This post was originally published on the author’s website and is republished here with permission.
I keep thinking about that police officer down the street kneeling on that young black man and twisting his arm around, savagely, nonchalantly, while the child screamed ‘help! Help!’
I keep thinking about them.
At the moment it happened my wife and I were walking in a park two miles to the north. It had been, to that point, a difficult week at our house. Our daughter is nearing the end of her Freshman year in high school, spectacular recovery work is needed in her math class; the calendar has other final exams, four (4!) dance recitals and her school’s formal. My work has been insane and so has my wife’s. We aren’t sleeping enough – none of us are sleeping enough.
At some point you will be asked to parent well when you are tired.
My wife and I were walking around the lake in an agitated state. We have just the one egg to obsess over, and over that egg we do obsess (in spite of ourselves or because of ourselves). Whatever you fear, parenting will call it forward for you. I’m typically at my most concerned when I see myself in my daughter, when I worry that the things I got wrong and get wrong will be an issue for her too. I want her to confront her demons on her behalf and maybe show me how to do it: don’t be distracted like your father is; work first; say no every once in a while; be organized; prioritize well.
My wife tends to see every small setback as a harbinger of disaster. Where I rarely worry and rely on patterns to suggest likely outcomes, my wife gravitates toward deviations. The missed curfew foretells the ecstasy binge. The bad exam means college is out of the question.
One of my lowest and profoundest moments as a parent happened when our sweet angel was about six years old. We were in our kitchen, sitting at the center island with big, old windows behind us. There had been some kind of violation, some teachable moment, and your good friend Professor Michael was inspired to lecture mode (I’m not really a professor, but I profess from time to time). I built my presentation on seven or eight points and a few sub-points, all logically ordered, all designed to illuminate an irrefutable thesis. The kid was more interested in her Nintendo DS. I asked her to put it down. She refused. I mentioned that it might go away for a while. She claimed indifference. I took hold of it and continued my monologue. She interrupted to say ‘I’m bored.’
And I had this thought – fully formed and completely innate. Somewhere in my bile and blood, hard wired like everything that frightens us – I had this thought that if I sent her through one of those kitchen windows, she wouldn’t be bored anymore.
And she would obey me. And respect me.
I didn’t touch her, but she knew. My darkest nature was there in the room with us.
In the quiet moments of my day, I find myself thinking about them – the boy and the officer.
Anyone can do it. I want to know if you can do it when you’re afraid.
Although most of our days are pleasant, the day the police officer put his knee in the young man’s back was not my favorite day this year. It started with a familiar fight at the house. Familiar but amplified. An unpleasant argument at 6:10 in the morning about the cell phone in the bedroom after hours and owning decisions and running head first into your mistakes. My wife left the house early. Our precious egg stormed up the stairs. I charged out for work, proud of my cross-examination and walked into a difficult day at the office. I didn’t admit until later that I was totally defeated that morning. My daughter raced off for a challenging final, a crucial final. That afternoon my wife and I walked around the lake by our house and went on and on about all of it – the phone, the reaction, the grades, the final exam, the summer coming up, the things we’re getting wrong, all of it, around and around the lake around and around, contents under pressure.
Anyone can do it. Can you do it under duress?
Parenting is a difficult job. So is police work. Most days I’m a pretty good parent. I have moments where I get it completely wrong. I know I could not be a police officer. I don’t have it in me, and I don’t desire it. I don’t have the patience. I don’t have the courage. Not long after Michael Brown was killed, I was at the barber shop waiting my turn for a brush fade, while a police officer, massive and strong, black and beautiful, sat still for a trim and talked to us about Ferguson and St. Paul. I’m working from memory, but he summed up his role this way:
Every shift I come across people who are having one of their worst days. I see people who are pissed off and people who are high and people who are mentally ill. I see them all the time. I knock on doors of people who want me to make things worse. They pretty much beg me to make it worse. And that’s the thing – I can almost always escalate things. That’s pretty easy. What’s hard is to make it better. Sometimes you can’t.
When we talk about the police or write about the police it’s easy to paint with a broad brush or to be seen as painting with a broad brush. The police are in the news a lot right now – hitting, being hit, killing, being killed. In the age of the cell phone and social media, we see more than we used to see. Policing is a higher-profile job. It may seem that police departments are more broken than other professions. I’m not sure that’s the case. In spite of everything, I still believe most police officers are good. Some police officers are not. They are racist or sadistic or sociopathic or weak. Some almost always get it right and get it wrong every once in a while. Which is the same thing I can say about most parents and pretty much every teen I’ve ever met. The police are not unique in this way. With the possible exception of nuns – nuns seem to always get it right – every other job has people who are not up to it and people who are almost always up to it but succumb to fear, fatigue or stress. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, priests, politicians, men and women in the military, parents, principals, and CEOs: within their ranks there are people corrupted by nature or exposed by fatigue or fear or stress.
Here’s the problem – when police fail to protect and serve, we react differently than we do when other professions fail. When police officers get it wrong, police departments, and police-apologists in the general public often refuse to see the wrong as wrong. Ranks are closed. Prosecutors, motivated by bias or personal interest, too often fail to indict. We change the subject and talk about how tough the job is. We blame Obama. We do anything except stand up and say – this is wrong. This has to stop.
We need more good officers to say “that was wrong.” We need more members of the public to hold them accountable; we need a higher standard. What I’m proposing here – more police officers owning decisions and running head first into mistakes, the destruction of the code of silence, more prosecutors prosecuting, and fewer folks in the general public willing to support pretty much whatever as long as a police officer is doing it – what I’m proposing here is a difficult job.
When I saw the video of the officer kneeling on the boy and twisting his arm around, I saw myself twice. I am the officer, and I am the boy on the ground. I haven’t hurt anyone physically (well, except once in college when a skinhead insisted that we throw hands), but I have been tired and afraid and in pain, and in those times I have caused harm. I haven’t literally had a knee in my back or mace in my face or my arm twisted around savagely, but I have been on the metaphorical ground scared and in pain, crying out for help.
I don’t know the police officer in this video, Bill Kraus, but I know someone who knows him. I can’t say what he was thinking or feeling in that moment. He may have been exhausted or frustrated. He may have been calm. He may have been afraid. He may be a racist. He is a victim of a racist society – we all are. He may be poorly trained or sadistic. He may be a sociopath. He may be none of those things. He may have acted in line with his training (the police have released a statement essentially defending his work – if you read it, ask yourself who’s getting the lion’s share of the scrutiny). He may look at this video with pride. He may look at it and feel sad and sick like I do. I don’t know. I probably won’t know. This is what I can tell you: I don’t want that kind of policing in my community. I want something different. I want something better.
The boy in the video is not my son, but he is my child. He lives in the same town I do. He probably lives a few minutes away from me. I don’t think I’ve met him, but I know people who know him. We are separated by one degree. He is a bright child. I know he was selected for an exclusive school for bright kids – invitation only. I owe him a safe city. I owe him a standard of care. When I look at him, I also see my daughter. She almost always gets it right, but sometimes she gets it wrong. I’ve seen her get it wrong for an entire day. No one should put their hands on her, even if they are tired or scared or in pain. What kids need when they are getting it wrong is adults who are utterly patient and capable of absolute restraint.
When I watched the video, I recalled the words of the officer I met at the barbershop. I can almost always escalate things. I feel like I let my daughter down sometimes. I feel like I let that young man down.
I know there are some who will see the video and agree with the actions taken by the officer. I hope to reach them in this moment. We need to stop this. We can’t have any more of this in Saint Paul or in America. We can’t treat our children like this anymore. Hear me please – teenagers are just like adults only magnified, more urgent. They get it wrong sometimes. It’s not easy being young and growing and changing, with your brain developing while you’re trying to find your place in the world and survive final exam season. Teens need space to get it wrong sometimes. No more hands on children here, please. No more mace. No more knees. No more yelling. No more arm twisting. We need to stop this. Just as we put a higher standard of care on older, more mature adult parents (whose brains have usually developed past the psychosis of adolescence), in videos like this one, we should expect far more of the trained professional than we do of the teen.
I want to help the young man heal, and I want to help the officer and the police. I think the police need our help you guys. We need to talk about this epidemic of violence. We need to help the injured and those who cause the injury. I’ve been both. I know what it’s like to be in pain screaming for help.
And I’ve pictured the shattered window and the broken egg. I’ve confronted my darkest impulses, more than once. I’ve gotten so far away from myself that it would not matter who was watching; you could have stood there with your phone and filmed me. I could see myself a total mess, derided and viral, and I would have kept on going. I’ve been that afraid. I’ve been that far away from care.
I don’t know what officers need. I don’t know if they need more bodies, more training, better training, more rest, sabbaticals, term limits, shorter shifts, counseling, a way out of the code of silence, or something else. I know only that they are in need. I’m sure some officers think this video is okay. We need to help them see it differently. This is not okay.
Good people succumb to pressure or fear or fatigue. I’ve seen people who usually get it right have it go phenomenally wrong. Doing difficult painful work day after day, I know they want help sometimes. Parenting is a difficult job. Police work is a difficult job. Helping people who are having a difficult day is difficult. Helping them when you are tired or scared or in pain is excruciatingly difficult. Helping police officers do it right more often, getting them to despise and expose corrupt cops or bad work, will be difficult.
I keep thinking about that police officer down the street kneeling on that young black man and twisting his arm around, savagely, nonchalantly, while the boy screamed ‘help! Help!’ I keep thinking about them.
Contents under pressure.
I have been both.
I’ve wanted help as both.