For D.C. police officers — and officers across the United States — it was a confounding turn of events. After the May 25, 2020, killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, nationwide protests decried American policing as racist and brutal, and the heavy-handed, militarized police response to the protests throughout the summer drew further condemnation. Activists called on cities to abolish or, at least, “defund” the police, and within weeks, politicians in numerous cities were pledging to trim police department budgets. Pelosi and other congressional leaders were calling for “transformational, structural change to end police brutality.” After the failed insurrection, however, cops were suddenly heroes: “martyrs for democracy,” as Pelosi put it.
When it comes to policing, such whiplash is par for the course. U.S. political culture and rhetoric tend to frame things in terms of binary oppositions: Either cops are selfless, underappreciated heroes, or they’re brutal, racist thugs. Either we should double their budgets and put more cops on the streets, or we should defund or abolish the police.
But the failed insurrection simultaneously reinforced and challenged both these diametrically opposed views — which means that maybe Americans are finally ready to recognize that the truth about policing can’t be reduced to simplistic sound bites. Policing in America is like a messy ball of yarn: There’s heroism and sacrifice, and there’s racism and brutality, and it’s all tangled up together.
In 2016, I joined the MPD Reserve Corps in Washington to find out what it was like on the other side of the “thin blue line.” I have always been fascinated by the relationship between law and violence. As a law professor, human rights advocate and journalist who has worked on issues related to war, civil conflict and policing in places as varied as South Africa, Kosovo, Jamaica, Sierra Leona and Iraq, I wanted to understand how American police officers explain and justify their roles to themselves, and how their stories compare to media and popular narratives about policing.
As a sworn, armed MPD reserve officer, I went from six months as a recruit at the D.C. Metropolitan Police Academy to several years of patrol shifts in Washington’s 7th Police District, one of the poorest, most crime-ridden sections of the nation’s capital. During parades, protests, details and special events, such as the 2017 presidential inauguration, I worked across the city — and what I found, of course, was not a single story, but a thousand messy, overlapping and sometimes conflicting stories. (Many of these stories are chronicled in “Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City,” the book I wrote about these experiences.)
Police officers, in my experience, are no more monolithic than any other group of people. Like the rest of us, most cops try to be decent people and make the communities in which they work safer, better places. And like the rest of us, even the best cops don’t always succeed.
That shouldn’t surprise us, because police officers don’t operate in a vacuum. Police arrest the poor for petty crimes because the people we elect to represent us have criminalized a dizzying range of trivial offenses, and the people arrested by police often remain locked up for years because of decisions made by legislators, prosecutors and judges.
Police stop vehicles for broken taillights and improper right turns on red because, as a society, we have decided, through our elected representatives, to have armed, uniformed state agents hand out tickets for civil traffic infractions, even though most of us would find it excessive and bizarre to send cops to people’s doors to enforce IRS filing deadlines or residential zoning codes.
Police deal — often poorly — with addiction, homelessness and mental illness because as a society, we have decided we’re unwilling to fund adequate social services. (And we certainly can’t be bothered to take on the still more challenging work of unraveling the web of poverty and injustice created by centuries of racist laws and policies.)
As a society, we also ask police officers to take on a dizzying and often incompatible array of roles: We want them to be guardians, warriors, social workers, mediators, mentors and medics, often all in the course of a single patrol shift. We want them to show compassion to victims and be tough enough to take on violent criminals; we want them to treat protesters with courtesy even if they’re sneered and spat at; we want them to keep marauding mobs from invading the Capitol. We want them to understand mental illness, get guns off the streets, anticipate and respond to political violence, solve homicides and keep old ladies from getting mugged — all without being overbearing, rude or using excessive force, and all while working punishingly long shifts in uncomfortable and often dangerous conditions, under the constant, unforgiving glare of the media spotlight.
Few people can consistently do all these things well. I’ve seen cops manage to do six impossible things before breakfast — offering comfort to crime victims and deftly de-escalating domestic conflicts — then completely lose it on the next call, cursing and yelling and slamming doors over trivial provocations. One of my partners, a young officer, wept when his efforts at CPR couldn’t save an elderly man whose heart had given out. Then, two hours later, he dismissed residents of a neighborhood we worked in as “animals.” Another young officer had a smile and a hug for everyone he met, even the people he arrested, but when he started chasing kids on ATVs in his cruiser, he forgot every rule in the book and careened down residential streets at 80 mph, recklessly endangering far more lives than the teens popping wheelies on the highway had done.
I’ve also seen countless officers struggle to reconcile their values with their understanding of their professional role. Some of my MPD colleagues “took a knee” to show solidarity with the racial justice protesters who filled the city in June and July; others insisted that kneeling was as inappropriate as offering a fist bump to White nationalists.
As a patrol officer and while participating in workshops for the Police for Tomorrow Fellowship program, which brings young D.C. officers to Georgetown Law school to talk about many of the toughest questions confronting American policing, I’ve listened to officers argue passionately about whether there’s any such thing as “neutrality” — or whether it’s possible to be anti-racist and a police officer at the same time. I’ve seen officers cry when they speak about how helpless they sometimes feel, confronted by so much misery and suffering they can’t change — or confronted by people, whether on the far left or the far right, who swear at police or shout, “Traitors!” and hurl bottles of urine (or worse) at them.
I’ve also seen that sense of helplessness turn, at times, into cynicism, bitterness or despair. Each year, suicide kills far more cops than shootings and car accidents put together. In 2019, 132 officers lost their lives in the line of duty, including 48 who were “feloniously killed,” as the FBI puts it. In contrast, at least 228 officers killed themselves. Just in the weeks since the assault on the Capitol, two D.C. police officers have killed themselves.
But in my most optimistic moments, I wonder if this last terrible year — a year of pandemic, police killings, mass protests and political violence — may finally push Americans to reckon with policing in all its complexity.
If Floyd’s death buttressed the narrative that police officers are sadistic racists, the events of Jan. 6 simultaneously forced Americans to acknowledge the glaring racial disparities in policing and acknowledge that sometimes, we really do need armed officers who will fight to protect others (or democracy itself).
It’s impossible to disregard the difference between the heavily militarized police response to last summer’s largely peaceful racial justice protests, and the kid gloves with which Capitol police initially seemed to treat the largely White crowd of Trump supporters during the electoral college count, despite ample warning that far-right militants were planning violence.
At the same time, the events of Jan. 6 offered us a contrasting story, too: We saw scores of badly outnumbered police officers, Black and White, Latino and Asian, male and female, fighting courageously to protect the Capitol and the members of Congress who sheltered inside. They persevered in the face of insults and lethal threats from a violent, largely White mob, and at the end of the day, nearly 140 police officers had been injured, some badly, and one officer was dead.
So were four of the insurrectionists, including Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt, a woman shot by a Capitol police officer just off the House chamber. The inquiry into Babbitt’s death is ongoing, but so far, investigators say they are unlikely to bring charges against the officer who fired the fatal shots — and few on the left have objected to this particular police shooting. Indeed, as Neil Gong and Heath Pearson recently noted in the Atlantic, “some on the left have demanded harsher policing of right-wing extremism. … That is, the very people who supported police reform or outright defunding over the summer seemed to want a crackdown.”
Policing is complicated. That’s not an excuse, it’s just reality.
The fact that violent crime is real and sometimes requires a coercive response, or that cops are every bit as contradictory and human as other Americans, doesn’t justify police abuses, or the racism so deeply baked into our criminal justice system. If anything, my years as a part-time cop left me convinced that we need to change nearly everything about policing, from how we recruit and train officers to how police departments are structured and overseen. We also need to radically overhaul our criminal justice system, which too often reinforces and amplifies racial and economic inequities.
But the project of transforming policing needs to include the voices of police officers themselves, in all their complicated, sprawling, messy humanity. Ultimately, if we want to change policing in America, we need to stop reducing the complex problems of their jobs to sound bites — and we need to stop vilifying cops for enforcing laws they didn’t create, in a political and social context they can do little to change.