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Clearly, things have gotten out of hand.

One could argue that things have been out of hand, and we’re only just now hearing about it, and there would be an element of truth to that.  One could argue that things aren’t really out of hand at all, and there’d be an element of truth to that as well.

The fact of the matter is, however, that no matter what your perspective, we clearly have some issues with law enforcement in this country.

I’m not gonna delve into racism or anything like that here.  Frankly, while I believe that it may be an influencing factor in some cases, a full analysis of that particular situation would be a lot more involved than I’m looking to get in a quick post.

And I’m not even gonna directly address the situation in Baltimore, which reeks more of tragic accident and willful disregard for prisoner welfare than anything else.

No, I’m gonna limit my focus to why we seem to have an issue with police officers killing suspects.

So what’s going on?

If we listen to one side, it’s a case of racist jackbooted thugs acting out fantasies in which they murder with impunity.

That side is filled with jackasses.

If we listen to the other side, it’s a case of violent hooligans randomly attacking police officers who are just defending themselves.

That side is also filled with jackasses.

Because despite the extremist’s love of pointing out the gray fallacy, the fact is that human motivations exist in a world of subtle shading, and stark right-vs-wrong conflicts are rare.

Let’s be frank: If you genuinely believe that the police force is overrun by violent racists who prowl the streets looking for innocent young black men to kill, then you should probably seek medical attention.  And anti-psychotics.

Similarly, if you believe that every police officer is out solely to protect and serve, willing to put his life on the line in the defense of law and order, a perfect paladin of justice and honor?  Then you’re probably living in a fantasy world.

Police officers are human.  Just like the rest of us.  They’re people who get up every day, to go to a frankly rather dangerous job that typically doesn’t pay commensurately with its risk, and mostly they just wanna get home in one piece at the end of their shift.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise when things go bad.

Police officers are trained for worst-case outcomes, because if things do go bad, such training offers the best chance for the officer to come out alive.  This isn’t exactly a secret either; public knowledge of the fact is why things like “suicide by cop” exist, after all.

Ordinarily, this isn’t a big deal.  If things never approach the worst case, if the suspect does everything they’re supposed to do, doesn’t struggle, and willingly submits to police authority, you hardly ever have issues except with those rare officers who really are jackbooted thugs out exercising their power in a way that best serves them.

The problem comes when you have subcultures that are openly opposed to the police, regardless of whether such opposition is justified.  Because refusal to comply, refusal to submit, refusal to identify yourself, all of those raise red flags, not simply in the sense of thwarted authority and the frustration that ensues, but in the purely rational decision that “if this suspect refuses to do what I tell them to do, they can put me in danger.” 

Once an officer is in danger, they’re allowed to kill you.

And they will.  A lot.  Police officers in the United States kill suspects at a rate terrifyingly higher than anywhere else in the First World.  Of course, police officers in the United States are also killed by suspects at a rate terrifyingly higher than anywhere else in the First World, so again, it’s not terribly surprising.

If we were to compare the lists of officers who died in the line of duty between the UK’s Police Roll of Honor for 2012, and the statistics on the US’s Officer Down Memorial Page for 2012, you might note that if you filter out for accidents and whatnot, you wind up with a rough idea of how many of those officers were murdered in the line of duty.

In the UK?  Three.

In the US?  Sixty five.

Even allowing for the difference in population, that means that being a police officer in the US is about four times as dangerous as it is in the UK.  Psychologically speaking, it’s even worse; these are relatively close-knit communities, after all, and the perception of losing a few officers to violence each year is different from the perception of losing dozens, regardless of the relative numbers.

“Protect and Serve” has given way to “Protect and Serve, But Above All Other Things Protect My Own Life”.  Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nor an incomprehensible thing, but it’s a thing that will lead inevitably to the current outcome.