In the middle of former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took time out to draft legislation giving Congressional Gold Medals to the U.S. Capitol Police and the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. Pelosi, D-Calif., was lavish in her praise of police actions on Jan. 6, when officers defended the Capitol from an insurrection staged by far-right Trump supporters. During the crisis, Pelosi told her colleagues, officers “risked and gave their lives to save ours. … The outstanding heroism and patriotism of our heroes deserve and demand our deepest appreciation.”
For D.C. police officers — and officers across the United States — it was a confounding turn of events. After the May 25, 2020, killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, nationwide protests decried American policing as racist and brutal, and the heavy-handed, militarized police response to the protests throughout the summer drew further condemnation. Activists called on cities to abolish or, at least, “defund” the police, and within weeks, politicians in numerous cities were pledging to trim police department budgets. Pelosi and other congressional leaders were calling for “transformational, structural change to end police brutality.” After the failed insurrection, however, cops were suddenly heroes: “martyrs for democracy,” as Pelosi put it.
When it comes to policing, such whiplash is par for the course. U.S. political culture and rhetoric tend to frame things in terms of binary oppositions: Either cops are selfless, underappreciated heroes, or they’re brutal, racist thugs. Either we should double their budgets and put more cops on the streets, or we should defund or abolish the police.
But the failed insurrection simultaneously reinforced and challenged both these diametrically opposed views — which means that maybe Americans are finally ready to recognize that the truth about policing can’t be reduced to simplistic sound bites. Policing in America is like a messy ball of yarn: There’s heroism and sacrifice, and there’s racism and brutality, and it’s all tangled up together.
In 2016, I joined the MPD Reserve Corps in Washington to find out what it was like on the other side of the “thin blue line.” I wanted to understand how American police officers explain and justify their roles to themselves, and how their stories compare to media and popular narratives about policing.
As a sworn, armed MPD reserve officer, I went from six months as a recruit at the D.C. Metropolitan Police Academy to several years of patrol shifts in Washington’s 7th Police District, one of the poorest, most crime-ridden sections of the nation’s capital. During parades, protests, details and special events, such as the 2017 presidential inauguration, I worked across the city — and what I found, of course, was not a single story, but a thousand messy, overlapping and sometimes conflicting stories.
Police officers, in my experience, are no more monolithic than any other group of people. Like the rest of us, most cops try to be decent people and make the communities in which they work safer, better places. And like the rest of us, even the best cops don’t always succeed.
Police stop vehicles for broken taillights and improper right turns on red because, as a society, we have decided, through our elected representatives, to have armed, uniformed state agents hand out tickets for civil traffic infractions, even though most of us would find it excessive and bizarre to send cops to people’s doors to enforce IRS filing deadlines or residential zoning codes. Police deal — often poorly — with addiction, homelessness and mental illness because as a society, we have decided we’re unwilling to fund adequate social services.
As a society, we also ask police officers to take on a dizzying and often incompatible array of roles: We want them to be guardians, warriors, social workers, mediators, mentors and medics, often all in the course of a single patrol shift. We want them to show compassion to victims and be tough enough to take on violent criminals; we want them to treat protesters with courtesy even if they’re sneered and spat at; we want them to keep marauding mobs from invading the Capitol. We want them to understand mental illness, get guns off the streets, anticipate and respond to political violence, solve homicides and keep old ladies from getting mugged — all without being overbearing, rude or using excessive force, and all while working punishingly long shifts in uncomfortable and often dangerous conditions, under the constant, unforgiving glare of the media spotlight.
Few people can consistently do all these things well. I’ve seen cops manage to do six impossible things before breakfast — offering comfort to crime victims and deftly deescalating domestic conflicts — then completely lose it on the next call, cursing and yelling and slamming doors over trivial provocations.
One of my partners, a young officer, wept when his efforts at CPR couldn’t save an elderly man whose heart had given out. Then, two hours later, he dismissed residents of a neighborhood we worked in as “animals.”
The fact that violent crime is real and sometimes requires a coercive response, or that cops are every bit as contradictory and human as other Americans, doesn’t justify police abuses, or the racism so deeply baked into our criminal justice system.
If anything, my years as a part-time cop left me convinced that we need to change nearly everything about policing, from how we recruit and train officers to how police departments are structured and overseen. We also need to radically overhaul our criminal justice system, which too often reinforces and amplifies racial and economic inequities.