A number of readers have written in about the post last night on the comparative danger of police work. The post noted that while police work is much more dangerous than the average job in the United States, it is by no means the most dangerous. That dubious honor goes to jobs like commercial fishing, construction, trucking and other similarly accident-prone professions.
The gist of most of these critiques was that you can’t really evaluate the danger of the profession through injury and mortality rates because what’s different about the job is that you frequently come into contact with actual people who want to hurt you and, much more frequently, situations where you don’t know what you’re going to find. And you have to ready to be confront someone who wants to do you or other people harm. This is a very good point. And I believe it only confirms TPM Reader JS’s point from last night (which I strongly recommend), which was that the heroism of police work is not mainly about physical danger but moral courage and psychological stress.
The Gates’ case can be taken as a case in point. Set aside the particular facts of this case and the various unknowns still swirling around it. A police officer needs to be able to respond to a call about a possible burglary, knowing he or she is going into a situation where they might find an actual burglar, who could be armed and might act in an unpredictable and lethal way. But they also need to be able to turn on a dime once it’s clear it’s not a burglar but the owner of the house, tired and coming home from a long trip. And on top of that, even though the cop was responding to help the owner of the home, the cop needs to be prepared for the fact the owner may be embarrassed or angry for being treated like a criminal in his own home. If that happens, the cop needs to be able to understand the reasonableness of the reaction and deescalate the situation — not get into a macho pissing match which ends up getting decided in the favor of the cop because he has the handcuffs and the gun. (It’s my strong sense that this is what happened in the Gates case.)
Someone who can manage that balance day in and day out is a great thing — someone who can keep us all safe, on many levels, in an irreplaceable way. That’s why cops are prone to a lot of mental and physical problems associated with dealing with that kind of stress and psychological turbulence year in and year out. There’s a related balance the civilians among us need to be able to manage too — to respect and honor the difficulty and heroism of the job done right while also not being cowed into treating criticism of bad police work as some kind of taboo. Because the ones who can’t manage that balance need to be in another line of work.
Late Update: A regular emailer from Cambridge rather heatedly takes me to task for supposedly calling for the officer in the Gates case, Sgt. James Crowley, to be fired. I think it’s obvious from what I wrote that I did not say that and that I was talking about policing in general — that people who can’t manage that very difficult balance should be in another line of work. But in case I’m wrong and this is the impression that people are getting — let me just state clearly that I am definitely not calling for Crowley to lose his job.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.