WASHINGTON (AP) – As calls for police reform spread across America, officers say they feel trapped in the middle: reviled by the left as violent racists, fatally ambushed by right-wing extremists seeking discord and scapegoat by legislators who share responsibility for the state of the criminal justice system.
The Associated Press spoke to more than two dozen officers across the country, black, white, Hispanic and Asian, who are frustrated by the pressure they see put on them to address the much wider problem of racism and bias in the United States. to unload. They struggle to do their jobs, even though most agree that change is needed after the death of George Floyd, who was black, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer.
Most officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation or dismissal.
“You know, as a black man, as a police officer and what I’m proud of, both very proud – I understand where the community is from,” said Jeff Maddrey, a NYPD chief in Brooklyn and one of many officers who took a Knee as a mark of respect for demonstrators.
All officers interviewed agreed that they had lost some sort of trust in their community. For some, the moment causes a personal reckoning with past arrests. Others distinguish between the Floyd case and their own work, emphasizing their saved lives, personal moments when they cried alongside crime victims.
“I’ve never seen openly racist actions by my siblings in my ward,” wrote white Covington, Kentucky, police specialist Doug Ullrich in an opinion piece. “I even think my department is at the forefront of ‘doing good’.”
Of course, almost not all police support changes. Some are outraged – mocking colleagues as traitors for grabbing a knee or reporting sick to protest police arrests for their actions during the protests.
For Dean Esserman, senior adviser to the National Police Foundation and former chief of police for Providence, Rhode Island, and New Haven and Stamford in Connecticut, the result so far has been that communities and police have withdrawn. That means fewer personal connections – and more problems, he said.
“Many police leaders who say” don’t call us “when there are emergencies are missing the point,” he said. “I gave birth to nine babies in my career and I never shot anyone. The community is not part of the job. It’s the job.”
It is not the first time that police officers have been caught in the middle. The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement earlier this decade sparked a ‘blue lives matter’ campaign and the belief of many Americans that the police were unfairly stigmatized over the actions of a few split second decisions in tense situations .
But now Americans are largely in favor of the idea that change is needed: 29% think the criminal justice system needs “a complete overhaul”, 40% say it needs “big changes”. Only 5% believe no changes are needed, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The long, often dark history of the US police has led to minority communities being treated one way and white people the other. Floyd’s murder opened up the pain again, but minorities have long begged for officers to stop seeing them as criminals and justify the police.
While many activists recognize that the problems they are fighting go beyond the police, they do not say individual agents are not to blame.
“People who are trying to sell you ‘police reform’ are trying to sell you the idea that you can (asterisk) train anti-black racism (asterisk) from an institution built on and supported by anti-black racism,” activist Adam Smith tweeted.
A culture that allows racism to conduct law enforcement has not changed as it would require major structural shifts, new blood and a lot of time, said Sandra Susan Smith, a professor of criminal law at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
“It’s not just about the institutional mandate to control and limit, it’s also about the views individual agents bring to neighborhoods,” she said.
The difference now is that national police officers are increasingly supporting the reform. Patrick Yeos, president of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said change must come from above – and legislators must play their part.
“These problems are not created by officers,” he said.
The police do not always have the autonomy that their elected leaders claim to have. When NYPD officers stopped hundreds of thousands of mostly black and Hispanic men each year, top boss said officers were exercising their judgment – and that the stopovers were necessary. However, officers testified in a federal process about the stop-and-frisk tactics they felt under pressure from superiors to show that they are cracking down. And those stops rarely resulted in arrest.
Cerelyn Davis, chief of police in Durham, North Carolina, and president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, said reform is possible, but there should be national accountability standards, with teeth behind it.
“They’re talking about one bad apple,” she said. “In this area, we can’t afford to have one bad apple. One bad apple can have serious consequences. ‘
As the debate progressed, tensions have led to violence. Officers are accused of harming demonstrators. And they are also hurt and killed.
A California sheriff’s deputy was killed and four other officers were injured by an air force sergeant with ties to a far-right group, officials said. He was also charged with murdering a federal security officer outside a courthouse. A 29-year-old police officer was shot in the head during a protest on the Las Vegas Strip and was left paralyzed from the neck down.
Hundreds of officers have been injured in protests in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, some of them critical.
This has also happened before. In 2014, after the grand jury refused to sue an agent for Eric Garner’s death, a man angry with the death shot two officers in their patrol car. Across the country, others have been targeted.
In New York, where an officer was charged with strangulation on Thursday after a clear chokehold – the same tactic used at Garner – police chief Dermot Shea said ongoing reform was needed and praised the pressure for it.
But he said, “It is also a time when it is quite difficult to work with the police.”
Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo and Gary Fields in Silver Spring, Maryland contributed to this report.
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