Saturday, October 15, 2011

To Serve and Protect

Posting while on a break from studying for my Policing test next week (for a university course, mind, not the actual joining-of-the-Academy kind). Any Criminology student will quickly get accustomed to the fact that most of the reading material within the field is dense and tedious to get through, but every now and then you find a pleasant surprise. In this case, one particular chapter in P.A.J. Waddington's "Policing Citizens: Authority and Rights" book really struck a chord with me. I also happen to be double-majoring with an English degree, so I feel as similar an attraction to artful rhetoric as I do towards the exploration of psychological, sociological, and legal explanations of crime. Waddington differed from his professional peers and impressed me particularly when I found him dipping into moments of some really simple but eloquent narrative descriptions that caught me off guard. He added elements of humanity and emotion to the subject that I've not really yet seen in other academic articles. I mean, I can understand why -- to maintain professional neutrality and all that -- but I think sometimes we need that extra dimension to ground us, away from all the formal statistics and philosophical theory, to remind us why we're studying crime in the first place and, in this case, those who deal with it face-to-face on a daily basis. As Patch Adams said, we need not forget to start treating the patient as well as the disease.

Following are some selected favourite passages - reader discretion is advised. Another not-so-pretty post.

What unites police in all jurisdictions is that they will kill fellow citizens, if necessary. Of course, any of us might do so in self-defence, but it is virtually inconceivable that ordinary citizens could lie in wait, armed to the teeth, then confront those whom we suspect of being about to commit a crime, and shoot someone dead. This is exactly what police officers in any jurisdiction in the world might find themselves doing. It is not a common experience, but common enough to be a reality with which police must cope. And what is the reaction of police officers to such experience? Well, it is very different to that portrayed in fiction, where the cop holsters his gun and moves on to the next gunfight. In reality it is mental illness - post-traumatic stress disorder - that debilitates sufferers for years afterward.

The armed police officer is given exceptional license to perform as a matter of duty actions that would otherwise be regarded as extreme depravity - they are 'killers'. By the same token, officers who fight with suspects who resist arrest engage in what is normally the behaviour of thugs and hoodlums, not respectable civilized people. Worse still, police fight not because they are enraged, deranged or intoxicated, but as part of their profession that they enter willingly and in the knowledge that they will be called upon to perform such tasks. Theirs is a morally ambiguous position: willing to perform dreadful deeds for a higher good.

For six months I observed the work of a small squad of (at the time) exclusively female officers who dealt with crimes of indecency. I was attached to one of them, a 21-year-old, who in the time that I spent with her investigated the rape of a 15-year-old; the gang-rape of a 12-year-old who was already the mother of a small child and suffered hepatitis-B infection; the forcible abduction of a 17-year-old girl by a complete stranger; and the sexual exploitation of a 14-year-old girl by her stepfather. Along the way she also investigated several complaints of indecent assault and indecent exposure. Now, I might be unduly sensitive about these matters [...] but I found this the most uncomfortable period of observation I have experienced. I was pitched, along with Jan (who my wife and I came to know as a friend), into a world in which parents exploited their children for their own sexual gratification; other parents abdicated all responsibility for their children; sexual love was debased into a sordid act of brutal selfishness; and the erotic was perverted by men who preyed upon any vulnerable woman to obtain a moment's satisfaction by exposing their genitalia. The moral stench of this world seemed to cling to me long after retreating from the field, leaving me to question my own sexual feelings. My exposure was modest - one, maybe two shifts per week: how could Jan survive and become the loving mother of three children?

Although immersed in it, the officers in this squad did not suffer a monopoly of exposure to the sordid and obscene. Like others who have observed routine patrol work, I have seen my share of dead bodies, sometimes left to rot by family and neighbours too busy to care; I have accompanied young officers who have had the task of quelling violent quarrels between spouses old enough to be their parents; I have seen alcoholics lying sprawled in their own vomit, urine and faeces; I have stood in rooms so filthy that I avoided touching anything for fear of infection and breathed the air with maximum economy lest the stench caused me to vomit; I have witnessed parents so uninterested in their children's welfare that they have refused to attend the police station where the latter is being held in custody; I have been numbed by the personal tragedies that others have suffered; and I have watched my fellow citizens, devoid of any vestige of personal dignity, appealing to the police for all manner of help. And all this is but a small sample of the experience to which any police officer can expect to be exposed.

Don't take me the wrong way, I'm not a blind worshipper at the feet of the police. Sometimes, even more than sometimes, bad things can happen within and under the institution, and I'm not an apologist for oversights and errors in judgment that many have made when operating by the power they wield. But we're all human, for better or for worse; and I always have had, and still have, an enormous amount of respect for them and for what they put on the line to address things many of us would rather not (nor ever actually will) deal with. Especially since a lot of it is far from the glamour and excitement we assume from cop shows and movies. There's a lot of extra onus on the police not only to do their jobs but on HOW to do it and how they're to deal with the results. Anyway ... I think a lot of the people who have cutting opinions about the police (a surprisingly high number, from my own personal observation) would find themselves eating their words if we suddenly found ourselves without them. But that's just my guess.
I'll leave y'all now with a quote from the transcendent Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from whom I could use many of right now but instead of trying to make that choice I'll just go with the safety of one of my all-time favourites ...

"We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in light of what they suffer."

No comments:

Post a Comment