Fearing The Cop In The USA

Alexander Reynoldsby Alexander Reynolds ,  Journalist, author, advocate for social justice and global reform of the prison system.

There’s a strange condition doing the rounds in America called Astynomiaphobia. It’s the fear of getting arrested by the police for no reason at all. Often referred to asPolicophobia, symptoms include anxiety, shaking, loss of self-control and panic upon meeting the police. In the past, this condition used to afflict African-American males only. Now it’s widespread. Black and white, rich and poor, male and female, young and old, many Americans now suffer from an irrational fear and dislike of the police. As a freeborn American, it moves me to ask, why do the natives fear the cop? And, more importantly, who guards these guardians?

Arbitrary. Militarized. Prejudiced. The modern American narrative of policing is the stuff of a dystopian nightmare, an ultraviolent computer game or a mindless action thriller. Shootings and death-by-cop incidents are so frequent that they have sparked mass protests in cities all over America. Public confidence in the police force is at an all-time low. With furrowed brows, senior cops go on prime time TV to remind the stupid public how dangerous and unpredictable their job is, how they are victims, too. Morale is bad. The pay is crap. And so is the pension. They feel misrepresented. Frustrated. Everybody, it seems, is out to get the police.

To an outsider, the problem of policing modern day America has three distinct layers. The first is communication. Take a normal occurrence like a traffic stop. How do we interact with the police? The Consul General of the Bahamas, Randy Rolle, had an amusing tale about this experience on my local NPR station WABE in Atlanta. He could not find any rules written anywhere that says a driver must stay in the car, clutching the wheel, ready to draw out his/her driver’s license and registration. In the Bahamas, like many other parts of the world, when pulled over by the cops, you exit the vehicle to talk to them. This is a no-no in America. You might be roughed up or shot dead. As the Consul General of the Bahamas is a black man, he was advised by learned passengers to do as the Romans do, and stay put in the driver’s seat.

Here in America the unwritten rule of engagement with the police force is one of total and utter servility. It’s the best convention to follow. Police officers in America have two mindsets: the Guardian or the Warrior. Guardians are easy going sheepdogs. Warriors are condition yellow pit bulls. Unfortunately, you never know which type you will meet, but it pays to be mindful. Since the shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., you are more likely to encounter the Warrior. In all fairness, who can blame them for such vigilance? Despite two decades of declining, violent crime rates, the police officer now patrols an uncertain beat. And, of late, the great tragic irony is that they have become as much of amoving target as the average African-American male.

The other issue is socialization. The police serve the community, but are largely absent from it. How many doctors, lawyers and soldiers do you know? A few, I guess. But what about the police, how many officers of the law do you know? Not many, I bet. No wonder the police officer is an enigma. People don’t know cops. They are their own blue tribe – suspicious, aloof, remote and unfriendly. In the old days of policing, people knew cops because they lived in the same neighborhood. Not any more. Cops keep to themselves to themselves and live in communities of paranoid secrecy. When we do not know them, we do not know how to relate to them. They are fleeting phantoms in tinted patrol cars or unpredictable attack dogs you wouldn’t ask for directions or the time of day. The police officer is part of society, but not really a member of it.

Finally, it is the popular perception of the police officer that needs to be fixed. Senior cops need more media training. And you can’t have white cops on the TV, serving or otherwise, talking about black people being prone to criminality and backing up this casual racism with misleading statistics. They only come across as tactless and stupid and it alienates them from the community even more so. No wonder they fill the civilian populace with prejudice. No wonder we shy away from them. No wonder we fear the cop. If the police want the trust of the public, they had better get round to winning our hearts and minds.

Who guards the guardians? We do. If the cops don’t change, then the people must impose change upon them. Until the problems of communication, socialization and perception are addressed, the police force will continue to enjoy bad relations with the general public and the mass media. Black or white, young or old, rich or poor, no one should fear the cop. Not least an American.


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