Thou Shalt Know All Before Offering Critique (Of The Police)

A common argument made in the ongoing national discussion about police brutality and violence is, very roughly, “We should be careful in criticizing the police because we have little idea of how difficult and dangerous their work is.” Which reminds me: some ten years ago, when discussing the Abu Ghraib tortures and sundry atrocities with a serving military officer, he offered me the following piece of wisdom: “You cannot, from this safe couch-warming distance, judge the actions of military men; you have no idea of the dangers and stresses of their work.”

You know, whereof one cannot know every excruciating detail, one should not criticize or judge or pass moral judgment?

I don’t ride around in a police cruiser, I don’t encounter gang members, I don’t break up domestic disputes. I really should watch what I say when I see a police man crack heads with a nightstick, or shoot a young unarmed man. I really should bite my tongue when I see soldiers harass and humiliate naked, cowering, and helpless prisoners.

I dunno. I don’t have a pass to the White House or the Oval Office. I’m not privy to all the deliberations of the executive branch of the US government; I’m not invited to sit in on the meetings of the councils of power and take minutes. Yet I find myself criticizing its members’ actions all the time–with passion and fervor. Certainly, many of those who would like criticism of the police or the military to be tempered and attenuated and channeled into more ‘constructive’ forms and venues have no problems in doing so either.

I feel free to offer such criticism because the effects of the actions taken by those I criticize are real, visibly tangible, and affect the lives of humans in wide-ranging ways. Sometimes it’s because I feel my critique should feature in the decision-making process that the powerful employ. Perhaps those in power should keep my perspective front and center when they begin some course of action.

The imbalance of power runs only one way in this relationship: my critique attempts to redress it.

The note of caution, the command to seek a broader and more synoptic perspective, directed at me, is misplaced. It should be directed instead at those who wear uniforms, carry guns, deploy deadly force; its passion should be channeled toward those who can imprison, torture, kill; it should stay the hands of those who can end the lives of considerably less powerful humans thanks to their flawed, made-on-the-basis-of-incomplete-information decision-making. How about if the police, in their interactions with citizenry, strive to achieve some understanding of, some empathy with, those whose lives they regulate and discipline and punish?

There is always some problem with critiquing the powerful: you didn’t understand their perspective, you know not what they do, you didn’t protest the right way.

Every argument that urges the weak, the less powerful, the subjects of often deadly state and penal power, to understand and integrate and internalize the perspectives of those with greater power, is a dangerous diversion, a sham, a participation in, and propagation of, an ideology that glorifies and valorizes the political structures that oppress us.

5 thoughts on “Thou Shalt Know All Before Offering Critique (Of The Police)

  1. Well, those kinds of “You don’t know what it’s like” statements are attempts to shut down communication, but they are more reactive than cognitive. It’s a normal mammalian defense of territory behavior. And it’s irrelevant. No one knows what it’s specifically like to be someone else. We do know there are things we both want to improve, like safety, security and crime control.

    There are any number of ways to re-establish that channel, by first de-emphasizing the futility (you don’t know) argument, then providing options for continuing to work together toward mutually beneficial results.

    I agree with most of what you’ve explained here, and it’s a useful examination of the obstacle, but I can’t fully embrace the last paragraph. Attempts to understand and integrate and internalize the perspectives of those with greater power are not necessarily a diversion. Police need to hear more about our perspectives, and we need more information about theirs.

    “You don’t (can’t possibly, wouldn’t want to) know what it’s like.”

    “Okay. Tell me what it’s like. I want to get a better understanding. We can work together to improve things. I want to help.”

    By first validating the experience of the person whose behavior you are criticizing, then offering them assistance in meeting THEIR goals, you improve your chances to re-open a dialogue.

    There is common ground between police personnel and the populations they serve already. I think that is a practical place in which to form partnerships between those inside and outside those professions. The common ground is desirable outcomes.

    Police do not want to kill when interacting. They seek information, and to maintain safety and order. If the methods they employ are causing unintended casualties, that’s what needs improvement. The same political and legal structures and systems oppress the police and non-police alike. The emphasis in conversation needs to refocus on “you and I” – how we can talk one to one. It bypasses the tribal distinctions between insiders and outsiders.

  2. During the run up to the Iraq war, whenever anti-war folks tried to bring up the cost of war in terms of dead and injured US Soldiers, they warmongers would say “They volunteered for the job, they knew what they were getting into.”
    If a cop is that terrified of getting shot, if a cop is willing to kill an unarmed man because he doesn’t want to risk being shot; he should quit his job. Nobody is forcing him to be a cop.

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