This morning I woke up sweaty and disoriented from a nightmare. I had committed a crime and went to jail. For a few moments I questioned my own existence.
“Mommy, the sunshine is up,” my four-year old called, his sing-song voice raising me to consciousness.
Sweetest. Words. Ever.
Having squeezed in the entire first season of Orange is the New Black this week after an eight year sabbatical from television, and having attended the second session of the Citizen’s Police Academy, I wasn’t surprised by the dream. I’m grateful it is not my reality.
Things have not been looking all that good for the men and women in uniform. Public opinion appears to be at an all time low.
But is it really?
According to a Gallup Poll on American Institutions, this time last year, 54% of the public had a great deal, or quite a lot of confidence in the police. Ten years ago, that number was at 64%. While the percentage has decreased in a decade, the police ranked higher than all public institutions in our society except the military. Surprisingly, the public rated the police on higher moral ground than the church, the public education system, and even the labor force.
Quite a bit has changed in a year though. Increasingly, people are getting their news from social media platforms. Most have a video camera on their phone. We aren’t just flooding the internet with baby pics and selfies. The public has morphed into mobile historians, documentarists, and self-prescribed reporters. It takes seconds for a video to go viral and even less time for the public to hand down their opinions.
A few days ago I did a double take when I opened the news app on my phone to see this Headline: Nashville Cops Keep Cool During Arrest
The entire video footage is available here (Graphic Language Warning):
This has been one of the few positive stories I’ve seen about the police on major media the past few months. We’ve been inundated with stories on police brutality, racial profiling, and unjustified use of force. Some of our outrage is justified. Some of it not.
Most officers are never involved in a police shooting and never discharge their gun during the course of their career. The media would have us believe something entirely different.
This week during the academy, we watched a number of police shooting videos and asked our perception of the officers in each case. We offered our opinions. We acted as judge and jury.
Then we took the class one step further. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, snacks in hand and analyzing the actions of the officers, we recreated some of the situations. Using an air soft gun, or a training prop that looks, shoots, and sounds like a real weapon, we reenacted the scenes.
Where I had been confident in my ability to analyze video data, I quickly realized it was entirely different to physically put myself in those situations. Carrying a weapon and engaging suspects in an often emotionally charged environment is something I’m grateful I don’t deal with daily. Or ever.
They don’t call it the line of duty for nothing.
Officers are trained by the “21 foot rule”: keep 21 feet in distance between the officer and suspect. On average, it takes 1.6 seconds for a human being to see a hazard and then react to it. It takes longer to stop shooting, than it does to start shooting.
The thing I learned was, video doesn’t always present the whole picture. Some videos, when viewed from another camera angle, presented an entirely different picture. Often, the media presents us with only one vantage point. A few select frames. The footage you are privy too often depends on what news outlet you follow.
With each video and shot taken, I found myself increasingly unsure of what action the officer/officers should have taken. Each time the gun sounded I flinched. At times I had thought the officers were justified, but in fact they were not. In some scenarios I found myself critical, squirming in my seat, when in fact they were rational in their use of force.
Holding the court of public opinion on Facebook and Twitter is easy. Offering personal insight from behind the computer screen doesn’t make me an expert, but attending the academy has shown me just how little I know about the decisions facing every police officer every day.
Once a police shooting has occurred, the witnesses have seen what they are going to see. The video footage, if it exists, is what it is. There no retakes.
Unlike OITNB, jail is not a cutesy place to hang out, decorate your bunk, and befriend your cellmate. Being charged with and convicted of a crime ruins people’s lives. The guilty and the innocent.
Our local jail is a type-2 holding facility, which means they can only hold inmates for 72 hours. After taking fingerprints, photos, and being placed in a cell, the inmate is in a cell for twenty-three hours a day. There is no t.v. There are no weights. You are lucky if you have a magazine to read.
An article in The New Yorker recently described the difference between prison and jail;
People in prisons have jobs. It’s their home. They usually figure out ways to make it work. Jails are where people go at conceivably the worst time in their lives. Huge numbers of them have addiction and mental-health problems, and they sit around all day with nothing to do. If they are over eighteen, they don’t have to go to school. There are usually no jobs in jails. Inmates are waiting for their next court date, which can be months away.
After spending seventy-two hours in the jail, inmates are transferred to the county jail downtown. The type-1 facility offers on staff doctors, nurses, and even dietitians. It’s often a welcome break for those who are unable to make bail.
Our agenda for the Citizen’s Police Academy this week included a tour of the local jail. Intake. Cells. Bunks. All of it.
The tour didn’t happen.
On the evening of our class, one of the inmates was having a particularly difficult time. It was very likely the worst night of his life. Naturally, it was disappointing to reschedule, but I think we all saw a different side of law enforcement that evening.
We could have carried out the tour, regardless of the inmate and his personal struggles. Instead, the officers gracefully gave the inmate the decency to have his moment out of the eye of the public. I can only hope that if my nightmare ever became reality, I too would be treated with the same dignity.
The thing about jails and prisons is, there is no award-winning cast. The characters constantly change and there is no make-up artist on staff. Your life doesn’t depend on a screen play writer, but instead our justice system (which is also as endemic with faults and inequalities).
Once you are in the system, you are in. There are no retakes.