In a recent Politico op-ed, author Thomas C. Knowles, a Law Enforcement officer with decades of experience— most recently as a supervisor for the FBI— begins his article with a half-truth, “No good cop ever wants to pull his gun”. This is true in the sense that, a “good cop” knows by pulling his weapon there is a heightened chance someone may be injured or killed, and no sane person starts out their day planning to kill another human. Knowles conceals the fact that even the “good cop” will and must draw their firearm when that officer believes their life or the life of another is in danger. A good cop will invariably pull his weapon regardless of whether the officer “wants” to use force or not is put aside by the officer’s perception of the exigency in real time. Part instinct and part training, the action of a cop taking one life is to save another. It’s not as paradoxical is it seems— good cops are trained to kill, and if deadly force is used it doesn’t always equal a problem in the system. The broken system is silence on injustice.
Knowles feels the need to remind the public —police are not the enemy and in attempt to speak for the entire profession: officers know the system is broken, but platitudes fall short of a real defense to allegations of what many believe is a breakdown in the system. Furthermore, the idea police understand there exists systemic criminal justice issues should be comforting to the reader. This of course is not comforting; if police know the system is not working properly and do nothing to change it, doesn’t that make them part of the larger problem? Knowles is out of touch with the average cop possibly because of his tenure in a supervisory capacity; the vocal officers are not condemning the system when they see supporters wearing “I CAN breathe” t-shirts, they are solidifying their adversarial role against the public. Again, vocal officers do not seem bothered by the recent killing of unarmed black men; they are quite callous in supporting the notion that the recently deceased black males at the hands of police are justified and the discussion should end there.
Let’s not pretend that if good cops believe the system is broken somehow it absolves them of any culpability as the rank and file of the criminal justice system. The narrative of the good cops protecting the citizenry despite danger to their own life and limb has the overarching premise that police should be extended the benefit of the doubt even in questionable circumstances. As if to say: because police work is inherently dangerous, we mustn’t criticize or call for more police oversight—doing so would in and of itself tacitly convince an unstable person to ambush and murder cops. The notion that holding police accountable is akin to calling for violent attacks on police is the equivalent of saying: those that redress grievances with the government support the violent overthrow of that government—both are illogical.
The injustices in the criminal justice system flow downward from court rulings and legislation, but police can impact the system on their level if they choose. Officers are given much power over the citizenry and much of an officer’s contact with the public is self-initiated by the officer themselves. The criterion that each officer uses to stop a person may vary, but are dependent on the same factors. Officers use their training and life experience as the gauge in whether to contact a citizen. Both of these methods—training and experience—can be biased against certain races or classes of people. All officers have some form of implicit bias and when they act on their bias they have crossed over into discrimination.
There is a stigma and climate of retaliation against good cops that speak out and it is because of this culture that sweeping change will not come from within police departments. Despite the current state of things, good cops can impact the bad system from within. Officers need to encourage the open dialogues on police brutality and police shootings and systemic racism, because it’s the good cops that should not want these talks to be suppressed. These good cops need to be aware of their own implicit biases and be cognizant on curbing those biases. Good officers must use their discretion on misdemeanors and use selective enforcement on victimless crimes—personally nullifying laws designed to punish the poor and target specific races. If officers are serious about making changes in the system, they first need to stop hiding behind the excuse “I’m just doing my job”.