The Deadly Self-Pity Of The Police

In 1997, as a graduate teaching fellow, I began teaching two introductory classes in philosophy at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Many of my students were training for careers in criminology and law enforcement. Some hoped to join the FBI, yet others, the New York City police force. And, as I had been told (warned?) some of my students were serving NYPD officers, perhaps hoping to become detectives, gain added educational qualifications and so on. In my first semester, I did not meet any of these worthies.

A few weeks into my second semester, soon after I had finished teaching for the night, a student walked up to me, asked me a couple of questions about the material I had just covered and then introduced himself. He was a serving officer in the NYPD, working in a Brooklyn precinct. We chatted for a bit, and then as I headed out to the subway station to take a train home, he accompanied me. At the station he indicated he could wave me through with his card, but feeling uneasy, I politely declined and said I would use a subway token instead. Shortly thereafter we said goodnight. From that night on, after the end of class, he would sometimes accompany me to the station; we would chat about his educational plans and of course, his work at the precinct.

1997 was the year that Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, had been assaulted and sodomized with a broken-off broom handle by the NYPD after being arrested outside Club Rendezvous in East Flatbush. That incident had sparked angry demonstrations and the same old calls for reform of the NYPD, for an inquiry into race relations in New York City. (Incredibly enough, the officers who assaulted Louima would go on to serve time.)  That fall, that incident was something my new ‘friend’ returned to again and again. It made him ‘unhappy.’

Not because he felt for Louima. Not because he sympathized with a man who had been beaten and raped by the police. Not because he felt for the mothers of the black and Latino men who had been shot dead or assaulted by the NYPD. Not because he thought that communities of color were unjustly targeted by the police. None of that that bothered him. What bothered him was something else altogether. Now, the people of the borough didn’t ‘respect the police’. They were ‘disrespectful.’ They walked by the precinct waving broom handles at the police, shouting angry slogans, reminding the police of the night that another  broom handle had been used to commit sexual assault on someone like them. It was so ‘hurtful’ to see that kind of contempt, that kind of language directed at policemen, who were after all, only trying to ‘do their jobs.’

I was talking to a man who seemed curiously consumed by self-pity. He was not happy his profession was being maligned, but he didn’t seem to think it had anything to do with the way his colleagues–other than a few bad apples, who he wanted to disown all too quickly–behaved with the communities they policed. The police were the real victims here, unfairly made to bear the brunt of a community’s wrath. Louima might have suffered one night, but all the agitators and demonstrators–sometimes folks who didn’t even live in Brooklyn!–were now making life oh-so-difficult for the rest of the police, forced to deal with this daily reminder of their brutality.

What makes policemen really dangerous, I think, is that their implements of destruction do not end with the deadly firearms that they discharge so easily and so carelessly. They carry around too, a toxic mix of self-pity, righteousness, and resentment at a deliberately obtuse world. When they walk the streets, they do not see a ‘community’ around them; they see the sullen, non-compliant subjects of their policing. They are convinced of the rightness of their actions; if they are ever subjected to critique then it must be flawed, infected with an ignorance of the nature of police work. They are mystified and angry. They seek to bring ‘these people’ law and order; why don’t they encounter more welcoming behavior? My ‘friend’ was caught up in this mystery. He could not fathom how the folks who said the police were ‘pigs’ could not separate out the good from the bad, how they could not exercise a discrimination finer than the one they put on display.

In this attitude, urban police forces in America today are very much like occupying and colonial forces elsewhere: they are puzzled why the occupied are not more grateful for the benefactions of the armed forces that stride through their neighborhoods, stopping and frisking, getting young men up against the wall, stamping out ‘disorder’, showing by their body language and their voices that they are armed and dangerous and will not tolerate dissent in any form. And just like those forces the police  ask again and again: Why do they make us hurt them so? Why do they make us do the things we do?

Is there anything more deadly than self-pity, the conviction that you have been sinned against, and the right to use arms?



18 thoughts on “The Deadly Self-Pity Of The Police

  1. Here in the UK last week an announcement was made. Senior police officials were decrying the rates of child sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape, and sex slavery. Their concern, however, was not directed toward the victims of those crimes, but to police officers having to work those cases.

    Those poor police officers, we are told, are becoming saddened and depressed by having to interact with victims, by having to take statements and gather evidence. They don’t like it, it makes them too unhappy, and they’re taking sick days.

    Never mind the fact that only about 6% of sex crimes are reported. Never mind that only a tiny fraction of those reports ever lead to charges being laid, and a tinier fraction still leads to prosecution, making sexual assault and rape virtually legal. Never mind the frequent discoveries of police officers and detectives having hidden case files, lied to victims and telling them that there’s insufficient evidence to lay charges, or that their case has been dropped. Never mind the fact that the police revictimise by dragging victims’ lives through the mud, by insinuating that they are not being truthful, by zeroing in on what the victim did and implying that the abuser is not at fault, and is himself* a victim of a misunderstanding, of malicious charges

    The implications of this statement are pretty chilling, from where im sitting. Those poor sad, victimised police officers must be pitied and protectes. People should just not report sexual victimisation, because it will be too difficult for the police to deal with, too emotionally draining and depressing for them. Victims should just keep their petty little complaints to themselves, lest they hurt law enforcement personnel.

    It seems that this self-pity is endemic.

    *lazy shorthand, but the vast majority of reports are about victimisation by men.

    1. As I understand it, hearing about atrocities really is hard on people. It’s important for the police to do their work, but they also need psychological support for that part of it, and probably some limits on how much each officer has to do of that sort of thing.

      1. You have missed my point in a spectacular fashion. Yes, seeing the sheer, naked inhumanity that is inflicted on people daily is horrible, depressing, and mentally tortuous but here’s the thing: if you are an officer working in the sexual crimes dept. then it is because you chose to do so. There already IS support for those officers, they already have the resources to help them deal with the stresses of their jobs.

        Reread Samir’s post. Read how sympathy was expressed for the poor, victimised police officers who were maligned for merely raping someone with a broom handle, and the contempt both for the victim, and for the OMG so “disrespectful” community members who were outraged by what happened. You read that, yes?

        In this country rape is practically legal. Women do not report rape. Children do not report being groomed, gang-raped, and sold into sexual slavery. You know why? It’s pointless. Of the roughly 6% of reported rapes fewer than 10% are ever taken to the level of prosecution. Of that tiny number? Only a tiny fraction are convicted. Women reporting rape are mocked, belittled, shamed, mistreated, and lied to. Scotland Yard’s own specialist sex crimes unit his cases that they didn’t want to deal with, lost and mishandled evidence, broke confidentiality and, because of their incompetence and disdain for women, allowed a serial rapist to carry on his crimes for years. They closed cases without telling victims.

        Hundreds of girls, aged from eleven and onward, were drugged, raped, traded, trafficked and sold, for decades. The police knew about it. Social workers knew about it. Nobody did anything, nobody cared, victims who complained were dismissed out of hand, parents who complained were told that their daughter was to blame.

        Court judges have accused rape victims as young as nine years old of being responsible for adult men violating them. They’ve been accused of ‘seduction’, of being at fault for looking older, or for going into a man’s house when taken there, the implication being that she was consenting to sex. Some men have received noncustodial sentences for raping children.

        The police allowed a famous man (who was a notorious rapist and even admitted to having sex with young girs in his bloody autobiography) to rape and sexually assault women and children for five decades. When victims dared to come forward they were smeared, when wind of accusations reached his friends in the force, they called the regional HQ that had received the complaint and told them to drop the charges, that the victims were liars and fame seekers. When top football players rape women they are coddled and lauded as victims, while the actual victims are terrorised and stalked due to their anonymity being breached, while law enforcement look the other way.

        So, given my original comment, why should anyone feel pity for trained officers and detectives who chose that line of work, and have recourse to counselling and support because the poor things are so sad at having to do their jobs? What gives their chief the right to publicly say how terrible they feel, not because of rape and child abuse happening in the first place, but because they have to deal with it? No sympathy for the tears and blood spilled by traumatised victims, no acknowledgment of the sheer hell that survivors are put through for daring to speak out, of the revictimisation inflicted by the legal system from the second they open their mouths to make an accusation. For instance, victims of child sex trafficking or gang rape have been made to face interrogation from every single barrister representing every single defendant, in open court. Young women who’ve been interrogated by detectives for months or even years, have ended up facing down a dozen predators in court, and subjected to weeks (or even months) of vile character assassination and accusations from every member of each perpetrator’s legal team. No pity for them from the police, no condemnation of those who prey upon victims and violate their bodies, minds and sense of self, just cries of “Wah, this hurts our feelings, it’s hard work you guys!”

        There are enough factors at play facing any victim who has been violated, so many reasons that making a police report is at best pointless, at worst harmful, without the police actively complaining about having to deal with the tiny number of people brave enough to seek help! Do butchers put out press releases complaining about how messy it is to deal with raw meat, do pizza chefs band together to whine about people asking them to make flat, bread based food?

        The police officer in Samir’s post and the representative mentioned in my initial comment are scarily tone deaf. They’re victim blamers, they’re so obsessed with the image of their ‘Brotherhood in Blue’ as a shining wave of noble protectors, that they can’t see the reality of corruption, injustice, laziness and violence that’s almost a feature of the system, rather than a bug. They’re lashing out and moping about how bad they’ve got it, when five minutes in front of a mirror is what they really need.

        I’ll save my concern for the victims of abuse, TYVM.

  2. In the US, it is the COPS who are raping children and sex workers… here is a partial list of cops who rape/ solicit/ extort/ pimp and kill prostitutes:
    And here is a partial list of cops who sexually molest children:

    They also have a significant number of cops who rape women who are not sex workers- women whom they stop for traffic violations, etc. No wonder they don’t want to deal with these crimes- it is their colleagues who commit them!

  3. The problem with this article is that it subscribes to “bad apple theory” – the same theory that politicians and police department top brass use to dodge responsibility for what their “serving officers” (seriously?) do in the field

    You’d think a John Jay professor would have a more structural and institutional understanding of how policing works – rather than just generalizing from one (apocryphal?) whiny cop to 40,000 “serving officers” (again, so Kiplingesque) in NYC and 1 million across the country

    The problem with policing is the two conflicting missions of all organized police departments – protecting the safety of the general public vs preserving the present social order

    Both missions are reflected in the circulars and memoranda that come down the chain of command and direct “serving officers” (sic) to do what they do in the field.

    Eric Garner is dead because Anti Crime squads in general and Staten Island Anti Crime in particular were directed to round up loosie men – because of complaints that they were undercutting the prices of local merchants

    That paragraph in a nutshell describes the class role of policing in our society, and is a far more incisive critique of policing than this ad hominem criticism of one particularly whiny “serving officer”

    Also, the civil service title is Police Officer – I honestly don’t know what a “serving officer” is (I picture a waiter in the Chief’s private dining room in One Police Plaza)

  4. Thanks for the article– it backs up something I’ve been noticing for a while. There are a lot of police and their supporters who seem to believe that *only* the suffering and risks of the police matter. They also only notice when the police are frightened of the public, but not when the public is frightened of the police.

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