A few years back while riding my bike in the country, I saw a green vehicle parked by the side of the road. The writing on the side said, “CONSERVATION POLICE.”
With an interest in the environment and especially our parks and natural areas, I stopped to talk with the officer at his vehicle. That probably doesn’t happen all that often. I noticed that he was a bit guarded in his demeanor. So I opened with a question, “Do people know what you do?”
He seemed to realize that I was either curious or genuinely knew the answer to that question. He smiled and said, “Between you and me, about seven out of ten people want to know what the Conversation Police do.”
Training and commissions
That speaks to a lack of knowledge and a level of paranoia that exists in society toward the police. As a writer I followed up on our talk by contacting the regional office for the State Conservation Police and wound up interviewing two officers, one a woman and the other a man, about the distinctive nature of their jobs.
What I learned is that State Conservation Police go through training to become fully commissioned state police officers. They also go through additional training for the specifics of their job in policing natural areas, parks and other situations in urban, suburban and country settings.
I learned that it’s not an easy job. I also learned that the police with whom I talked at the managerial level were open to the idea of communicating the breadth of the job handled by state conservation police officers. It’s true that many people do not understand the roles and challenges of police officers at the local, regional and state level.
Urban and exurban realities
After learning more about policing the wilder areas of our state and writing an article about it for a suburban lifestyle publication, I met a man that served as a police chief in a highly urban area west of Chicago. It was a tough town according to reputation. He’d spent many years rising through the ranks to become the Chief of Police. In classic police fashion, he was not overly communicative about the nature of his job. But after talking for an hour, I dared ask him a question that I’d long wanted to pose to a police officer in his position.
“What do police actually think about the problems of gun control?”
It was admittedly a question phrased in a liberal context. Yet he answered with sincerity. “We think it’s a mess,” he confided. “There are too many guns out there.”
One could immediately jump to a number of conclusions from that statement. Gun proponents might state that there are too many illegal guns in the urban environment where the officer was stationed. It is easy to ascribe patent gun violence to gang-bangers and such. That carries with it the implications of race. Yet the police officer with whom I spoke was himself African-American. He’d probably seen plenty of violence and law-breaking from people of all races and backgrounds.
But the culture of policing in America depends on guns as safety and protection for the officers. The result has been that as America’s volume and capacity of the weapons on the street has escalated, so has the need for police to arm up and defend themselves. When placed in circumstances where guns may be present or called into action, police are at risk in every situation from a traffic stop to breaking up a block party to watching prisoners in hospital settings.
So it’s really no surprise that people are being gunned down by the police. The sad, sick part of the equation is that the paramilitary structure of the police force with its hierarchy of command places police in a position of protecting their own as would any other form of unit committed to a battlefront. That’s what the United States of America has become. A nation at war with itself, and the police are supposed to act like the United Nations forces in blue helmets trying to keep the peace.
And frankly, it is too much to ask
The police are clearly being asked to do too many types of things. From traffic control to domestic violence, handling mental illness in the public space to tracking down crime and violence, the police are expected to multitask like no one’s business. And frankly, no organization can handle that many options and be efficient and effective.
That’s especially true when the paramilitary structure demands loyalty, rigidity and compliance on the front end. Surely discipline is important to public and private policing. But discipline alone is too easily compromised when social or work pressures enter the picture. That’s when people become more concerned with covering their ass and keeping things quiet if things go wrong, rather than opening the subject to inquiry and consideration.
When political or racial bias further enters the picture, a paramilitary organization too easily becomes a tool of power and manipulation. When the culture of an organization adopts a prejudice of any kind, it conflicts with the assigned purposes of a police organization to serve and protect.
Tribalism and paramilitary mentality
That is how an officer decides to kneel on the neck of another human being long enough to kill them. And why fellow officers stand aside or even support that effort. There is too much tribalism built into the paramilitary model of the police forces of this country. That is not to say that the police are necessarily to blame. Who wants to risk their lives in a country where there are more guns than people? The perversion of the Second Amendment into a free-for-all of gun rights and vigilantism has turned policing into a losing proposition from the start.
The opening phrase of the Second Amendment holds the solution, too long ignored and debased by the likes of the NRA and its patsy politicians, that reminds us that, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state…” should not be dismissed as an unnecessary burden on the nation. More people have died from gun violence in the United States than all the soldiers killed in American wars on foreign soil. The nation is in the long grip of a gun violence pandemic and mass shootings that only abated for a bit once a disease pandemic came along to force people off the streets and out of the cycle of blasting each other to bits.
The POTUS and domination
The worst part of all this vigilante addiction to guns and force, and the paramilitary approach to society, is that the President of the United States even views our nation’s military as his personal police force. In a fascist response to public protests over the killing of multiple black victims by police, Trump proposed sending tanks into Washington, DC and other cities to “dominate” those he considers out of order. It is no surprise where Trump likely got the idea, as he put in a call to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin before launching the idea of this proposed assault on American society to protect his own racist agenda. Trump’s murderous instincts have included instructing police not to be too soft and to knock heads when doing their jobs. This is not the message America needs to hear.
Cities across America are now considering “defunding the police” which is an unfortunate term at best. The real goal is to restructure the approach and obligations of America’s police forces. The best place to start is changing the system from a hierarchy of paramilitary command to a more collaborative model similar to organizations where decision-making is more effectively crowd-sourced and includes contributions from all levels of an organization to hold everyone accountable and provide support where needed from top to bottom for police everywhere. Of course, the “tough guys” mentality of police work would resist this model as impractical and too soft. But what’s the better alternative? Remaining at war with the public in fear for the lives of the officers on the front lines, or acting with conscience and proving the Blue Lives really do matter?