Perceptions of law enforcement officers can vary and become a contentious conversation at times. Regardless, police officers live a life of danger and caution.
Just last year, 129 officers died in the line of duty. Our ability to recognize this reality can help bridge gaps between civilians and police officers.
What students see every day in a place like USD’s campus in Vermillion may seem peaceful, uneventful and safe. But there is a disconnect between what civilians experience and what police officers experience.
When we drive by a traffic stop on the highway, we think, “Someone got busted… I probably shouldn’t be speeding!” What police officers think is, “I hope they don’t have a gun. This could be it.” The amount of uncertainty officers face every day ought to give us all a moment’s pause.
This is not to excuse the bad things cops do: targeting minorities, racial profiling, shooting without cause or falsifying evidence.
Blatant abuses of power, especially when the abuse ends a life, warrants due punishment. When clear and obvious discrimination takes place, then those injustices must be remedied.
Even so, when dealing with law enforcement officers, we should remember that their time in the line of duty always puts them in danger. In February, an officer was shot and killed on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Kyle, SD. No one can be too sure, or too cautious. We should keep this in mind when interacting with officers.
Most of us have been pulled over at some point, whether for speeding or making a wrong turn. Chances are we were upset, slightly agitated or outright furious. At the very least, we became anxious, not sure what’s coming next. We start to think… will it be just a warning, a ticket or could I leave here in a police officer’s car? We may even worry about getting shot for excuses made up by police officers to cover up their unjust motives.
Well, those officers have similar thoughts in their heads; they also don’t know what’s coming next. They think… will it be an easy stop with an even-tempered person? Or will they be enraged, lashing out against simple requests? Or, perhaps the worst, will they fight back with lethal means, requiring me to defend myself? We as civilians might be worried about our lives, but they are, too.
This is not a call for pity, nor is it a call to outright submit. We have rights, and they need to be defended and upheld. But that does not require us to hold all police officers in contempt.
Trying to understand what officers go through doesn’t mean making excuses for the bad ones: the ones who unjustly discriminate, kill innocent people of color or create fake evidence. What it does do is provide context and, hopefully, foster a higher degree of trust and cooperation on all sides.