Guest Commentary

I worked with bad cops for years. Law enforcement doesn’t have to be ‘us versus them’

To my friends in law enforcement: When you say, “All lives matter,” do you really mean that, or is it just a hashtag that’s cool to use when faced with, “Black lives matter” (too)?

I’ve come to realize the role I have played and how I’ve contributed to this problem. If I accept responsibility for my part, perhaps others will recognize it in themselves.

I worked closely with police officers as a dispatcher for 15 years. I have cheered for them, held my breath during hostage situations or while they served high-risk warrants, and felt my heart race wildly as I heard them scream for help in my headset. I’ve dated them (just one), married them (just one) and lived the job firsthand. I’ve cried with them after we dealt with a child’s death, worked overtime with them and done all I could to ensure their safety.

I’ve been on more than 300 ride-alongs, mostly on my own time, learning about officers and their challenges. I did this because it was fun, and because it made me a really good dispatcher. I spent time with them so that I could easily tell from their tone of voice if things were getting sketchy and I needed to send extra help. I saw what they saw. I felt some of what they feel. I had a front-row seat to the awesome, the tragic, the heroic, the boring, the helplessness, the power — and the abuse of power. All of this relationship building creates the brotherhood you hear about. It constructs bonds that are unbreakable. It creates loyalty, a team, a community.

And it does other things. It creates an “us versus them” mentality. Law enforcement deals with the same dysfunctional 10% of the population day in and day out. It’s exhausting. It’s infuriating. It skews your perspective on society. Given enough years on the job, you can’t help but see that same dysfunction in everyone you encounter. Everyone is a suspect until proven otherwise. It’s a very dark place to live in and contributes to the incredibly high rates of police suicide, domestic violence and alcoholism.

In downtime, some officers like to hang out in the dispatch room. Some agencies have put a stop to this because too little work was getting done, and too much sex was being planned. Mostly, though, the officers came in to tell stories. And we loved to hear them, because dispatchers rarely get closure on the situations they also deal with.

Myself, I’m guilty of:

Remaining silent when officers bragged of violating someone’s rights (this happened often).

Laughing at racist jokes and offensive comments about minorities and the mentally ill.

Laughing and cheering when officers bragged about slamming someone to the ground or car hood, putting on ultra-tight cuffs, using extra mace, administering an extra shot of taser juice, and the general use of more force than was needed to control the situation.

Saying nothing when I witnessed firsthand a completely bogus and fabricated probable cause for a traffic stop, a lie that then made its way into the official written report (more times than I could count).

Not caring when I saw an officer take out his frustration on someone who called us for help. Watching silently as the officer chose to escalate and provoke someone who was initially calm and rational. Watching that officer cuff, arrest and charge that person for obstruction or resisting when it was the officer’s provocation that produced the reaction.

I could go on most of the day. This stuff happens. All. The. Time. Everyone who works in or with law enforcement knows this is true. Officers of integrity know it, too. They hate working with these types of cops and try as best they can to avoid going on calls with them.

Speaking of officers of integrity, I’ve known several brilliant and amazing people serving in law enforcemnt. Most of them didn’t stay long in the profession. They finished degrees and moved on, or they started their own businesses. There are still good ones who continue on, but they know exactly how much they can protest before they’re labeled and treated like traitors. You’re mistaken if you think that doesn’t happen.

Are some officers honorable? Yes. Are some corrupt? Yes. Does our silence about the corruption make us complicit in their bad and sometimes criminal behavior? Yes. Our chosen silence makes us as corrupt as they are, even the “good” officers still working today. Like me at the time, they remain silent for a variety of reasons. I could stomach (and rationalize) it at the time, but there’s no way I could today.

The public sees the corrupt officers. We all do. With cameras in our pockets and social media, they see it more than ever before. Can we understand why, in the face of our silence, the public can reach the logical conclusion that police are to be feared, and how that breeds mistrust?

Here’s the point I’m trying to make: If we are all silent, then we are all guilty and should be rightfully grouped together as bad cops.

People are angry and confrontational with police officers. Police officers are killing black men (and provoking arrests) at disproportionate numbers. Until we acknowledge some truths, nothing will change. Worse than that, we are headed for a truly frightening omega.

So I’ll circle back to my opening question: Why do those in law enforcement often choose to be silent about incredibly questionable shootings of black men, and only show us your heartbreak when police officers are killed by suspects, as happened in Dallas in 2016? Do you think your silence makes it more or less safe for the officers on duty today and tomorrow? Again, by saying, “not all cops” or by saying, “nobody understands our job” — do those things make you more safe on your next shift?

What would make your next shift safer is if the public had the utmost respect for you, if they didn’t have the mistrust and animosity toward you that I know you feel every day.

How can you make that happen? By calling out loudly all those things that I admit to remaining silent about.

It’s not easy. I didn’t do it. It may end your career, but it’s the only way to restore honor to probably the most difficult job on the planet.

Tonya Staeger of Springfield, Missouri, was a police and fire dispatcher for 15 years.