Race, Police & Justice: Voices from the Colgate Community

As a White-presenting man who has never felt endangered in an encounter with a police officer, I have little in the way of personal experience to contribute to conversations about police misconduct. In fact, my experiences with law enforcement have not only been overwhelmingly positive, but also formative in my development. My father is a White police officer and growing up, police officers have always numbered among my family members, friends and coaches. This is not an uncommon perspective, as many people count police officers among those most dear to them – and for good reason, I think. A prototypical police officer is, among other things, a model citizen and a community leader, and there are many officers who fit this description. It is largely because of this personal experience that I, as a supporter of the police officers in my life, have struggled to reconcile my perception of the well-meaning, hard working officer with the cold facts of police brutality, mass incarceration and systemic racism.

Unfortunately, when many people hear of police and racism, the automatic assumption is that critics are likening individual police officers to Klansmen or other White supremacists. Here, I think an important distinction must be understood. While it is certainly true that there are officers who do harbor particularly malicious attitudes towards people of color, I would venture that the vast majority of police officers in no way fit this description. Rather, most criticism of law enforcement is directed at a system that has perpetuated violence and oppression against people of color, even though most individual officers are honest people with generally good intentions.

Because of the society we live in and way we’re socialized, we all harbor subtle racist prejudices that unconsciously affect how we act in our personal and professional lives. This is not unique to police. However, the consequences of these prejudices are far more severe when your job entails making arrests and carrying a gun. For this reason, we should be much more wary of how racist prejudices manifest themselves in law enforcement than in other occupations.

This serves to illustrate a larger point. Criticism of law enforcement targets a system that is both racist and now increasingly militaristic, a trend that has been well-documented. However, the system itself is distinct from the hundreds of thousands of honorable, levelheaded officers who are respected and loved by their families and communities. While it is true that individuals within any system unintentionally perpetuate its tendencies, racist or otherwise, well-founded criticism of law enforcement should not be understood as an indictment of any particular officer’s character. My father is one of the most important people in my life, and my admiration for him knows no limits. Why, then, should my (or anyone’s) criticism of law enforcement be construed as “anti-police” sentiment? Surely I, having grown up around so many honorable and respectable police officers, am as “pro-police” as one can be. The best way one can support law enforcement, I think, is to hold police officers to a higher degree of accountability than people of other professions, given the character of the officers I know and the crucial importance of the job. Likewise, I can think of no more potent way to disrespect the badge than to lazily tolerate officer misconduct and glaring flaws in the system.