Police Apologia: Or, Why I Couldn't be a Cop

Houston Police cruiser idling at Houston Hobby Airport. July 2, 2013.

Houston Police cruiser idling at Houston Hobby Airport. July 2, 2013.

I just finished reading Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions. A story about political activists in the 60s, the narrator and his comrades detest the police officers who contain their demonstrations and deflect their attacks. To them, cops represent the wrong in the world.

But cops are just doing their jobs. Did they sign up to be symbols? And negative ones, at that?

The career of a police officer likely attracts a certain personality type: the bully, the authoritarian, the egomaniac, the power-tripper. Yet do these people compose the majority of entering officers? Doubtful. Many more people enter the profession to help others, have a solid job with a clear career progression, and undertake a procedural type of work.

How does the job change the latter recruits?

Here’s what I imagine cops deal with every day:

  • Cops see people when they’re pissed. Violent criminals make up a relatively small percentage of the people cops encounter. Instead, cops predominantly deal with people who’ve made simple mistakes in generally law-abiding lives (e.g., traffic accidents and speeding). When cops catch them in the wrong, they become sour—even if only at themselves.

  • Cops wrangle people who see them as “the man.” People who take criminal action to avenge or assert themselves (e.g., vandalism, protests) see police as an interruption, a bothering, a messing-with-plans. Also, as with the characters in Kunzru’s novel, some people hate cops on sight because they symbolize something. (And what cops symbolize—albeit almost universally negative—morphs from person to person.)

  • Cops see people in severe distress. In many cases, cops arrive at the behest of a distressed person (e.g., someone assaulted or robbed). These people feel anger at what befell them and want the cops to do something fast to “fix” it. Fast may not be possible. Fixing may not be possible. Cops witness victims of horrible crimes and may feel powerless to help.

  • Cops deal with the worst of humanity. Day after day, cops encounter people who have experienced or done hideous thing after hideous thing (e.g., rape, torture, murder, child abuse). They may go from one awfulness to another awfulness again and again throughout the course of a shift. Horror after horror.

Yes, police officers can take many roles in the force—and some may never experience any of these issues. But I’d venture that the majority do.

And I’d also venture that these aspects of the job would turn almost anyone nasty and cynical and irritated. When you deal only with angry, distressed, and awful people for the majority of your day, week, month, and year, you’d be hard pressed to come out unscathed.

What’s your take?