“Do you believe police officers are always right?”
It’s a question I’ve been asked three times in my life, paraphrased a bit differently each time.
I was asked such a question when I was 24, again when I was 36, and the last time when I was 55.
Each time it was during elimination rounds for jury selection in criminal cases after the initial thinning of the proverbial pool of peers is done.
My answer was the same each time.
I’d answer the lawyer – it was the defense attorney who asked in two instances but in a first degree murder case it was the prosecutor – basically the same each time.
My response was that, just like with any other group of people, trained or otherwise, they are likely right 90 percent of the time with their version of events, there’s likely reason for doubt 8 percent of the time, and probably in 2 percent of the time they are wrong.
There’s no scientific basis for that observation. It’s just a gut reaction.
It was my way of saying I believe most people do not lie, sometimes their recollection or interpretation of events are questionable, and a few times they’ve got it wrong mostly by circumstances. I will concede, however, some people will outright lie intentionally.
The prosecutor is the only one to then ask the follow up question that is required to give my initial response perspective – “Do you believe criminal defendants arrested by the police and end up being prosecuted are automatically in the wrong.”
My answer was a carbon copy of the first but it was tailored to whether a person was guilty.
Clearly with the high conviction rate of defendants that answer doesn’t seem to jive.
But it does. Everyone needs to be judged not for who they are but for their actions.
While that seems contradictory, if you judge someone by the way you’d want to be judged, you would start sizing someone from that perspective instead of a preconceived notion that is partially rooted in reality.
Each time in the courtroom you get people that will give answers essentially saying they’d trust the police officer’s version of things 100 percent and essentially take a stance that a defendant is guilty because of where they are sitting in the courtroom.
Some of those answer that way clearly just to try and get out of jury duty. Others seem to honestly hold rigid views of the world. Judges, who for the most part have developed a keen sense of reading people, can separate the pretenders from those who had rushed to judgment long before they got a jury notice in the mail. In the case of reaction to shootings involving police most of us rush to judgment within minutes of the fun smoke dissipating and social media lighting up.
If you ever chatted with others called to jury duty during breaks in the selection process you will find that the vast majority – even though they may not be keen about the idea of being tied up for days or weeks on a jury panel – understand the ramifications of civil duty they are participating in.
I’d venture to say most of us sit in about the same place in the raging firestorm surrounding the very concept of peace officers which is in the vast middle range not rooted to one extreme or the other.
Those that believe police officers can do no wrong and those who believe police officers can do no right like to tell themselves they are on opposite ends of the debate. In reality they are in the same corner practicing “absolute-ism” that is as dangerous to the health of civilization, if not more so, than all the “ism” you can think of from racism to sexism as well as their kissing cousins of societal maladies such as bigotry and intolerance.
The hideous exchanges on our streets that gave rise to the mantra “Defund the Police” and those that literally buy into what clearly started out as a snappy sound-bite to push for reforms that work and have sticking power, would never stand in the measured atmosphere of a courtroom. After all, someone’s freedom hangs in the balance as well as finding justice untainted by bias for crime victims.
Police everyday are called upon to make snap decisions while being required to essentially be well-versed paralegals that carry out their jobs in a calm yet authoritative demeanor as they try to keep everyone safe including someone they are detaining.
It is clear that doesn’t always happen. And even though police officers are human that is a cop-out that glosses over conduct that is clearly without merit and over the line and lump it in with poor decision making.
Police aren’t robots nor do we want them to be robots. We don’t want officers who are adrenaline junkies but at the same time they need to be to a degree. We want them to be social workers with a streak of being a cowboy but not in the Clint Eastwood genre but more like a Roy Rogers.
Just as it makes no sense for protesters to burn down their own neighborhood, it also makes no sense to lump all police officers together. Both are counterproductive. You don’t bring social justice to your neighborhood by destroying it and setting the stage for decades of suffering just like you don’t accomplish police reform and maintain the peace by branding all law enforcement officers the same and painting them with the same broad brush.
It is true than no one that is not of the same skin tone can truly know what it is like to deal with those that judge by pigmentation instead of the person. The same goes for judging those that wear law enforcement uniforms.
The only way forward are for those people — just like in the courtroom — that haven’t cast their allegiance with their own version of the truth even before the jury is selected is to step up and do their civic duty.
We can find the answers I’d we cool the rhetoric and judge others guided by fairness and not preconceived absolutes as we’d hope others would judge us.
We need to do better.
Pumping seven bullets into the back of someone who is resisting arrest, stoning law enforcement officers with projectiles night-after-night as well as month after month, and vilifying all police officers or an entire ethnic group from the wanton acts of a few isn’t the way you do better.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.