David Brooks, a man with a national newspaper platform upon which he can reflect and analyze events for potentially millions of readers, is using that rich platform to ruminate on the recent grand jury non-indictments in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, innocent men who were killed for no reason by police officers.
But instead of meditating on, say, race relations in a fractured nation (to his credit, in a Dec. 1 column, Brooks vaguely encouraged readers to pursue friendship to overcome racism), Brooks is thinking about those who really matter: the cops.
Like a lot of people in journalism, I began my career, briefly, as a police reporter. As the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases have unfolded, I've found myself thinking back to those days. Nothing excuses specific acts of police brutality, especially in the Garner case, but not enough attention is being paid to the emotional and psychological challenges of being a cop.
Early on, I learned that there is an amazing variety of police officers, even compared to other professions. Most cops are conscientious, and some, especially among detectives, are brilliant.
They spend much of their time in the chaotic and depressing nether-reaches of society: busting up domestic violence disputes, dealing with drunks and drug addicts, coming upon fatal car crashes, managing conflicts large and small.
David Brooks was totally almost a cop—covering cops is like being an honorary cop. And how great are cops? Did you know that being a cop is hard? Have you never watched CHiPs, T.J. Hooker, or Law and Order? Cops are susceptible to health problems like ulcers and heart disease and are often under a lot of stress. Read this column and let David Brooks explain to what life is like for a cop, because David Brooks was a cop reporter once 40 years ago and knows all about it.
Yes: There are "good" cops and there are "bad" cops. Some agents of the state manage to keep a semblance of order without murdering unarmed people. But the math Brooks uses to support his assumption that the majority of cops are fine people who don't kill 0r hurt unarmed citizens is a bit funky. According to the 2000 National Institute of Justice Study Brooks cites, "more than 90 percent of the police officers surveyed said that it is wrong to respond to verbal abuse with force. Nonetheless, 15 percent of the cops surveyed were aware that officers in their own department sometimes or often did so."
But according to the survey, the results of which you can see here, 10 percent of respondents agreed that use of force was acceptable when necessary. These officers own their abuse. Meanwhile, 85 percent of respondents said they were not aware officers in their department did such things. These officers are full of shit. So that means that a mere 5 percent of police officers who responded to the survey were not either liars or thugs (It goes without saying that this survey is 14 years out of date.)
The rest of his piece, appallingly, reads like an apologia for Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, without outright naming them:
[Cops] ride an emotional and biochemical roller coaster. They experience moments of intense action and alertness, followed by emotional crashes marked by exhaustion, and isolation. They become hypervigilant. Surrounded by crime all day, some come to perceive that society is more threatening than it really is.
To cope, they emotionally armor up. Many of the cops I was around developed a cynical, dehumanizing and hard-edged sense of humor that was an attempt to insulate themselves from the pain of seeing a dead child or the extinguished life of a young girl they arrived too late to save.
You see, wasn't Wilson or Pantaleo's fault that they killed Brown and Garner—it was society's. And who causes the most crime in society? Brooks briefly mentions race, mentioning the statistic that "only 1 in 20 white officers believe that blacks and other minorities receive unequal treatment from the police. But 57 percent of black officers are convinced the treatment of minorities is unfair." This, he says, is a "blind spot."
"[A]t the core of the profession," Brooks continues,
lies the central problem of political philosophy. How does the state preserve order through coercion? When should you use overwhelming force to master lawbreaking? When is it wiser to step back and use patience and understanding to defuse a situation? How do you make this decision instantaneously, when testosterone is flowing, when fear is in the air, when someone is disrespecting you and you feel indignation rising in the gut?
I am not a cop, but I think the answer to the question "How do you make the decision to use coercive force when someone is disrespecting you?" is do not use coercive force. If you are unable to make clearheaded decisions when "you feel indignation rising in your gut" you should not be a cop. You should do something that does not bring you and your gun into regular contact with other human beings. If you don't know not to kill or beat people when you feel disrespected you should probably not even go on the New York City subway.
David Brooks, lover of rules and order, orator of political philosophy, closes with a flourish: "Racist police brutality has to be punished," he writes. "But respect has to be paid."
Content from 2014 in the country's leading liberal newspaper.