Wednesday, September 28, 2016

My two cents on the usual sad news...

Another day and another act of violence caught on camera. Another black man killed. I have been thinking a lot about this. I am not a police officer. I am not a black man. I am unqualified to make any kind of suggestions on how we are going to get beyond this. I can make a few observations. I am making them more as an attempt to clarify my own thinking, and not as an attempt to preach about something I know little about.

The old joke that we firefighters like to tell ourselves is "Do you know what firefighters and police officers have in common?" The answer is that both took the firefighters' entrance exam.

The truth is police officers and firefighters have a lot in common. We get to interact with people who are having a very bad day. We see horrible things that people do to each other. We see the effects of a broken system where mental illness and addiction have become  manifest in so many folks' lives. More than anything, we are all people who took our jobs because we wanted to help people. Yes, there are bad apples, like any profession. Only our bad apples' actionscan have a pretty big impact on our communities.

Racism is alive and well in the USA, as well as a lot of other "isms," but our country, and its economic underpinnings were built on racism. That's my opinion. But it's an opinion built on historical fact. This is a legacy which we will be dealing with for a very long time. Every generation gets a little better but we have a long way to go. I get why "Black lives matter" trumps "All lives matter."

As I mentioned before, untreated mental illness and alcohol/drug addiction are an epidemic that makes encounters on my job sketchy at times. When my crew and I show up, it is always to help someone, never to arrest anybody or get someone to cease a bad behavior. Yet, because of some behaviors brought on by mental illness or addiction we often find ourselves in some tense situations. I can't imagine how it must be for a police officer who might be dealing with the same person when she arrives to enforce a law.

There are more guns in our country than there are people. At least that's what I've heard. And I can believe it. A handgun or two, a shotgun and a rifle for hunting and... Well, it adds up fast. Until just recently, if you called 9-1-1 and told the dispatcher that you were worried because you haven't heard from grandma in a couple of days, the response would be typical. The fire department would get dispatched. We would ring the doorbell. We would talk to the neighbors. We would look for a spare key under the doormat. Then, with no other way in, we would pry open a window and crawl into the home to see if grandma was incapacitated or worse. That none of us in our fire department were ever shot by a resident that we were checking up on is a miracle. Guns plus Alzheimer's/other mental illness/substance abuse was a  potential tragedy that we climbed through windows to encounter on a daily basis.

Prevalent guns, racism, citizen impairment are now colliding with a renewed vigor to reassert our rights as human beings. I had a conversation with a younger person the other day. Now this guy is one of the smartest people I have met. I was saying that when a police officer tells you to get down on the ground you are required to do so. He disagreed. "Not if I didn't do anything wrong, I don't." I found the statement absurd. We allow officers of the law to do things like this to us if necessary. It is a compact we have with them. It is for everyone's safety that we let them do this. If police abuse this authority then they have violated that compact and should be dealt with. He still disagreed. I think I am right. He thinks he is right. So do his friends. So do a lot of people.

I am not a cop. I would guess a lot of their training has to do with what we expect of them. If they encounter a suspect who they think has a gun and they tell him to drop the gun and the suspect just drifts away,  I would think that they would think that people in that neighborhood would not want this person to be wandering around. Maybe 99.9% of the time nothing bad would happen, but that one time that it did, the officer who did not stop the guy with the gun would be vilified. This puts officers in a tight spot.

I think we are on the verge of something wonderful happening in this country. It is a shame that all the sons, husbands and brothers who died because of their skin color died to get us to this point. It is a shame that it took "bad apple" police officers to get us to revisit our system. It is also a shame that some good police officers made honest mistakes because our expectations of them put them on that razor's edge. If you think it doesn't bother a cop to kill someone, even a person who is truly a "bad guy," then you don't know the police officers that I do.

I think, thanks to social media, public debate and voters fed up with firearm violence we are now entering into a long overdue conversation on racism, civil militarism, individual rights, mental health, drug addiction and gun control. More that that, I think we are all going to have to decide what our expectations should be for police officers - normal people who we have granted superhuman powers to go along with our superhuman expectations. Maybe, in the future, an officer will not pull the trigger even if it means a community might be more endangered by not doing so. Maybe, in the future, expectations for us, as citizens, will change too. Maybe we won't be getting down on the ground when an officer tells us to. I don't know.

We are on the verge of something great happening in our country. I am happy that this is going to happen and I hope I am still alive when we get there.

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