very people for whom I risk life and limb to protect. I could tell you about my permanent back injury, and all of the other times I’ve been assaulted and injured. I might tell you what it’s like to attend a police funeral. To fight and die for a populace who ignores you, or worse yet, hates you, engenders a lot of doubt, but it also speaks to a remarkable quality of character. This is what weighs on me most heavily, and it is an added layer of confusion that rests on top of the daily barrage of human-to-human ugliness to which I must bear witness.
I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I had chosen a different career, and why I continue to sacrifice my physical health, my mental health and my personal life, for strangers. But then the prominent engravings of ethical considerations of right and wrong, tediously ground in me since birth and deepened over time, become present on my mind.
Civilized society can’t exist without rules, and the people to enforce those rules. Someone has to take the point, and go out in front. Someone has to do it. And so if it must be done, it should be done right. Doing the job right demands a set of people with a deeply-set inscription of ideals, like integrity and personal sacrifice.
It is evident to me that one of the ingredients that causes the arc of history to bend toward justice is sacrifice. I choose to suffer for the benefit of the whole because that is the task that best suits my disposition. I break my back by pulling the weeds and hauling the water and tilling the garden of our society, all so that plants may grow.
I would implore you to see that we are both disgusted by bad cops. I would suggest that because we both believe in and demand things like equality and justice, you and I are not so different, and I am not your enemy. And because we both want the same things, there does not have to be so much darkness between us. We both want to see positive change for humanity, and so we look toward the light at the end of the tunnel.
I would describe the pit in my chest when I watch George Floyd’s last moments, not only because of the horror and the inhumanity, but because of what it means for my profession. I envision a pool of water in a cupped hand; a tiny, delicately built reservoir of trust and confidence, fragile and tenuous, slipping through the fingers, vanishing away like a dream. I see the subsequent reaction as the hand is rolled up into a balled fist whereby thousands upon thousands of upstanding, honest police officers like me will have to contend with death threats, bottles and bricks thrown in our faces, and gunfire.
I see the omen of a white glove, knocking on my parents’ door in the middle of the night, the harbinger of news too terrible to bear. And so you and I would talk, and I would commiserate with you, listen to your grievances and be open to suggestions about how to move forward in a productive way. I would ask that we not allow anger to spiral down into outright chaos and insanity. I would ask that we avoid hurting each other, and that I want both of us to be able to go home safely. And I would tell you that I will protect your safety and your rights with everything that I have, and all that I can muster.
At the end of the conversation, I would hope that you see me for who I am, not what I am. I would be tempted to bring things to a close by trying to say something magnanimous without sounding silly or robotic, perhaps by mentioning the oath that I swore to uphold. And so instead of repeating platitudes, I would simply remind you that even if you still hate me, if you ever dial 911 or call out for help, I will come running. I promise. I will come running. And then I would open my palm, and offer you my outstretched hand.
Seth Templeton is an officer with the Baltimore County Police Department.