So far, July 2016 has been a very difficult month in the United States for police forces and their perception by the general public. There is an ebb and flow in this relationship, but there is also a continual underlying tension. This month, unfortunately, things have really deteriorated:
- On July 5th, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Alton Stirling was shot and killed by police as he sold CDs outside a store.
- On July 6th, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Philando Castile was killed by a police officer after a being pulled over for a broken tail light. His girlfriend live streamed the aftermath of the shooting on social media.
- On July 7th, in Dallas, Texas, five police officers were killed by a sniper, as a form of retaliation for the police shootings during the previous two days.
- The following day, in Ballwin, Missouri, a police office was shot in the neck while walking back to his cruiser after a routine traffic stop, leaving the police officer in critical condition.
- July 17th: In this still-developing story in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, multiple police officers have been shot, and three are believed to have died.
Right now there are probably hundreds of other bloggers thinking and writing the same thing I am right now: these events are horrifying, and the violence needs to stop immediately. To most of us, this problem does seem insurmountable, and you may feel, as an individual, that there is nothing you can do about it. However, when I examine things from The Bob Angle, I see a solution. Yes, it is more than one person can accomplish, which is why we need to work together. If we can coordinate our efforts in this area, then restoring a healthy relationship with our police forces can be an attainable goal.
The way I see it, the media’s predominantly negative reporting of police work makes it difficult for us to see the big picture. Here is a breakdown of what’s typically happens following a police shooting:
- The story gets local, and often nationwide media coverage. Millions of people now know what happened, and understandably, become outraged.
- Many of these people will be affected by stimulus generalization: they not only become angry with the officer responsible for the shooting, but also with the entire police force and the police forces of other cities. Police officers everywhere are now viewed derisively and may even be the targets of scorn, anger and hate.
- Some people may even feel compelled to retaliate against individuals who have nothing to do with the original incident.
In Dallas, Texas, five police officers who had absolutely nothing to do with the Baton Rouge or Minneapolis shootings were killed, because the shooter was seeking revenge for the incidents in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis. This is the devastating power of stimulus generalization; the fact that these five police officers were completely innocent didn’t deter, faze or perhaps even occur to the Dallas shooter.
Stimulus generation is a formidable force, but with a coordinated and focused effort, we can control it, and perhaps even make it work to our advantage. In my opinion, police relations are perpetually tense due largely to a prevalence of negative media coverage. The media reports unpleasant events for more often than uplifting stories. Incidents that keep us in perpetual fear seem to be the ones that are broadcast most widely. The “feel good” stories are usually left to the end of the newscast (if there’s time). As a result, we are getting a statistically skewed view of what’s happening in the world, and an especially distorted view of what our country’s police forces do every day.
Above and Beyond the Call of Duty
To be fair, the media does report, from time to time, on the more positive examples of police work. Here are a few of those stories:
- During the July 7th Dallas protest in which the five police officers were killed, a mother of four was shot in the leg. As she was attempting to shield one of her sons, she looked up and saw a police officer running over to shield both of them from the gunfire.
- On January 15th, 2016, a Florida police officer was called for a noise complaint. Some kids were playing basketball too loudly in the street. However, instead of admonishing them, he decided to join them in a game. Afterwards, he promised to return and bring a special guest with him. That special guest turned out to be Shaquille O’Neal
- After responding to a trespassing call, two Barnesville, Georgia police officers discovered a homeless teenager who told them that he had ridden his brother’s bicycle for six hours in order to register for classes at Gordon State College. These two officers put him up in a hotel room (and paid for it themselves), and then set up a GoFundMe page in his name to help him get back on his feet again. In an example of how kindness feeds on itself; the owner of a local pizzeria hired the teenager and said that he would schedule the shifts around his college classes.
- In Charlotte, North Carolina, officer Tim Purdy responded to a call about a suicidal teen with autism. He sat down with him, talked things out, and likely saved this young man’s life. Purdy later told a reporter “This is something that tens of thousands of law enforcement officers that are out there do every single day,” Purdy said in a video. “You just don’t hear about it.“
- In La Plata, Maryland, an 81-year-old woman who has dementia was reported missing by her daughters. After a brief search, officer Morrison found her, and held her hand as he walked her back home, chatting with her on the way.
- Each year, police forces in Toronto and the surrounding suburbs hold a “Cram a Cruiser” food drive to support local food banks. They set up a patrol car up just outside the entrance of participating supermarkets, and encourage shoppers to donate food, which is then placed inside the car. A couple of years ago, they were able to fill 50 cruisers full of food. This event is publicized, but only in the local community newspapers.
I agree completely with officer Tim Purdy’s comments; in fact, they reflect the central theme of this blog post. The good deeds performed daily by police officers all over the country vastly outnumber the bad things. Unfortunately, we don’t recognize this because media reporting is weighed heavily on the stories that sell the most newspapers or that generate the most page views – that is, the decidedly unpleasant ones. That’s why our perception of police forces is distorted.
After reading my brief descriptions of these good deeds, how do you feel about police officers right now? I’ll bet that your faith is being restored, and that you now have renewed hope for a brighter, more harmonious future. Listing just a few examples of officers who go above and beyond the call of duty to help others was my modest attempt to create a more statistically balanced reporting, but it still isn’t even close to representing all of the helpful things that police officers do for us every day.
What We Can Do
Individually, we aren’t as powerful as media outlets, which is why we need to work together to create and promulgate a more accurate view of law enforcement across the country. First of all, we need to consider all of the little things that police officers do for the general public every day, and recognize that the vast majority of these acts receive no publicity at all. Secondly, if you’ve had a positive experience with a police officer, then tell your family, friends and colleagues about it. Tell the story repeatedly, and spread the positive message. This is how we can help give the rest of society a more statistically accurate view of police officers, and the good deeds they perform each day.
I’d like to get the ball rolling, by sharing a couple of stories of my own:
- A number of years ago, one of my father’s friends was in Chicago, attending an educational conference. This was his first time visiting Chicago. After the conference, he had a bit of free time, so he decided that he would drive around and just explore the city, with no particular destination in mind. As he was driving along, he noticed the flashing lights of a police car behind him. He immediately pulled over, and was baffled because he wasn’t speeding or breaking any other laws (that he was aware of). The officer walked up to his car and demanded “What are doing here?”. This man told him about the conference, and mentioned that he was visiting from Canada. The police officer told him that he had wandered into a very bad neighbourhood and that he shouldn’t be here. He then said “I’m going to drive ahead of you. Follow right behind me, and I’ll take you out of here and to someplace safer“. And that’s just what he did.
My father told me that he’s heard similar stories from some of his friends in other cities – Atlanta and Miami – and added that helping people in this way appears to be quite common. This is the type of police story that is never reported by the media, but should be.
- Back in the early 2000s, I visited a bar in Fort Lauderdale called The Elbo Room. At the time it stood out from other bars because it had three streaming webcams: one inside, one pointed toward their outdoor patio, and one on the roof aimed at the beach. At any time, I could go to their web site and see what was happening there at that exact moment (which was really cool during the early 2000s). About 3-4 years later, a major hurricane was approaching the south-east coast of Florida.
All businesses were closed and people were urged to stay indoors or even leave the area. I visited the Elbo Room’s web page to see if their roof-mounted web cam was still functioning, and perhaps get a glimpse of the weather and the waves. Surprisingly, the web cam was still functioning in the torrential rain, and although the image was distorted by creeping rivulets of water, I could still get a fairly decent view of the surroundings. This hurricane was a sight to behold. As George Costanza would say “The sea was angry that day, my friends“. The waves were crashing onto the beach, almost reaching the road, and the palm trees were bending in the gale-force winds. Despite the less-than-ideal view though the webcam lens, I saw the flashing lights of a police cruiser, right at the intersection of Los Olas and A1A. It was the only sign of humanity in this decidedly inhospitable environment.
As I watched this scene for the next 10-15 minutes, it occurred to me that this police officer was likely stationed there to keep an eye out for anyone who still hadn’t found shelter, or to make sure that no one got too close to the beach. I was impressed by his/her dedication. While just about everyone else in Fort Lauderdale was safe and sequestered inside their hurricane-shuttered homes, this police officer was watching out for others. This is another story that you won’t find in your local newspaper.
When we read and watch the daily news, we assume that we have an accurate and balanced view of things. However, our view of the world depends on what is reported to us. Fortunately, our skewed perception of police work can be corrected if we all work together, recognize all of the good work done each day by law enforcement officials everywhere, and share those stories. Only then will be have a more statistically accurate view of what’s really happening, and how much assistance we’re actually receiving from our men and women in blue.
Finally, I’d like to propose the following: the next time you see a police officer, say “Thank you for your service” (or something along those lines). We say this to our veterans who protected us during wartime, so why not express the same sentiment for the men and women who continue to protect us every day?