Captain Quinlan: Our job is tough enough . . . (trails off)
Ramon Miguel Vargas: It’s supposed to be. It has to be tough. A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state. That’s the whole point, Captain.
—Conversation between Orson Welles’s Captain Quinlan and Charlton Heston’s Ramon Miguel Vargas in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958)
One of the storytellers in Walk the Blue Line, a collection of autobiographical testimonies by a variety of police officers from FBI agents to local sheriffs, men and women, from all over the country, is Ashley Smith who relates how, when working traffic duty, she stops a car with an interracial couple—White man, Black woman—for a traffic violation. The Black woman shouts at Smith, whose race is not specified, “You only pulled me over because I’m Black,’” although the Black woman is, in fact, not the driver. The Black woman continues, “You guys hate us, and you kill us. It’s all you people do. You’re a piece of shit.” (202) This occurred during the second week of the trial of Derek Chauvin, charged and subsequently convicted of the murder of George Floyd. “Hostility against cops is at an all-time high, the worst I’ve ever seen,” Smith says. (203) As it turns out, Smith had encountered the Black woman before, had helped her recover her winnings at a restaurant where she was playing Quick Draw lottery, and was unable to get her money because the bartender said she never handed in the ticket. Smith eventually got the Black woman her money, although it took six hours to straighten the matter out. Smith reminds the Black woman of this, of the fact that the Black woman had called the police to help her. “The only thing I remember is you treating me like shit,” the Black woman says. (204) Her White boyfriend, surprised to learn this, finally gets his Black girlfriend to apologize, for her attitude had become belligerence for belligerence’s sake.
The national mood at that moment might have led the Black woman to speak to the cop in the way she did. The police murder of George Floyd had shaken the country. Perhaps because she was Black, she felt compelled to berate Smith, that she ought to as an act of solidarity. Perhaps because she was with a White man, she may have felt she could do it with impunity. Maybe she really hated cops and with good reason. Or maybe she felt that she needed to perform as if she did just for the fun of it, or because doing so gave her a sense of power.
My stepfather, who was a policeman in Philadelphia for nearly thirty years, told me that Blacks called the police all the time, whenever they felt they needed help with anything, related or unrelated to crime. “They called because they knew we were the only people who would come,” he said. A cop came when the Black woman called about her dispute over her winnings. She must have thought a cop could help her.
Smith concludes her testimony by discussing the psychological rigors of police work, “why cops become reclusive and turn to substance abuse.” (204) In addition to her police work, she also works as a suicide prevention officer for her police colleagues. According to one source, police are at higher risk of suicide than any other profession. In 2020, more cops died by suicide than in the line of duty. As one of the cops says in Walk the Blue Line, “Over my three decades of being a cop, I only know one guy who was shot and killed in the line of duty. I know five cops who shot and killed themselves.” (164) It is not an easy job, even in the best of times.
There are few professions held in more contempt, as reviled, in some quarters, as being a police officer. Some demographics like Blacks and queer folk, who were (and, in some cases, still are) defined as deviant, unlawful, outcast, undesirable, inferior, and debased, were special targets for the police: Blacks because they were likely to commit crimes as a way to survive or rebel against racist treatment, oscillating between defeat and defiance; and the queer nation because they were a crime waiting to happen or to be entrapped during the days of anti-sodomy laws and when even same-sex dancing was illegal. After all, the police exist to uphold a particular social order, the enemies, the despised, of that order are, of course, the enemies of the police. For a good swath of our nation’s past, the police existed, in part, to contain, humiliate, punish, terrorize, and isolate these groups. One has only to look at the history of White police in dealing with Blacks in this country, both north and south, or how the police have dealt with sexual “deviants” to know that policing has not always been an entirely honorable profession. (American police have, at best, a checkered history in dealing with Mexican migrants and labor strife as well.) It is worth noting that in the 1960s, both Blacks and gays defined the militant phases of their liberation movements as conflict, sometimes outright war, with the police. Think of the Black Panthers. Think Stonewall. Consider that nearly every race riot or rebellion of the 1960s—Harlem, Philadelphia, Watts, Detroit, Cleveland, Newark—started due to a rumor or actual instance of police brutality. Remember Eugene “Bull” Connor, commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Alabama, and the White cops under his control during the days of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birmingham campaign. Emancipation meant getting cops off your back. Some Americans lived in a democracy; others lived in something that did resemble at times a police state.
What is common in nearly all the testimonies in this book is: first, how much the police officers want to help people, and how much they want to be needed. Second, many cops have a great fear of losing their minds, of the job overwhelming them, and of being unable to get help for themselves.
That was then, of course, and this is now. Today, the police are accused of creating disorder, largely by committing murder, killing innocent people through malice or incompetence. Sources tell us that the police have killed a certain number of people in the month of February alone, that the police have killed over a thousand people last year. But all of these killings were not unjustified as there are violent criminals here, only a fraction of them are racial, and it must be remembered that there are more guns than people in the United States. In a country as violent as ours, it should not be terribly surprising that there are a disturbingly high number of police shootings. The police have to deal with a lot of armed people or fear the real possibility that someone they are dealing with might be armed. I am not excusing the statistics. I am simply framing them. Another way of contextualizing police shootings is to consider this: It is commonly believed that two hundred and fifty thousand (250,000) people die in the United States every year from medical error, a startling figure. It is the third leading cause of death, an assertion that personal injury lawyers have taken to heart. This number has been refuted and a more believable figure of 22,000 malpractice deaths a year has emerged. Even if, being conservative, this number was cut in half to 11,000 per year, it would still mean that doctors and nurses kill a lot more people than cops do. If ten percent of these hypothetical malpractice deaths are Black, it would mean that doctors and nurses kill far more Blacks every year than cops do. Realizing that does not make police shootings less significant or important, but it does make you consider how pervasive, how common are accidental, unintentional, stupid, neglectful, and careless deaths. It remains a fair question to ask why the police kill so many people even if all of them were justified. But that may say more about us as a nation than it does about them as a profession.
Walk the Blue Line is a pro-police book, reminding us of the humanity of the police officer. The people who do this work, the book suggests, are not any different from the rest of us. The stories are often gripping, violent, and poignant. The book reminds the reader that being a street cop, and most of the stories are about street cops, is dangerous: serving warrants, making traffic stops, answering calls of domestic violence (my stepfather especially hated those), dealing with drug dealers and street gangs, answering calls of a crime in progress requires a certain amount of nerve. Nearly all the subjects recount the adrenaline rush of going on a call that may become violent, the intensity of it, as if going into battle. It is unsurprising that many of the police officers in this book had been in the military. As one SWAT officer put it, “I’ve always been gung-ho about the military and law enforcement.” (57) Some crave action. One SWAT cop states, “I didn’t want to take reports. I want to do the most dangerous, the coolest, the hardest and the most elite job.” (4) Another makes a more sober comparison, “The violence and death never stop. It just goes on and on and on. Every year, it gets worse. Every day, I feel like a soldier on a battlefield.” (190) And another, “Cops and soldiers, sometimes we’re put into positions where we see things no human being should ever see. No matter how strong you are, down the road, it comes back and haunts you.” (188)
It is as dangerous to over-esteem the police as it is to over-esteem the military. It seems a bit like being in love with an enormous, societal superego that has had its moments of being a semi-corrupt bureaucracy.
What is common in nearly all the testimonies in this book is: first, how much the police officers want to help people, and how much they want to be needed. As one put it, “We wake up every day and we try and do good. We try and do good in our communities and be of service to the people that we serve….” (43) My stepfather told me he felt his job was about helping people who wanted his help. Another cop, Hana Batit, put it this way, “There’s a public misconception that all cops do is arrest people and take them to jail. The reality is that most of our calls involve civil matters. We help individuals dealing with mental illness get access to the resources and tools they need. We mediate disputes between neighbors, husbands and wives, parents, and teenagers. People would be surprised by the number of calls we get from frustrated parents dealing with kids who won’t listen to them.” (144-145) Second, many cops have a great fear of losing their minds, of the job overwhelming them, and of being unable to get help for themselves. Tom Vento says, “Cops put out daily fires and inject themselves into the lives of people involved in the court system, but we don’t inject ourselves when we see potential mental health issues with our coworkers. We see signs and don’t want to believe that a problem exists.” (164)
It is as dangerous to over-esteem the police as it is to over-esteem the military. It seems a bit like being in love with an enormous, societal superego that has had its moments of being a semi-corrupt bureaucracy. These people do a necessary job: they are sometimes heroic, sometimes pedestrian, sometimes cynical, sometimes even despicable. They are agents of the state, its enforcement arm, and in this regard we ought to be wary of in whose name and by whose authority they do what they do. What social arrangement do the protectors protect? As our society has changed, as police forces themselves have changed demographically, it is hoped that those they protect and serve have changed as well. On the other hand, we must be grateful that there are such people, for they are doing jobs that most of us, especially the managerial bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia, do not wish to do but must have done if we in those classes wish to exist with a reasonable chance of being unmolested. If there are those who are too apt to see the police and the military as heroes in an urban western, there are others who snobbishly look down their noses at them and imagine a world where these grubby people who shelter many of us from the crimes and grime of our reality will not have to exist, because to despise these people is a sign of our superiority. The idea of social programs replacing them sounds so much more noble, benign, and pure, forgetting the fact that the police are in fact a social program. (What is a non-social program that involves people in any way?) It is to be reminded of our fallen, flawed, and tragic nature, of how morally messy we are, that these jobs of policing and the people who do them exist.