The myth of ‘serve and protect’

by Tony Norman

When even white people have begun noticing the paradoxes in the criminal justice system, then the contradictions have become too blatant to chalk up to “the way things have always been done.”

A passive belief in the status quo has worked for centuries in America. It insulated whole police departments from Los Angeles and Chicago to Philly and New York from internal reform and public scrutiny for decades.

“We’re here to protect and serve the public,” the various Fraternal Order of Police bosses used to insist even as the most brutal and corrupt practices of their members were exposed. In the end, public sympathy usually sided with the police anyway, especially when it came to police shootings.

Why? Put simply, it’s hard for many white Americans to relate to Black people fleeing local cops or defying them in any way. Running always implies guilt. Guilt means the death penalty is always on the table, even if the crime is a broken headlight or a right-turn without the blinker on.

Still, an event like the murder of George Floyd two years ago has a way of breaking through the “protect and serve” narrative that runs counter to the experience of millions of Americans.

That narrative is further destabilized when something as monstrous as the killing of Jayland Walker in Akron happens. Eight officers pursuing Walker on foot, after a traffic stop went south, shot at him more than 90 times. Sixty of their bullets connected after two or three attempts to tase him missed.

The cops, high on adrenaline and rage because a few believed he’d taken a shot at them, pursued him the way hounds pursue a woodland stag.

Still, 60 shots for what amounts to a broken taillight or some other automotive irregularity sounds pretty excessive. Some Americans who used to give the police the automatic benefit of the doubt are now asking inconvenient questions as they compare the treatment of Jayland Walker to the mass shooter taken alive after the Highland Park massacre.

“Why are young, white mass murderers usually taken alive by police if they don’t kill themselves first, but black suspects — armed or unarmed — are turned into Swiss cheese, choked to death or tased to death for far less serious crimes? Why is the fear factor so disproportionate given the crimes they’re accused of committing?”

Of course, Black folks have been insisting that this has been reality for generations. We’ve always noticed the contradiction between the lofty rhetoric of law enforcement and what actually happens at street level — because it happens to us. What’s changed is the presence of cameras capturing these once-disputed encounters on video for public scrutiny.

If the Uvalde school massacre taught us anything, it’s that police officers are under no obligation to risk their lives for the public; that’s a public relations myth courtesy of the FOP.

In many cases, the bravest among them will run toward danger reflexively and would never dream of standing outside a classroom for 90 minutes doing nothing while children and teachers were slaughtered.

Other cops take a more practical risk/benefit approach to danger. What are the chances of getting killed in the line of duty by playing the hero? They just want to go home at the end of the day. They don’t want to be heroes or villains.

Contrary to what many believe, the ultimate duty of cops is not to “protect and serve.” Whatever you think your tax dollars are paying for, it doesn’t buy you a trained security guard at your beck and call when you’re in trouble.

Cops have a choice about when to exercise lethal force and under what conditions. When facing someone who has proven their lethality by wielding weapons of war, they’re far more cautious and deferential, even if the killer is barely old enough to drink.

There are folks who will explain the inequality of outcomes as a function of how much the suspect obeys authority. “The mass shooter bought his weapons legally and obeyed commands to put down his weapons immediately once confronted. The Black motorist, who may or may not have had a legally registered weapon, ran, forcing the cops who were afraid of him to pursue and empty their guns in him. He presented a far more compelling danger to the officers.”

Of course, this is the logic of mad men, but it is the rationale that millions of Americans swear by. They see no connection between systemic racism and the training of police officers that results in a disproportionate number of deaths of Black motorists.

One could ask why cops are driving around looking for reasons to pull cars with broken taillights over in the first place when they can issue fines electronically or by mail. There doesn’t have to be interaction between cops and drivers at all, thus cutting down on fatal encounters.

The cops decided to chase Jayland Walker because one of them believed a “flash” he saw was a gun discharged in his direction. This amped up his colleagues and the hunt was on. The Akron police released the bodycams of the officers involved, and it was a chilling spectacle.

They were all racing to play “hero” by killing an unarmed suspect. They all made the choice, which was their official prerogative, to kill another human. Their adrenaline demanded a release, so they pulled the triggers. They believed Jayland Walker was a shadow creature invulnerable to pain, so they lost every moral inhibition to complete the mission — kill this man, this ‘Other’ with extreme prejudice.

Then they handcuffed him despite the fact he was a shivering and mutilated mess with 60 bloody holes in him. Whatever they thought they were shooting at that night, it wasn’t a human being with hopes and dreams they were bound to respect.

Are you feeling “served and protected” yet?

Tony Norman is a columnist and book review editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.