Thursday, February 3, 2022

The Problem With Writing Cops Today

 My Penns River books are police friendly. My cops aren’t perfect, but they’re basically decent, well-intentioned people, just like all of the cops I know. Alas, it is impossible to pay attention in today’s society and assume all cops are like this. Some days it’s hard to assume even most cops are. I’m not talking about corruption per se, though it figures in. I’m talking about an increased tendency to see interactions with civilians as “us versus them” situations. We are not, and should not be, antagonistic forces. Both civilians and cops are safer if both sides cooperate, but it takes both sides giving a little.


Some of the problem comes from the growing mantra among police departments that their primary job is to go home safely. Let there be no misunderstanding: I want all cops to go home safely every night, but that’s not what we pay them for. They have sworn oaths to keep protect those of us not entitled to use lethal force, and that involves some risk to them. Sometimes great risk. When I hear of a cop – or, more likely, a union official - say their job is to go home in one piece, my first thought is “This guy’s in the wrong line of work. Is Paul Blart’s job open?”


Since I brought up police unions, they worry me more than individual cops. To pick a current controversy, many police unions around the country are protesting vaccination and mask mandates, often claiming these rules violate the officers’ “bodily autonomy.” Pardon me for snark, but I’ve yet to hear a word about bodily autonomy from a police union after a cop shoots someone, or beats them senseless. They took oaths and signed contracts to work for whichever government they work for. They need to be bound by the same rules as everyone else.


Standing by everything I said above doesn’t mean I have a millisecond’s time for any “defund the police” bullshit, and that’s exactly what it is: bullshit. We need to move the funding around to enhance training, counseling, and understanding how PTSD affects officers on the job. We also need ways to weed out those who lack the disposition to be cops while encouraging the recruitment of people who would be good at it. Just because I said above that going home safely shouldn’t be the only priority doesn’t mean I don’t advocate going to great lengths to ensure everyone, cop and civilian alike, arrives home in the same condition they left in.


Why am I posting this in a blog dedicated to writing? I have become uncomfortable with how I depict my cops. I don’t feel I provide a nuanced enough picture, which isn’t fair to anyone. Good cops should stand out, and they don’t if everyone is a straight up “good cop.” Hell, definitions of what makes a good cop differ. In the outstanding documentary The Seven-Five, I learned there was a time (maybe even still is) when for an NYPD officer to refer to another as a “good cop” meant he wouldn’t say anything about improper conduct.


That’s also bullshit, and it has to stop. My personal issue is that, in my universe, it doesn’t exist. I need to find a way to be fair without whitewashing things – which I may have done in the past - or throwing everyone under the bus. It’s a balancing act, but if I pull it off, the books will be better for it.


Don’t be surprised to see more on this topic down the road.


E. Ellis said...

Being a retired police officer, I enjoyed your essay a good deal - it pointed out fair criticisms in a productive way while also being supportive at the same time.

I did want to provide more nuance to when police officers/officials remark about their "primary" job is to go home safe/alive. The overwhelming context or meaning to these types of phrases are of officers telling themselves NOT to make mistakes in all things that they deal with. In more cop jargon, for an officer to always "practice officer safety tactics." And this goes from safe driving to waiting for another officer to watching the hands of a suspect to using a mask to provide CPR.

Hope this makes sense...

Dana King said...

Thank you for your comment. I struggled with the "go home safe"= is Job 1" section. Thank you for providing insight and nuance. I'm always grateful when a cop says I got something right, but I am also always painfully aware when I write that I was never a cop, so i try not to presume too much. Thanks for this. I'll keep in mind in my writing.