Sometimes You Just Can’t Win: Race and Cops

The other day I was doing some target shooting at a private range with a cop I know, and we started talking about the very common dislike of cops found throughout society. Which got me to thinking. A few observations:

There is a clear difference between the sexes in attitudes toward the police. White women, with only one exception I can think of, do not seem to harbor a personal resentment of the police. White men often do.

Libertarian types often see the police as the jackbooted storm troopers of an authoritarian state. Since most cops are local, this seems to me a bit overdrawn. (The Montgomery County SS? I don’t think so.) Some of the federal outfits, as for example BATF, do come pretty close to being storm troopers. But I know intelligent guys who really see all cops of any kind as the spearhead of dictatorship. Part of their outlook — at least of libertarians I know — is that many if not most laws should be repealed, as for example those outlawing drugs. They don’t seem to make a distinction between laws they don’t like and the people who enforce them.

The tendency is for people to see in the police the frightening face of whatever they don’t like. I know a guy in California who is involved in the fathers movement, these being men who want, among other things, to change the hostile attitude the courts have to men in divorce cases. He really believes that cops hate fathers and want to take their children away. Guys who hunt or shoot not infrequently think the police want to confiscate everyone’s guns. (Actually most cops, though not all, are supporters of the Second Amendment.)

There runs through all of this a desire to hate the cops. The facts are irrelevant. I hear assertions like, “All cops lie on the stand.” Some cops do. The guy I’m thinking of insists that all, without exception, lie. For these folk there seems to be an emotional satisfaction in hating the police.

Note that I’m not talking here about people with rational grounds for being angry. Some people have had genuinely bad experiences with the police, having run into incompetent, rude, brutal, or dishonest officers. In departments with low standards, you can find lots of bad cops. Corrupt departments exist. New York, for example, is famous for corruption. The dislike I’m talking about isn’t tied to specific misbehavior. Often it borders on fantasy.

Minorities manage to see the police as the tools of racial oppression, regardless of the race of the cops. This isn’t news. From blacks, however, I get email saying that the police are part of a complex conspiracy. The belief is that the US government imports drugs to destroy the black community, and then the cops arrest blacks on drug charges to further damage black people. Again, never mind that in many urban jurisdictions the police are black themselves. One fellow emailed me that the police put blacks in prison so they’ll get AIDS, which he believed to have been invented by whites to kill blacks.

In all of these people, there is absolutely no desire to know anything about the police. None of them ever say, “Fred, you ride with cops. What do cops really think about this or that? What kinds of people are they? Do they really want take over the country, spread HIV, and beat people up? What are things actually like downtown?”

Instead they assume that they understand cops perfectly, despite for the most part never having been in a police car or knowing any cops. For some reason everybody’s an expert on the police. People don’t think they know everything about agricultural policy, but casually assume that they grasp the inmost motivations of anybody who carries a badge. Usually accompanying this curious certainty is the view that, because I spend time with cops, I have been brainwashed.

What is happening, pretty clearly I think, is that a lot of anger about other things is getting displaced onto the police. That’s psychobabble, but it happens. This is obvious in the case of minorities who imagine conspiracies. Among white males, the hostility definitely appears more often in guys who carry around a lot of generalized anger. And they profoundly resent authority. It isn’t bad things the police do that rub them wrong. It’s what the police are.

The consequence is that cops can’t win this one. They are going to be disliked by a lot of guys no matter what they do.

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