Getting quiet time to think is a challenge for most of us, but it’s a necessity for me to maintain my sanity. That’s one of the gifts that rediscovering exercise has given me: a time each day to close out the world and focus on only the sounds I choose to listen to through my ear buds. A private one-way conversation that often sparks extended internal thought and sometimes leads to great external conversations.
Sometimes I don’t even use ear buds and just listen to my own thoughts, but that’s mostly when I am outside and want to hear the sounds around me. At the gym, I almost always listen to podcasts. And, those podcasts are usually NPR programs including my favorites like On Being and of course, This American Life.
On Saturday, I found myself listening to the February 6th program of This American Life entitled “Cops See It Differently, Part One.” There I was on the treadmill, shaking my fist, mouthing, “YES!” to several points of this program and I want to share the most important parts with you in case you are not able to listen to the full show (which, I would highly recommend you do).
I think that one of the most concerning things about my response to this show is how happy I was that someone actually took the time to even consider the other side, to really give pause and think about how difficult this job is and how complicated police work can be. I think I even let out a audible, “Thank you,” when I heard Ira Glass open the show by saying:
For so long now, there’s been this conversation or debate– I don’t know what you want to call this– about policing and race and people being targeted, and whenever it comes up, it seems to split very quickly into a kind of my side versus your side sort of thing.
In these last few months, we’ve been talking about this stuff amongst ourselves here on the radio show staff and researching and reporting in different parts of the country, and we have found some things that surprised us about policing and how complicated and difficult it is, and about how hard it is to sort out the part that race and racism play in all kinds of incidents, and we found ways that racism seems undeniable.
Yes, he said they found ways that racism seems undeniable, but I was thrilled that someone finally realized how much gray area exists in the world of police work. While it’s easier to put things in black or white, it’s just not always that simple. Further, it’s important to realize and acknowledge that, proven by dozens of studies, anger spreads faster online than any other emotion. Which means, negativity is incredibly contagious and easy to catch; all you have to do is click like or retweet.
So, for a moment, instead of jumping on the bandwagon of negativity, give yourself a moment to consider the other side. This episode of This American Life looks at Ed Flynn, who has served as Milwaukee’s police chief since 2008. Flynn has not been without controversy, but he has also had a significant impact in one of the country’s most racially divided cities. Flynn says:
Cops start out empathetic or they wouldn’t be doing this in the first place. You come to a police academy graduation, you talk to officers in training. They’re dying to get out there and help people. But as the social net has frayed, cops are spending enormous amounts of time with the social problems that society’s taken a walk on, and night after night after night, police officers go through the same problems for which there are no solutions.
Look at this guy. He was dying to get out there and help people. This was graduation from the academy and our little family was getting ready to add our second child.
He still loves to help people. When it goes right, it goes right but he spends much of his day swimming up stream. This is the heart of it, for me, “cops are spending enormous amounts of time with the social problems that society’s taken a walk on, and night after night after night, police officers go through the same problems for which there are no solutions.”
My husband often uses the example of responding to a 9-1-1 call by a mother because her 15 year old son won’t go to school (yes, that’s a real 9-1-1 call). He walks on the porch and the mother wants him to solve a problem in five minutes that she hasn’t been able to solve in 15 years. “Social problems that society’s taken a walk on.”
The people that are police officers are regular people just like you, and they have faced the same kind of long-term stresses on their equilibrium that anybody who is deployed year after year after year to Iraq and Afghanistan experiences. It happens more rapidly in a war zone, obviously, but the same dynamics are working on America’s police officers every day on the streets of our cities, and they do harden themselves. They have to.
The other morning, before he even got to roll call at 5:30AM, my husband responded to a homicide. A 20-something girl shot multiple times and left for dead on the sidewalk. No one called the police when the shots were fired (and there were more than eight). Instead, it was someone driving to work that saw the body and called 9-1-1. A stranger passing through the neighborhood—traveling from north to south—in the predawn hours and through dark city streets.
Flynn captures my thoughts exactly (and insert any city in the U.S. in place of Milwaukee):
And if some of the people here gave a good goddamn about the victimization of people in this community by crime, I’d take some of their invective more seriously. The greatest racial disparity in the city of Milwaukee is getting shot and killed. Hello. 80% of my homicide victims every year are African American. 80% of our aggravated assault victims are African American. 80% of our shooting victims who survive their shooting are African American. Now, they know all about the last three people that have been killed by the Milwaukee police department over the course of the last several years. There’s not one of them can name one of the last three homicide victims we’ve had in this city.
Yet, school-yard sayings still rule these cruel streets, “Snitches get stitches.” There are bad cops. And, cops do get fired and disciplined—but it doesn’t always make news (and shouldn’t…we don’t long for your recent discipline at work to lead the morning headlines). Finally, there are problems as there are with any business that has a large number of employees who work independently. I don’t know the answers but I know not all the problems are with the cops. Flynn goes on to say:
Now, there’s room for everybody to participate in fixing this police department, and I’m not pretending we’re without sin, but this community is at risk, all right, and it’s not because men and women in blue risk their lives protecting it. It’s at risk because we’ve got large numbers of high capacity quality firearms in the hands of remorseless criminals who don’t care who they shoot.
There is room for everybody to participate in fixing this police department; there is room for everybody to participate in fixing society.