What Respect Means to Police Officers

911 - Hang UpSteve M Over at No More Mister Nice Blog brought my attention to an interesting story, I Guess You Don’t Have to Be a Cop to Charge People With “Contempt of Cop.” Apparently, back in June, a woman whose friend had just been shot got into a little argument with a 911 dispatcher. The dispatcher asked, “Is he breathing?” The caller said, “He is barely breathing. How many times do I have to fucking tell you?!” At that point, the dispatcher said, “Okay, you know what ma’am? You can deal with it yourself. I’m not going to deal with this, okay.” And hung up. The friend died.

The point here is not that the dispatcher is a horrible person. For one thing, he didn’t completely abandon the caller. He had already called an ambulance, which arrived at the scene less than five minutes later. But clearly he was young and poorly trained. But his attitude speaks to a larger issue about public servants who demand to be treated with some conception of dignity that they think they deserve.

How the dispatcher acted on the phone was very much the sort of thing I would expect from customer service with AT&T. Well, worse than that. They put up with a whole lot worse than this. The caller said only a single even slightly offensive thing and the dispatcher decided that he had had enough. But in this case, the caller is watching her friend die. And the dispatcher thinks that his discomfort at being yelled at trumps that. It’s amazing.

But as Steve M noted, when the police go off in cases like this, they are always allowed to make the “threat” argument. Or as I put, “They were vewy vewy afwaid.” Clearly the dispatcher did not feel threatened in this case. And in most cases with police officers, this is all that is going on: they feel that they aren’t receiving the proper amount of respect. But whereas the dispatcher just abandoned the target of his anger, the police attack.

The best recent example of this is Sandra Bland. When Officer Brian Encinia pulls her over, he could just give her the ticket and move on. But he decided instead to make her bend to his will. It’s all about him getting the respect that he thinks he deserves. He most clearly never feels threatened. In fact, when Bland wouldn’t get out of the car, he went in after her. He didn’t call for backup. It’s all about some twisted notion of respect.

The question is why it is that people in these positions feel that others should be so deferential to them. After all, they generally interact with people under the worst of circumstances. Both the dispatcher and the Sandra Bland arresting officer got their start in fire departments. So I don’t think this is really about police in general. I think it is about the nature of their inbred — male dominated — cultures. It is a conservative culture: us against them; the good against the bad. So it is not at all surprising that this attitude sneaks in and they end up being far less professional than some minimum wage hack at AT&T.

But I would hope that cases like this would cause the society to stop apologizing for police brutality and murder with the facile claim, “Well, they have such dangerous jobs.” No they don’t! And even if they did, cases like Sandra Bland and Eric Garner and Walter Scott show that “danger” is not what these guys are on about. It is some notion of respect that they think they are owed. And if it comes down to it, they think it is all right to kill for it. But as a society, we need to stop thinking that this unconscionable violence is about public safety.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “What Respect Means to Police Officers

  1. I agree with you. We have too many insular, ultra-hierarchical, ultra-macho subcultures among our public servants. I would also add that another source of our problems is the notion that everyone is the “CEO of their personal brand.” Among Congress people, police officers and apparently 911 dispatchers, these people see their current “gig” as an opportunity to leverage themselves towards more respect in the short run and a more lucrative career in the long run.

    Public servants owe the public professionalism and governors and other elected officials owe them respect for that professionalism. I am not of the Sinophile, Tom Friedman school of thought where 99% of the population must happily work, build show piece airports and give up their vital organs for the benefit of the 1%. However, I do believe that if we carry on as we are and believe that every businessman, cop, firefighter, teacher, governor, President, pundit, congressional staffer, banker and Congressman is a free agent who has no obligation to the common good, we will have problems now and in the future.

    • I think you’ve hit upon the fatal flaw with Friedman. Figuring out the right balance between community and individual is always hard — even in a marriage. The problem we have is that the society as a whole tells us it is all about the individual — if you are just brilliant enough or rich enough or whatever enough, then you will have people who love you. It doesn’t work that way.

  2. Colin — Is that 911 dispatcher a public employee? Or a subcontractor? A lot of 911 services are farmed out to for-profit companies these days by underfunded municipal governments. My mom was a 911 dispatcher for 20 years, who became aghast at how her for-profit employer cut back on training and staff hours.

    She’s dead now, but here’s how she would have reacted to this story. It’s perfectly natural for a stressed-out dispatcher to have one screaming caller too many — they get screamed at all the time. (People calling 911 are stressed out themselves.) No way you hang up; you hand-signal another dispatcher to take over the call. But that’s assuming the call center is adequately staffed, which it may not have been.

    Incidentally I lied when I said my mom worked for 20 years at that company. It was 19 years and six months. Because 20 years meant a pension, and the company was for-profit, my mom was fired near the end.

    It’s an insanely stressful job — air traffic controller (you’ve got to know where cop cars are) meets suicide hotline meets giving children instructions how to perform emergency first aid on their parents. My mom was proud of it, though. (If you get a seven-year-old to hold the bleeding until an ambulance comes, that’s pretty amazing!) And she was no fan of cops. “They’ve all watched ‘Die Hard’ too many times,” was her take.

    • That’s a good perspective on it. I have little doubt it is ultimately the fault of the dispatch company. But that’s also true of the police department. And of the society more generally.

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