A police officer friend of mine (then a paramedic, now NYPD) and I used to debate policing inside and out during our shifts together as a paramedic team. He was a law school graduate and an intellectually honest adversary. At the risk of treating him as a ventriloquist dummy, I’d like to offer what I think would be his take on the issue of police reform that is currently rending the nation:

He’d rightly remind me of police valor. Here is a link to the NYPD Medal of Valor page. There, you will find stories of a great many people of color who walk the earth today, who would not be if it weren’t for the fact that an NYPD officer risked his (or her) skin for them. Our officer would ask if risks to life and limb to defend “black bodies” is hashtag questionable by someone bearing no risks for the cause whatever. “At least a peaceful marcher is off his ass for something he feels is important, which is something, I guess,” I can hear him saying. Whatever happened to actions being more virtuous than words (and are virtuous actions too much to ask)? Do people actually risking something not contribute so much more (sometimes all)? What about the fact that most of those brave officers are also “of color?”

He’d ask me how many times have I seen NYPD save members of the community of color. I’ve seen it many, many times (though they hit nowhere as hard as we medics do). The last time, about a year ago, was when a guy ran into the precinct who was cut with a razor through his brachial artery so accurately it might have been done by a surgeon (a surgeon actually said that). A police officer saved his life with a perfectly placed tourniquet. (the surgeon said he couldn’t have done better). What was interesting, as an aside, was the officer would not own up to where he gained such skill. War in the Middle East was my guess. I was effusively complementary, but he hardly wanted to hear it, and it seemed he was concerned about getting into trouble, somehow. I told him I’d talk to his commanding officer myself, and he said “in the name of God! NO! Just leave it alone.” Which I did. Bizarre.

He’d ask how much police misconduct have you actually seen? Barring objective ethics (it just being wrong to ticket and arrest people for non-crimes, which is the main kernel of our debate, indeed all libertarian debate, with all people, not just police officers), I’d concede that in my thirty (plus) years of duty on the street, I’ve seen very little. Nor have I heard of it, my patients are not telling me about it (they would).

When we (inevitably) get to “quality of life policing,” he would ask: “how would you like it if a group of men hung out outside your place swilling beer? Would it bother you if [my wife] had to run their gauntlet on her way home? Would you insist I make them turn their music down?” (I would). “Are the little old ladies of color not entitled to their security and comfort?” (They are, and they complain of the quality of life issues all the time, like any old white lady would). “I will ask nicely, but ultimately, the race argument can be flipped: people of color are entitled to orderly neighborhoods as much as you are.” “Different legal standards for blacks and whites (rebutting my “Peel policing” argument), sounds like a rehashed Jim Crow.” “That’s not even Constitutional.”

On over-policing: “we are not framing anyone up. If they obeyed the law, same as you, they will not get into any trouble.” “Framing on this scale would be an extraordinary claim, where is your extraordinary evidence?” Damn it, he got that from me. I got it from Carl Sagan.

He would be the first to acknowledge that bad cops need sorting out, he’d love it if we civilians came up with such a system. We would then spend an hour trading stories of the asshole medics we have known, and how is it right we all be tarred with that same brush? Prejudging police is no different than prejudging people of color. The bad cops disgrace all, and he prides himself in being one that upholds his creed. Honor should be his.

He actually said this (my ventriloquist dummy is now in its case): “the very last people you want picking and choosing what laws are legitimate, and which aren’t, are the police. We don’t make the laws, and we can’t unmake them. That’s for the voters and the judges to decide, it’s called the separation of powers. Otherwise, police making the laws, is the definition of a police state.”

That would be fair enough in a system were the legislating practice were not paralyzed by partisan dysfunction ( because they are captured by special interest), which is most certainly not the fault of the police. Our system was designed to adapt, when things go too far. if we can’t, it’s hardly their fault.

The police are not making bad laws. We are. But they are being blamed when their enforcement looks bad (barring their misconduct). We have larded our society up with the most far-reaching and complex laws in the history of mankind, that takes half of the world’s lawyers to chew through. This has been steadily going on, ever more, on and on, for more than a generation, and now we want instant Tweet-action hashtags to melt it all away?

We are requiring that the police deal with issues way beyond their role. They are not psychiatrists, they are not drug counselors, they are not social workers who can mend the wreckage of the broken families in the poor communities upon which order is being imposed. If the subjects are too complex and taboo for our ability to come to grips with them, that is not their fault, either.

The Democrats chose as their leader the first-worst offender (who is politically active) in over-policing, after the second-worst was defeated in an election by a fascist whose record on criminal justice is an improvement, while they burn Democratic cities with Democratic police policies. This is social schizophrenia. Refer to the previous answer as to how dealing with mental illness in the individual is not the bailiwick of the police, much less mental illness on a national level.

I do agree with our officer, that at some point, contempt for law turns into something civilization threatening, and that is not a line that can be drawn by the police (this libertarian retorts “that’s why the laws have to be simple, and be perceived as fair”).

Derek Chauvin is a convenient outlet for frustration at a truly wicked problem, and an outpouring of anti-racism is a good thing, not bad. But broad condemnations of police officers doing the work our system made for them is a scapegoating cop-out.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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