There’s No Such Thing as a Usual Suspect

Stephen Baldwin And Gabriel Byrne In 'The Usual Suspects'

Recent news stories have brought to light a continuum we could call “General Opinion of Law Enforcement”. One end of the scale reads “Fu** da police” and the other end seems to send the message “Police are incapable of error”. Over the past several months, I’ve watched several friends and acquaintances plot their stance on the continuum, with various soundbytes and worldviews to accompany their pushing the proverbial pin into some location on the line. Throughout this time, I’ve silently observed; mostly because I don’t care to add to the noise unless I’ve considered my thoughts long enough for my own noise to be meaningful. Today, I have something to say.

Bias is as familiar to the human mind as breathing. From childhood, as our minds sort experiences, bias allows us to create the world we know. A baby uses bias to recognize that she doesn’t like this stranger holding her as much as the familiar scent of mommy. Bias is necessary in this way. It is a decision-making agent. As we grow, however, our bias needs to be put under the microscope and examined for its merit or fault. When left unchecked, it is like a weed, growing out of control, reaping prejudice, racism and ultimately, hate.

As a teacher, I experience and wrestle with bias all day long. Doing a fair amount of minor “policing” over 25 ten year olds, I’m required to make decisions that directly affect those children, often in a split second and while simultaneously attempting to explain the tenants of long division. Here’s the thing: my natural tendency is to SUCK at policing kids. Johnny is an instigator, Dylan always passes the buck, Kylie is constantly a victim of something, Cameron tattles over everything – these are the easy roads I want to take, because they are the story lines that are true more often. But they are not true every time. Sometimes Johnny is the victim. Sometimes Dylan takes responsibility. A poor teacher gives in to the bias. A good teacher fights it vigilantly, day in and day out; because she cares not about getting kids out of her hair, but about interacting with little humans in a meaningful way and helping them to become better people.

It is the easiest thing in the world to look straight past the little eyes and souls in my classroom and worry instead about the administrative work or the numbers I need to achieve or the lesson I need to get through. Why? Because slowing down and taking the time to care is HARD. It is so much easier to just power through and see the classroom as an amoeba of students, instead of 25 separate individuals. However, the moment I put on the badge of “teacher”; the moment I said yes to being a civil servant who intends to oversee a room full of chaotic, learning, growing kids, I signed up to combat that bias every day. I am REQUIRED to look plainly and impartially at them, because they are wounded when I don’t, and my job is to care for them. If a teacher ever gives in to the bias or becomes worn down from too many years of the stereotypes turning out exactly as expected, he or she should quit or be fired.

Bad police exist because they fall prey to the same types of bias teachers and all of us face. The moment they are not vigilant in fighting stereotypes; the second they see citizens as statistics or numbers instead of human souls who deserve to be kept safe, they fail. They are trained extensively to be blind to race, creed, and stereotype, but enough years of repeated and difficult situations can cause them to fall weary and give in. Giving in, however, is unacceptable. The moment they put on that badge for the first time, it is their duty to be brazenly aware of the prejudice that exists within them, and if they cannot fulfill that duty and battle said prejudice, they do not belong in law enforcement.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen examples lately of not just unchecked prejudice, but outright hunger for power and complete bullying within law enforcement. I believe it is an infrequent occurrence, but it exists, nonetheless. What’s worse, when this unacceptable behavior is proven through video or admittance by the officer, their superiors and department often take on an incestuous, “protect our own” mentality and defends these types of officers, thereby painting themselves in a worse light than if they had had the courage to step out and say, “Officers who are on the force solely to wrongfully demonstrate power and authority over others and needlessly bully or harass citizens do not belong here and we have no tolerance for anyone besides those whose sole desire is to protect and serve society.”

The difficulty is this: even while maintaining an awareness of my own bias, I give in to it. I am not perfect all the time. In my job, the repercussions of this may mean that I took away the play time of a little girl or boy who had not actually done anything wrong, or that I let a culprit slide by deciding he/she wasn’t capable of the act of which they had been accused. Unfortunately, with police officers, the stakes are higher. Sometimes their bias is insignificant, and only involves letting Miriam Bernard off with a warning because she’s a nice little teacher, instead of giving her a speeding ticket for going 62 in a 45. But sometimes, giving in to bias can mean putting the wrong person in prison or worse, exerting force unnecessarily and costing someone their life. For this reason, combating these prejudices must be at the forefront of the police mindset at all times.I far prefer my tiny person version of policing to the far higher-stakes grown-up version, and for this reason, I appreciate police for taking on the incredibly difficult job of navigating these types of minefields.

The good news? Many police departments are taking multi-day seminars on how to put your bias in check, and are seeing tangible results in statistics relating to use of excessive force, unarmed deaths, and basically every nook and cranny of the way their department is run. I wish the news would cover these types of stories to bring us onto more common ground. Instead, we get sensationalized coverage of racially-charged violence that is literally MEANT to pit us against each other. Rise above it! When a teacher really sucks at their job and it makes the news, we don’t stop sending our kids to school. When someone gets attacked in their home in their sleep, we don’t stay up all night wielding weapons in fear. We lock our doors and go to sleep, understanding that the media presents the most extreme margins of society because that is what is considered “news”. In the same way, when certain police do it all wrong, it’s foolish to throw the baby out with the bath water. Hundreds of thousands of police officers are doing their jobs successfully every single day, but you’re never going to hear about it. The ubiquitously televised bad eggs don’t mean we stop rooting for police to do the best they can.

It’s pretty basic: unchecked bias is wrong. It’s wrong in teachers, in police officers, and it’s wrong in humans. As part of my goal to examine and work on my own personal prejudices, I choose not to assume the general opinion that cops are pigs. I also choose not to assume they are gods. They are just people who happen to have a very big and important job. They need to be ruthlessly aware that their job and their mindset effects lives every day, and those who lose that awareness need to stop being in charge of the safety of others right away. Rather than try to decide whether individual or entire departments of law enforcement are “racist or not” or to what extent, let’s just assume that whether we like it or not, racism and prejudice lives inside all our hearts on some level, and we ALL need to take whatever steps we can to stamp it out. There’s no such thing as a usual suspect. Today, I’m going to begin by being the change I wish to see in law enforcement.

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