April 25, 2009

Police Can Sometimes Lack Tact



Published in the Sun Times Beacon News on April 26, 2009

by Columnist Kristen Ziman

A much-viewed You Tube video, which shows an off-duty, obviously intoxicated, Pennsylvania police officer inside of a bar mocking the scene of a murder at which he was the responding officer, has spurred public outrage. The obscenity-laden tape shows the officer laughing at the plight of a murder victim who was shot between the eyes as other tavern patrons listen and cackle in response. He is obviously enjoying the spotlight, and even makes fun of the mother’s reaction when she identifies her son.

Among those publicly calling for the police officer’s termination is the NAACP. In the video, the police officer suggests that the victim, a black man, is a drug dealer. The police officer, who is white, seemed to find the entire incident humorous in a way that is disturbing to anyone on the outside looking in. While I understand that some may see the video as a racial issue, I’m believe that this is more about blind ignorance and disrespect than it is about race.

I’ve read some interesting blog posts in response to the video and I’m amazed at the polarized viewpoints. One blogger suggested that police officers handle things differently than most people and that humor and alcohol are common methods for dealing with traumatic incidents. I would be a blatant liar if I didn’t admit to exercising a warped sense of humor about some of the tragedies I’ve seen in my career. I have told myself on more than one occasion that if I didn’t laugh, I would cry. The desensitization that occurs in police officers is necessary so we can function in our lives. If we were not desensitized from tragedy, we would surely not be able to cope— and sometimes— we don’t do very well at coping despite the protective measures. As the blogger suggested, some officers may turn to alcohol as another layer of protection (which may explain the Pennsylvania police officer’s obvious intoxicated state).

I must also confess there are some incidents for which we police officers lack emotion because they involve career criminals that knew the high stakes of playing the “game”. When investigating a crime, it is not uncommon for us to shake our heads when we learn the victim was caught up in criminal activity that obviously had the high propensity for danger. The Pennsylvania officer’s declaration, “We’re looking at it like, one less drug dealer to deal with— cool,” makes me wonder if this was one of those instances. Even for police officers, it is much more difficult (and sometimes nearly impossible) to conceptualize when innocent victims lose their lives to random acts of violence in contrast to those who knew the risk and still chose the lifestyle. (I have heard many who are not in police work suggest the same). As disappointing and astounding as it may seem to some, I understand the psyche of that Pennsylvania officer because it is a glimpse into the dark side of police culture.

However, that is where my empathy ends because understanding it is not the same as condoning and I cannot defend the indefensible. Some of the other bloggers suggest that the police officer on the video is an evil human being and deserves to be fired. I know far more stories of police officers who stay and comfort families after a tragedy or those who attend court on their off time because they are emotionally vested in a case. The officer in that video is not a representative of all police officers.

As much as I disagree with vilifying him, I believe he should be held accountable for the exhibitionist style of disrespect. Even if the shooting victim was a career criminal or a drug dealer, he is still someone’s child. The police officer’s lack of respect violates a human being’s right to dignity. While some of us may be able to understand it, there is no excusing it.

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