Yesterday afternoon, Rachel Barnhart posted a video to her Facebook profile from the Gates Police Facebook profile, showing two dangerous recent interactions that Monroe County police have had with the public. One depicts a woman who already states to 911 that she wants the cops to shoot her. The second shows what appears to be a distraught and listless man shuffling around, not obeying police officers’ repeated commands to keep his hands out of his pocket.
Both of these situations are unquestionably dangerous. They’re two great examples of exactly the kinds of situations for which we rely on police. And had the video simply said, “this is what we do, thank you for your support,” it probably would have been a fine video. I would have applauded the outreach.
Sadly, the video did not stop there. It continued with the following statement:
The mentality around our country right now of no respect and challenging authority is the root cause of many of these violent encounters with Police.
This statement is troubling on a number of levels, the most obvious of which being that the mentally ill do not need a “mentality around our country right now,” to wish harm to themselves or others. If that was the message they intended to send to the public, they did themselves a disservice by not having shown actual instances of disrespect to law enforcement. Those instances cannot be rare in any age. Instead, they undercut their message with video that does not come close to fitting the situation.
The real problem, however, is that there is a real and legitimate debate happening “around our country right now.” The debate is about police procedure; the debate is about race and policing; the debate is about the militarization of our nation’s civilian police forces, as seen in Ferguson among other places; it continues, as ever, to be about the use of tasers as suppression tools.
The Gates Police video seems to want to jump into the middle of all that and just start throwing round-house punches. The blanket statement that there is a culture of disrespect seems to group everybody who objects to police procedures into the same camp with the two mentally disturbed people in the video. Somehow, a legitimate and perennial socio-political debate about how a free people chose to police themselves becomes a nation of lunatics, clawing at the walls of their cages.
To be fair, there is probably no one at the Gates Police Department who is a skilled activist, marketer or even PR person. Nor do I suppose there should be: we rely on the police to give us unvarnished truth, and resent the polished bullet points of larger metropolitan police statements. I’m sure that the message was a heartfelt one, if badly communicated.
Still, it may be impossible for those of us not directly connected to law enforcement to see these words as anything less than statist: we do a dangerous job, we protect you, so you shouldn’t question our methods. Doing so is disrespecting our good graces. The message seeks to end debate with an oversimplified generalization. It leaves no room for discussion, no quarter for anyone who quibbles with the details and displays no shred of self-reflection or awareness.
“Challenging authority” is not the same as not respecting it, and indeed, open public debate is the best route to building respect and trust. That, and acknowledging that the police are civilians, too. That there is no separation between the police and the policed.
As citizens of that same free state to which the rest of us belong, police officers have as much right to voice their opinion as anyone else. But when that opinion comes not from a single law enforcement officer, but an entire department, the effect is monolithic and antagonistic. I would like to hope that this was not the intention of the Gates Police Department. But it serves as a pretty good example of how bad messaging could, in perhaps less harmonious communities, begin a race to the bottom of our civic nature.