What Makes Good Cops Go Bad?

cop car

I’m not a police brutality apologist, but are deep police force cuts pushing some to the breaking point?

Last night, I watched Baltimore burn over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. I was horror stricken but somehow not surprised, knowing a little of Baltimore and the socio-demographic inequalities from neighborhood to neighborhood. There are places that truly make Baltimore “Charm City” but there are other areas, sometimes only blocks away, that are locked in a cycle of poverty that only gets worse over the generations. In these neighborhoods especially, the relationship between the police and the residents is fraught. There is a constant tension between the two groups that feeds on itself. The end result is hostility on both sides but a power imbalance that leaves the residents victims of cops gone wrong but without recourse to set the cops right. The death of Freddie Gray and what it revealed about policing in Baltimore’s poverty stricken neighborhoods was a match to tinder.

With this and other high-profile cases of brutality by police all over the news lately, I’ve found myself walking around the question of “Why?” to look at different angles. It’s clear that institutional racism is alive and well in America and I applaud the people taking to the streets to demand a change. There’s no question that Black people, especially men, are not treated fairly in America and it’s past time for this to stop.

But I’m also looking at the police officers who did these things and I’m wondering what else is going on. These guys didn’t become cops to kill unarmed 12-year-old kids or men selling untaxed cigarettes. What’s going on that they got the the point where doing so seemed like a reasonable course of action?

We’re coming out of a period of dramatic cuts across all level of government. Public sector workers have fared poorly in the recession with pay cuts or freezes, personnel reductions, and benefits cuts being common place. Police departments have not been immune. According to this interactive graph from CNBC, police departments all over the country reduced force size. Some were starting to recover by 2012 when this article was published but others are not. That obviously has effects on crime rates but just as importantly, what is the effect it has on cops?

I’m wondering about a lot of basic things about job conditions for officers. How many hours a week do they work? How many hours do they have off between shifts? Is their schedule reliable or are there constant changes? Has their pay been cut or frozen? Are their pensions being cut? Are they being forced to pay more for health insurance for themselves and their families? Do they get vacation time and are they able to take it? Are they being asked to do more with less all day, every day?

Another question I have is how many months or years are cops expected to do the same thing? Do they change duties? Move from neighborhood to neighborhood? Or are they grinding the same grind, dealing with the same people and the same problems endlessly?

I’m not a police brutality apologist but think about this for a second: say you’re a cop. You work maybe 50 hours a week, sometimes doing turnaround shifts where you don’t get much downtime. You can’t take vacation because the department is understaffed. You haven’t had a raise in three years. Every day, you patrol the same section of town, deal with the same people, many of whom are hostile to you, and the problems never seem to get any better. What would your stress level look like? How close to the breaking point would you be?

If we’re going to be honest about solutions to a breakdown in relations between cops and the community we need to look at everything. You can do all the sensitivity training you want but it can’t counteract the effects of years of overwork and high-level stress on a cop. We need to make sure working conditions – at least the conditions we can control like pay, benefits, time off, and rotation of duties to prevent burnout – for cops are conducive to mental stability on the job.

Cops are only human. We need to make sure their workplace is humane.

Rebekah Kuschmider is a DC area writer with a background in non-profit management and advocacy. Her work has been seen at Babble, Huffington Post, Yahoo Shine, Redbook online, and The Broad Side. She is the creator of the blog Stay at Home Pundit and is a contributor to the upcoming book Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox (an anthology, SheWrites Press, Nov. 2015). You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter

Photo credit: Free Images

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