We hear constantly of the more than 300 firefighters who were killed when the World Trade Center buildings collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, and well we should.
We seem to have forgotten that there were cops in the building that collapsed, too, a couple dozen, and they weren't there to direct traffic or find a bakery or arrest the airplane hijackers. They were there to save lives, to direct civilians to safety and away from the firefighters.
We have forgotten about them because there is a down side to being a policeman: Few people think of cops as heroes, and that's a damn shame. The man who was the greatest influence on my life, the only man I ever knew to whom I could ascribe the classic attributes of hero; a man I loved uniquely and unconditionally, and whom I miss every day, was a cop. In fact, he remains my idea of what a police officer should be. And I know that, by his own high standards, he judged most men and women in blue to be deserving of his respect, and that is high praise, indeed.
So we’re straight on that, right? Cop admirer, right here.
I was watching one of my favorite police procedurals on TV the other night and it just smacked me in the face that the grizzled desk sergeant, as she passed out the black bands to cover badges in memory of a fellow officer recently murdered in the line of duty, said she’d prefer the shooter didn't live to face trial. Even more jarring, the rest of the characters seemed to share that sentiment.
I don’t know if real cops feel that way, but it would be really depressing to find out they do. In movies and on TV, “cop killers” are worse than child molesters and baby murderers. The cops in the movies always talk about the killing of “one of our own,” as if that’s a special class of crime which deserves a special kind of death and a special place in Hell.
I understand that but I can’t abide it. As a journalist, I am personally aggrieved by the death of any journalist while on the job. Ironically, those who kill journalists are usually the ones for whom the reporters have the greatest sympathy. So I absolutely understand the stunning grief and rage when a friend and colleague is murdered. I've felt it. But the death of a reporter in a war zone is no worse than the death of a child or an old man or any other non-combatant.
Don’t get me wrong; So I know that when an officer is killed in the line of duty, his or her fellows should be given all of the benefit of empathy and sympathy that anyone would. But cops aren’t special, and their deaths in the line of duty are, in fact, occupational hazards. Their killers should be hunted, captured, and prosecuted exactly the same way the killer of a child, or a teacher, or a doctor, or an accountant would be.
I think the sentiment expressed on the TV show hit me particularly hard because of the attention that’s being focused on police brutality recently. I won’t say it isn’t warranted, but I can’t imagine how painful it is to every good man and woman on the job. Sadly, it only takes a handful of bad actors to sully the reputations of everyone wearing a badge. It makes it look like cops, just like the rest of us, can’t control their tempers in high-stress situations. It erodes public trust in all police officers and denies them the human empathy they should have from the rest of us when they do get hurt or killed protecting the rest of us.
I’ll be the first to admit that police work doesn't lend itself to good PR. The very nature of police work makes it abhorrent to most people. A cop can change your life with the stroke of his pen, or end it with the twitch of her finger. Even when heroic firefighters investigate arson – the only crime firemen concern themselves with – they don’t arrest the suspect, they call on cops to do that.
Police officers are accusers; they take away our liberty because it’s their job to do that to some of us. When a policeman pulls you over to warn you of a broken headlight, he is depriving you of the freedom to drive down the street in ignorant darkness. When a policeman comes to your door to ask you questions about the strange car parked down the block, your eyes are drawn irresistibly to the gun belt, to the weapon that can kill and the handcuffs that can imprison.
But to give voice to wishes that a murderer – any murderer – should be denied due process of law, to say that any suspect’s or defendant’s civil rights should be abridged, isn’t just morally wrong, it’s downright un-American. Police officers are sworn to uphold, not just the statutes that forbid murder and theft and rape, but the whole U.S. Constitution. That means protecting the civil rights of all citizens, regardless of personal feelings or the emotions of the moment.
I hope most real police officers think of that when they're on the job. I hope they truly believe that they go to work each day to serve and to protect. And I sure hope those TV shows are wrong about the cops they portray.